The book includes Howard Kester’s work Revolt Among the Sharecroppers and supplements it with commentary and introduction by Alex Lichtenstein. The book describes the revolting process, which initiated the Southern Tenant Farmers Union (STFU). The organization was focused on uniting the white and black farmers of the Southern states to end their struggles with the higher class. Overall, the work aims to provide a detailed account of the revolt, as well as of its political, social, and economic reasons and consequences.
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The first part of the book is written by Lichtenstein in order to give the readers a thorough introduction to the subject of Kester’s work. For instance, Lichtenstein explains the social processes that shaped the workings of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union: “In a segregated society, the STFU brought together white and black agricultural laborers in common cause… The southern tenants, sharecroppers, and day laborers who constituted the STFU’s rank and file represented the very bottom of American society, yet they managed to attract the attention” (Kester and Lichtenstein 16). Lichtenstein also develops a thorough image of Kester and his involvement with the Union. He clearly places Kester in the context of political and religious radicalism, as well as socialist and internationalist movement, to illustrate the origin of his views and his impact on the work of the organization. Lichtenstein also describes Kester as a great strategist: for instance, he explains the effectiveness of the activist’s position of unionism and justifies why this was a suitable practice for the society of the time.
The second part of the book contains Kester’s original story, separated into six distinctive chapters. The first chapter of the book starts in a narrative form, where the author describes how the movement started and what was the reaction of landlords and officials to it. Throughout the work, the author pays great attention to develop the portraits of the participants in order to strengthen the socio-historical context of the movement. In the later chapters, Kester also provides a detail description of the rural life that was shaped by the Great Depression and the New Deal: “For all our talk about democracy and the high standards of living of American workmen, virtually millions of our fellow-citizens are living in practical slavery” (Kester and Lichtenstein 36). In his description of the difficulties that the farmers and the workers were facing, Kester also provides a certain justification for the revolt. The author states that the uprising of this layer of society was “as inevitable as the cultivation of cotton” (Kester and Lichtenstein 53). In Kester’s view, the revolt was more the result of the previous struggles and socio-historical factors than the everyday lives of the sharecroppers. The author emphasizes that the life that the poor were experiencing was not a short-term situation but an entire process of marginalization that lasted for the vast part of the past century. The last two chapters are focused on the farmers’ attempts to fight for a better future, passive at first, but then developing in urgency and scale.
Overall, the work is an excellent illustration of the struggles faced by the poorest levels of American society. Where it might not be objective enough to be used as an academic reference, it provides a thorough account of the reasons and consequences of the unionism movement, as well as on the lives of its activists.
Kester, Howard, and Alex Lichtenstein. Revolt Among the Sharecroppers. University of Tennessee Press, 1997.