In August, bluesman B.B. King became the honorary head of an effort to build a national monument in the Mississippi Delta to honor those who picked cotton and made the world rich. King, who was born in a cabin on a cotton plantation outside Berclair, Mississippi in 1925, replaces the late Maya Angelou as the Honorary Chairperson of the Board of Directors of the Cotton Pickers of America and the Sharecroppers Interpretive Center. The plan is for a twenty-five foot high monument to be erected on twenty acres of cotton land along Highway 61 in the Mississippi Delta.
At first glance, this project might appear to be simply an overdue gesture to hardworking people who have long been ignored. While it is certainly that, it would also serve as a rebuke to the Confederate monuments that litter the South, monuments that make quite a different statement about the people who picked the cotton.
But it is so much more. As Karl Marx wrote: “Without slavery there would be no cotton, without cotton there is no modern industry.” It was the combination of free labor and cheap cotton that made the British textile industry possible and paved the way for the worldwide expansion of the capitalist system. The commercial trade in human flesh (cotton pickers/slaves) generated the capital that made the financial empires of the nineteenth century possible.
The world we live in now is a direct result of the bloody history of cotton. Without the foundation laid by cotton, today there would be no cell phones, television, or Internet, no suburbs, universities, or worldwide transportation networks. All of this was made possible by the people B.B. King seeks to help honor: millions of slaves and, after the Civil War, millions of sharecroppers (half of whom were white).
Yet the contribution of cotton pickers goes even further. Right after World War Two, human cotton pickers were replaced by machines that were fifty times more productive. The repressive apparatus that had kept blacks working on the land against their will suddenly threw them off it. Where once a man with a gun insisted “You must stay!” now a man with a gun insisted “You must get out!”
Pushed off the land, people flooded into the cities of the South and the North. Isolated individuals living in rural cabins had been easy to control. Their resistance was often heroic, yet scattered. Masses of people clustered in cities were quite another matter. They were able to create their own organizations and institutions and move to impose their will. This allowed the civil rights and black power movements to break out and spread. The politics of the country were changed forever.
The massive migration out of the rural South also caused a cultural revolution, as the mainly rural music that had developed under the hammer of violence and segregation became urban music, music that anyone might hear or be influenced by.
As a recent email from Rock & Rap Confidential’s Dave Marsh put it: “When the Woody Guthrie show was at some part of the Smithsonian, maybe ten years ago, a friend and I were walking towards it when I grabbed her arm and forced a detour onto another floor. ‘I just want to show you the machine that invented rock and roll.’ She looked at me like I was an even bigger nut than she already thought. But there before us stood the first mechanical cotton picker.”
Nicholas Lemann writes in The Promised Land about former cotton pickers who “recently had been barred by law from being out of the house at night and had no money to spend on entertainment anyway, [now] patronizing clubs in Chicago that had big bands playing inside.”
Those bands, which took the music of the Delta and amplified it and helped it to go in new directions, were indispensable to the creation of rock & roll and many other styles of music. The musicians themselves were often former cotton pickers as was much of their initial audience. Together they set a sound wave in motion that reverberates still. The spread of this new music began to poke holes in the cotton curtain that walled off the South, not to mention holes in other forms of apartheid across the country, holes that the best efforts of the worst people have been unable to plug up.
It comes as no surprise that there has been little official support for the Cotton Pickers Monument, despite the impact of cotton on the world and despite the fact that so many Americans have family roots in those fields. In 1952, just as countless sharecroppers were being shown the door, the Democrats wanted to mend fences with Southerners who had bolted the party and run as Dixiecrats in 1948. Adlai Stevenson, the quintessential 1950s liberal, agreed to have segregationist Alabama Senator John Sparkman with him on his Presidential ticket.
As the political twig is bent, so grows the tree. The Kennedys traded favors with close personal friends such as Mississippi Senator James Eastland. It was liberal darlings LBJ and Hubert Humphrey who ensured that the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, with a core of former sharecroppers, was not allowed to take its rightful place at the 1964 Democratic convention.
Current liberal darling and presumptive 2016 Democratic Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has offered no support for the Cotton Pickers Memorial despite her roots in the cotton state of Arkansas. That’s because Clinton always takes the side of the employer, the master. From 1986 to 1992, she served on Walmart’s board and never said a word as the company waged a vicious anti-union campaign aimed at keeping the wages of its employees, many of them the children or grandchildren of sharecroppers, as low as possible.
On January 26, 1992 Hillary Clinton appeared on 60 Minutes to attempt to explain away her support of husband/Presidential candidate Bill Clinton, who was under fire for marital infidelity. “I’m not sitting here like some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette,” Hillary said.
Wynette, a former cotton picker who went on to become a country singing star, responded: “You have offended every person who has no one to take them to a White House.” Wynette went on to challenge Clinton to “stand toe to toe with me” and debate in “any forum,” adding “I can assure you, in spite of your education, you will find me to be just as bright as yourself.”
Nashville writer Holly Gleason recently told me that Tammy Wynette had her own cotton pickers monument. “She kept a bit of cotton clinging to the stem in a little baggie in her dressing room to always remember working in that terrible heat as a young woman.”
Politicians may have ignored the plight of former sharecroppers but they were very worried about the mass migration from the South. According to Nicholas Lemann: “For several years it had occurred to government officials that the crisis in the ghettos might be solved by finding a way to keep rural Southern blacks from moving to the cities. Toward the end of his presidency, Johnson set up a secret Interagency Task Force on Rural-Urban Migration to look into this question, and in 1969 [Nixon advisor, Democrat Daniel Patrick] Moynihan set up a White House task force on ‘Internal Migration.’ At Moynihan’s urging, Nixon said in his 1970 State of the Union address, “We must create a new rural environment which will not only stem the migration to urban centers but reverse it.”
But instead the “rural environment” has remained desperately poor and the United States has been part of the massive worldwide migration from country to city. This has only served to create bigger, poorer cities. A recent Harvard/University of Michigan study found that 1.65 million U.S. households with 3.5 million children are trying to subsist on less than two dollars per person per day (the official poverty line is at $17 per person per day). This extreme poverty echoes the extreme poverty of those who once picked cotton. In both cases, people were pushed outside the economy when they were replaced by new technology.
Just as half of all sharecroppers were white, so too are half of the heads of the poor households now living on two dollars a person per day. This creates an environment where the music the sharecroppers invented can, in its current evolutions, become a unifying force. That potential was indicated by Jay-Z in a recent interview when he said: “This generation right now, they….are a bit removed from those racist feelings because…it's integrated and the music we listen to is the same." He added: "All our feelings and anxieties and all that thing are more similar now.”
A monument to cotton pickers would be more than recognition of their blood, sweat, and tears. It would be more than an expression of gratitude for all they have given us. It would serve as a reminder that in times of epochal change, great things can be accomplished by those who are cast aside by the onrush of technology.