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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Clay East, September 22, 1973. Interview E-0003. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Origination of idea to start the Southern Tenant Farmers Union

East discusses how the idea to form a union for tenant farmers first originated. Around 1932, Norman Thomas had come to Tyronza, Arkansas to speak and East, along with H. L. Mitchell, drove him around the countryside, showing him the farms and introducing him to farmers and sharecroppers. When Thomas commented that these people needed a union, East and Mitchell decided to put the idea into action.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Clay East, September 22, 1973. Interview E-0003. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

SUE THRASHER:
O.K., I want you to go back and tell me exactly the way you remember the union getting started.
CLAY EAST:
Well, the way I remember the union getting started, Norman Thomas was over and I introduced him at the meeting out at the schoolhouse and I guess that we had…well, in the South, we call twelve o'clock "dinner"…when we had dinner at my home and I don't know why Mitchell didn't remember it, he was there. Of course, the town was full of people from all over the South. The just came in there…
SUE THRASHER:
To hear Norman Thomas?
CLAY EAST:
To hear Norman Thomas, yes. But, during the meal, Norman was the first one that planted that idea in our heads. He told me at that meeting, said "What you need here is a union." In other words, the Socialist Party wasn't going to be any help to these tenant farmers. This was after we had taken him out, see and shown him the conditions in the country and all. But, it was before he made his talk.
SUE THRASHER:
This was the one day that he spoke in Tyronza?
CLAY EAST:
That's right.
SUE THRASHER:
And you took him out around the countryside and showed him the farming?
CLAY EAST:
Yeah. We took him to these different farmers. There was one man in particular, we took him to his home…Boston. And that man was living there and working on a levee job forty miles away over on the Mississippi and driving forwards and backwards in an old piece of car every day. That's all the work he could get and they took pictures, there was a reporter from the press in Memphis and he covered Thomas while he was there. He was with us on this whole trip around. And he took pictures of Thomas and this Boston guy, he was at work but his family and all was there. Took pictures of his family and the house. They was having a real rough time, but he was a sharecropper and of course this wasn't crop season. He wasn't working in the crops at the time and he was working out. Most of those guys did when they could find a job. But, anyway, Thomas said that what we needed was a union in there. And that is where the idea originated, when Thomas told us that. So, after he left and we talked the thing over, Mitchell was actually the big planner in this deal. There was Mitch and myself and two other guys, I think probably Ward Rogers and possibly Nunnally. And we just driving around town and…
SUE THRASHER:
Do you remember the date when Norman Thomas spoke?
CLAY EAST:
If you want to cut this for a minute, I'll get it for you.
SUE THRASHER:
No, let's just go ahead and we'll get it later.
CLAY EAST:
I couldn't remember the date, but I have it. Well, anyway, Mitch had this thing even before we took that drive that night. He had these plans all figured out in his head and then he now tells that all this came up out at the meeting, which is wrong. Mitch had himself down as secretary and he had me down as president. And, I don't think at the time that he had any other officers or anything else in mind. Of course, that was a two-man deal anyway. And then, we had that meeting…we arranged to have this meeting out at this schoolhouse. We wasn't late, we all got out there. Of course, we was kind of slow getting started probably, but first one got up and make a talk and then another.