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Automation is a bit of a Rorschach test for anyone interested in workers’ rights. Employers warn fast-food workers that fighting for higher pay will just let robots take their jobs. Techno-optimists hope advanced machines will free up human labor for more interesting work. While almost everyone sees technological process as a good thing for the economy, who benefits and who gets hurt by it has more to do with politics than anything.

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One massive disruption of an economy came in the 1940s with the mechanization of cotton farming in the United States. As Nan Elizabeth Woodruff explains, planters in the Mississippi Delta in those years recognized that their region would change with these technological advances, yet they did their best to maintain the social order they knew.

The conditions for sharecroppers and wage workers in the Delta were brutal. Pay was low, and whole families worked the fields. One census worker noted 10 to 20 people living in two- or three-room homes and women near death from tuberculosis still working in the fields.

To improve their lives, Woodruff writes, some workers organized to demand higher pay, maximum hours, collective bargaining rights, and other improvements similar to what industrial workers were winning through their unions. As the wartime economy created high labor demand, others left the plantations for better jobs in other parts of the country.

Cotton hoer near Clarksdale, Miss., June 1937
Cotton hoer near Clarksdale, Miss., June 1937 (Photo by Dorothea Lange via New York Public Library Digital Collections)

Woodruff writes that the Delta’s planters knew things couldn’t stay the way they were. New synthetic fabrics were putting pressure on their prices. Eventually, they’d have to mechanize their processes to save money. But, with military production keeping the nation’s factories occupied, they couldn’t get new equipment yet.

Echoing arguments for slavery from the previous century, lawyer and state legislator Walter Sillers Jr. insisted that black workers, “fresh from savagery” should be grateful for the place in the country provided to them by white landowners. Observing wartime race riots in other parts of the country, he warned—or threatened—that the country could end up in a race war. “If the negro wants to know the outcome, he need only look at the Indians,” he said.

Landowners even supported an African-American newspaper that urged sharecroppers to remain where they were and accept their sharecropping system. “Many people who have sold their possessions and have gone into northern industries will be flocking back this way after the war, empty handed, depressed, and embarrassed,” the newspaper’s editor wrote. “Negros will have mechanized farming behind him, employment before him and starvation on either side.”

In the end, though, the planters couldn’t stem the migration of workers from the South. After the end of World War II, Delta Council President William T. Wynn observed that a third of the region’s farms had stopped production and “forty percent of the houses are vacant, forty percent of the labor is lost.”

Writes Woodruff, “Planters lamented the loss of their labor without admitting that the decision to mechanize their operations has led to the very conditions they criticized.”


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The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 60, No. 2 (May, 1994), pp. 263-284
Southern Historical Association