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Memphis Flyer Moses and Old Boss Pharaoh

A new documentary traces the little-known struggles of Missouri sharecroppers in the '30s.

By Mark Jordan

AUGUST 30, 1999: 

Now what does the Bible tell us? It tells us that Moses got down to the Red Sea, and they made camp there. But here come old boss Pharaoh and his riding bosses in their chariots. And Moses raised his hand and the waters parted and the children of Israel walked across on dry land. And then when they had got across, he raised his hands again and waters came down on them old riding bosses. Well, that's what we're going to do. We got to make our own exodus. It's history repeating itself again in 1939.
-- Rev. Owen Whitfield

In that coldly academic style that boils down complex social forces to easy-to-digest chunks of fact, historians like to say that the Civil Rights Movement began in 1955 when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus. But the truth -- evident to anyone who looks beyond the dates or makes even a brief visit to the National Civil Rights Museum -- is that the dramatic events of the '50s and '60s were actually the culmination of a struggle for equality that began as soon as the bonds of slavery were broken more than 100 years earlier.

Along the way there were many smaller battles that set the stage for Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and others; one such event, the Missouri sharecropper protest of 1939, is the subject of Oh Freedom After While, a new documentary from University of Memphis professor and filmmaker Steve Ross. A co-presentation of the UofM and Webster University and co-produced by Ross, Webster professor Lynn Rubright, and St. Louis writer Candace O'Connor, Oh Freedom After While tells of the events surrounding a today little-known weeklong protest held in January 1939 in which an integrated group of 100 destitute sharecropping families made camp along Highways 61 and 60 in southeast Missouri. The protest was eventually busted up by Missouri's governor but not before the action had drawn nationwide attention to the plight of the sharecroppers.

At the head of the protest was a charismatic preacher and bootheel sharecropper, Rev. Owen Whitfield. In 1939, Whitfield found himself in the same hopeless condition as most of the South's sharecroppers. Already economically oppressed by the landowners for whom they worked for next to nothing, they found their way of life further threatened by the introduction of mechanized farming. Then in 1932, the federal government, in an effort to keep cotton prices from falling, authorized payments to farmers to not plant cotton. In exchange for leaving every third field unplanted, landowners received a check, a quarter of which they were to pay to the sharecroppers. Instead, however, the owners simply evicted the sharecroppers and kept the money for themselves.

After several attempts to address the situation through groups such as the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, Whitfield organized the daring protest as a last resort.

"If we're going to starve, let's starve together," Whitfield told his fellow sharecroppers. "If we're going to starve, let's starve out there. If we're going to starve, let's starve where people can see us."

Narrated by civil rights leader Julian Bond, Oh Freedom After While tells its story through remarkable Works Progress Administration photos taken by the likes of Dorothea Lange and Marian Post-Wolcott. The film also makes use of interviews with historians, participants, and Whitfield's daughters, who share their father's light skin and hooded eyes and who paint a touching portrait of the preacher. As it tries to boil down several years of complicated political maneuvering into just under an hour ("this was the hardest film to write," concedes Ross), Oh Freedom After While can be infuriatingly sketchy with some of its most fascinating parts, including characters such as Thad Snow, the eccentric white plantation owner who invited Winfield to organize a union on his land. But this is new historical ground for many, and if such teasing tidbits provoke more digging by viewers and scholars, so much the better.

The film has already won the Tennessee Independent Filmmaker Award and was the recipient of a special award at the recent Boston Film Festival. The PBS series American Experience is tentatively planning to show the film in February 2000.

This is not the first time Ross, whose previous films have included adaptions of Peter Taylor's The Old Forest and Richard Wilbur's A Game of Catch, has visited the civil rights movement on film. Ross and fellow U of M professors David Appleby and Allison Graham produced the award-winning documentary At the River I Stand about the Memphis sanitation workers' strike of 1968.

"What happened in the bootheel was in many ways repeated in Memphis with the sanitation workers, but this was 30 years earlier. There was no civil rights movement. There was no Martin Luther King," says Ross of the similarities between the two events. "It's amazing that it's such a forgotten piece of history."

Sadly, as the filmmaker points out, the similarities do not extend to the conflict's resolutions. While the sanitation strike reached a quick and satisfactory end following the assassination of Martin Luther King, the sharecroppers' struggle continued for years. Following the breakup of the protest, Whitfield and other families established a successful but short-lived co-operative farming community called Cropperville near Poplar Bluff, Missouri. And the federal government also took measures to build new communities for the displaced sharecroppers.

Eventually the sharecropping system died. But as Oh Freedom After While pointedly illustrates, thanks to Whitfield and others, sharecropping legacy was not more poverty but a generation of people who now felt empowered to change their worlds for the better.

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