Stewart Acuff

Jan 10

Dr. King and American Serfdom — Sharecropping

President Henry Nicholas of 1199 National Union of Hospital and Healthcare Employees is a great example of some of the people who may have benefited most from the Civil Rights Revolution led by Dr. King. Henry was born into a sharecropping family in southern Mississippi. He grew up chopping cotton (weeding with a hoe) and picking cotton. By his teen years he knew the cotton fields were no place for him. His sister could pick 500 pounds of cotton in a day while he could pick only 45 pounds. When he complained that his back hurt, he was told that his back was only gristle, it couldn’t hurt. At 17 Henry hopped a freight train that took him to Jackson, Miss, then a bus to New Orleans to join the Navy. Eventually he got to New York, organized his hospital, and built the first national hospital workers union in America.

Dr. King has a special place in his heart for America’s serfs or peons — the sharecroppers who lived in a form of trapped bondage.

Disclaimer — my grandmother was a sharecropper.

Much of the constituency for Dr. King’s Poor People’s Campaign came from sharecroppers, the poorest of America’s poor. Dr. King went to Memphis in 1968 from Marks, Miss where he’d been organizing sharecroppers. Many times when Dr. King marched, he and Rev. Ralph David Abernathy and Rev. James Orange wore overalls — the uniform of the southern poor.

Dr. King’s casket was carried to its tomb in Atlanta in a mule drawn farm wagon.

The movement Dr. King led was a civil rights movement that turned into a huge human rights movement for racial justice, economic justice, and peace.

Dr. King’s heart and passion never strayed from “the least of these” sharecroppers trapped in 20th century peonage, but Dr. King and his movement broadened to include a demand for a just economy and for an end to the war in Southeast Asia. That is why many of those closest to him believe he was assassinated.

When I traveled the South with Rev. Orange on political or union campaigns, Rev. was always most warmly greeted in the smallest towns by former sharecroppers. When Andy Young ran for governor of Georgia in 1990 we worked the Black Belt of rural Georgia very hard — those majority African-American rural counties with very rich soil and very poor former sharecroppers.

Surely, if those who had nothing but their muscles and faith could power Dr. King’s Movement, those of us who still suffer economic injustice, but who have so much more than my grandmother had can power a new movement for racial and economic and social justice.

This is is Part 5 of my new series on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Here are the others: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

Image: Sharecroppers chopping cotton on rented land near White Plains, Greene County, Ga.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person’s official duties under the terms of Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 105 of the US Code. 

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