Title: Oral History Interview with Clay East, September 22, 1973. Interview E-0003.
Interviewer: Thrasher, Sue
Interviewee: East, Clay
Subjects: Trade-unions--Minority membership Trade-unions--Southern States Southern Tenant Farmers' Union Socialist Party (Ark.)
Abstract: Clay East spent most of his childhood in Tyronza, Arkansas. The son of a farmer and store merchant, East became a founding member of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union. In this interview, East discusses a wide variety of topics, but focuses primarily on life in Tyronza, his conversion to socialist politics, and his involvement with the Southern Tenant Farmers Union. East begins by offering some general comments about the first meeting of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, held in a small schoolhouse in Tyronza. He addresses the nature of opposition to the organization of tenant farmers and sharecroppers. From there he moves back in time to address his family history and life in Tyronza. During the World War I years, East went to school in Blue Mountain, Mississippi. After graduating from Mississippi Heights Academy around 1917, East spent a few months at the Gulf Coast Military Academy. During the 1920s, East learned the service station business, and by the end of the decade, he owned his own successful service station. By that time, Tyronza was being ravaged by the Great Depression. Although East's business survived (and even prospered), others in the area were not as fortunate. While East watched the tenant farmers and sharecroppers in the area suffer, his friend H. L. Mitchell introduced him to socialism. East was a quick convert, and during the early 1930s, he and Mitchell helped to organize the Socialist Party in Arkansas. Emboldened by a visit to the area by a leading figure of American socialism, Norman Thomas, East and Mitchell decided to organize a union of tenant farmers and sharecroppers. East describes in detail how the initial meetings of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union were organized and his work towards encouraging membership. East was actively involved in the union only during its first years, but he offers an insider perspective on the union's formation and its early activities. In particular, he focuses on the issue of integration in the union (which he advocated) and the visceral opposition the union faced from farm managers, planters, and local law enforcement, particularly during conflicts in Marked Tree and Forrest City, Arkansas.