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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 >>

Organizing farmers and sharecroppers despite planter intimidation

East discusses the second meeting held to form the Southern Tenant Farmers Union. During this meeting, East describes how one of the prominent planters in the community came with some deputies in order to intimidate the tenant farmers and sharecroppers from organizing. East explains how he was able to assure the farmers in attendance that they had the right to organize, asked the planters to leave, and successfully signed on a number of new members.

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:
Now, did word immediately spread about that meeting and the fact that there had been a union organized?
CLAY EAST:
Well, I don't think so. Where it spread from there…the first meeting that I can recount was held over north of town. Now, this was three miles south of Tyronza.
SUE THRASHER:
The Fairview one?
CLAY EAST:
Yes. We went over in a different section to a Negro church and Butler was there and Mitch was there and myself and possibly another speaker or so, I don't know. But, at those meetings and that one over there…when we had a good turnout possibly a hundred to a hundred and fifty tenant people in there. And just before we got the meeting started, here come one of the big planters from over there, Mr. Sloan. Kester's () got him down in his book by some other name and hell, his name's Sloan and I wrote to Mitch and they've called him by some other name all the way through Kester's book, he's got it wrong. Because, I knew the man, hell, I've sold him gasoline and I knew his managers and all over there.
SUE THRASHER:
Why did Sloan come to the meeting?
CLAY EAST:
He came in with a couple of big deputies see, with their pistols buckled on them and he just come marching in there. He wanted to see what was going on. Well, you don't know how a lot of those colored people felt back there when the boss man comes in and sees them at a union meeting. They was a little bit shaky, but I'll say this, that the colored guys back there, if anything, were more solid than the whites. They'd go ahead and sacrifice and get killed or beat up or anything else before they'd give up.
SUE THRASHER:
Now, did Sloan just sit in the back of the meeting?
CLAY EAST:
Oh no. He walked in and Mitch ordered him out. He wanted…I got up and made a talk to kind of quieten these folks down. They was kind of excited about these law and all this stuff walking in there and I told them, "Now, if you're worried about Mr. Sloan and his men being in here…", I had a big six-shooter on and a pretty bad reputation if I do say it, not bad reputation, but they knew that I wouldn't do to fool with. So, I got up and told them that "If you folks are going to be scared because your boss has walked in here and so forth, just quieten down, now this thing is perfectly legal. We've got corporation papers and we got our constitution…" Well, he wanted a copy of this, Mr. Sloan did. So, Mitch, I wouldn't even have done that, but he says, "Well, if you've got ten cents, you can have one," see, so he sold him a copy of the constitution or something. And then Mitch proceeded to tell him, said, "Well, you folks are not eligible for membership in this, so we'll ask you to leave." And, I have often wondered what he would have done if Sloan had refused. But, at the time, he got up and walked out. He and his men went trudging out of there with his six-shooters and all, see.
SUE THRASHER:
And you signed up the people in that meeting?
CLAY EAST:
Oh man, we got a raft of them in that thing. I would say that we signed up…I'd generally make the closing talk and when I got through, I was a good salesman. But, you didn't need much. Those folks were in a bind and they was being mistreated and when you got up and pointed these things out to them, why youdidn't have much trouble signing them up. Practically all the people that came to meetings signed up.