The 1930s began with
textile workers demanding wage increases, elimination of the hated "stretch-out
system" which increased workloads without corresponding increases in pay, an
eight-hour workday, and most of all, the right to organize and bargain
collectively. By the time Franklin Roosevelt entered the Presidency, the
industry was in shambles. Most of the problem was brought about by industry-wide
overproduction, which in turn resulted in lower profits for mill owners and
lower wages for mill workers. The industry, according to textile historian
Mildred Gwin Andrews, was "one of the sickest industries in the nation" and even
before Roosevelt's inauguration "government planning was under way to correct
wage and hour conditions in the textile industry."
President Roosevelt responded to the crisis by forcing through Congress the National Industrial Recovery Act. Under its sweeping grant of power, he established the National Recovery Administration (NRA) on June 20, 1933, with Hugh Johnson as administrator. The NRA's purpose, as noted by James Hodges, was clearly intended to promote self-rule of industry under federal super-vision, to control overproduction, to increase wages, control the hours of labor, and to stabilize and then to raise prices. The NRA was to accomplish these goals through the creation of codes of fair competition which would govern whole industries or trades.
A Cotton Textile Committee, headed by George Sloan, was formed, and on July 17, 1933, its famous Code No. 1 was adopted. The Code sought to restrict excessive production and establish minimum wages and maximum hours. As required by law, it incorporated the famous Section 7(a) of the NIRA providing that "employees shall have the right to organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing." The new Administration had high hopes for the code; if effective in the textile industry, it could be a model for bringing collective bargaining to coal miners and other industrial workers.
Textile Code No. 1 never really got off the ground. The idea of permitting textile mill owners, particularly Southern mill owners, to govern the industry was the epitome of naiveté. Almost immediately, Southern mill owners began to attack the wage and hour provisions, and mills, North and South, began to ignore production restrictions and flood the market with over-production. Rather quickly, it became clear that the mill owners, particularly Southern mill owners, were incapable of acceptable self-rule and that they had no intent of honoring the Section 7(a) provision for collective bargaining. The few who tried to comply with 7(a) were "submerged amidst massive violations of the measure" and could not stand under the pres-sure wielded by the offenders. For the textile workers, James Hodges observed, 7(a) was like being invited to a fancy ball that they were too poor to attend.
Textile workers, North and South, began to protest that wages were too low for existence, that the stretch-out was unbearable, and that they were not being permitted to bargain as provided by Section 7(a) of the NIRA. As a result, the United Textile Workers of America (UTWA) called for a special convention to consider a general strike, and on August 30, 1934, Francis Gorman announced that all textile workers throughout the United States would go on strike the next Monday. The publicized reason was dissatisfaction with the Code, but the movement was really an effort to organize Southern cotton mills. For the latter reason, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) assisted the UTWA through the services of its organizers and state federations. Since Monday was Labor Day, most of the work stoppage did not come until Tuesday, September 4.
The nation-wide strike was poorly planned and under financed, but it began on schedule with the use of union organizers, known as flying squadrons, moving rapidly in motorcades from mill to mill to pressure, and in some cases, terrorize non-striking workers to quit work. However, it was much more effective than mill owners had expected, and within a few days, it was in full force from North to South with 450,000 of the 625,000 textile workers on strike.
The McComb Cotton Mill, just seven miles north of Magnolia and the local union organization center, struck on Monday, September 3. But many of the Magnolia mill workers had ignored the strike order, and within the next few days, several McComb union members visited Magnolia and "gave the workers, who chose to ignore the nation-wide strike order, until Monday to leave their jobs."
Sanders petitioned for an injunction to restrain McComb union members, or flying squadrons, from interfering with the operation of the Magnolia mill. After setting a hearing date, Judge C. W. Cutrer issued a temporary injunction with the understanding that all parties would abide by a "gentlemen's agreement" that there would be no further action or violence by either side in the interim. The next night, Saturday, September 8, an estimated one hundred members of the McComb local union visited Magnolia, distributed circulars in the village, held a strike meeting, and threatened the Magnolia mill watchman with death if he blew the whistle Monday morning. The activity of the McComb union members, or flying squadrons, in Magnolia, ironically, worked to their disadvantage because it justified the use of the National Guard.
Some violence had already occurred. Fred (Bud) Smith, the mill superintendent, had shot and seriously wounded Norman Crawford, one of the striking workers, and two workers were badly beaten when they attempted to cross a picket line. With the threat of more violence, Sheriff D. R. Statham wired Governor M. S. Conner: There is likely to be serious trouble at the cotton mill tomorrow (Monday) and the means at my disposal are insufficient to maintain the peace. I want you to
send the National Guards to keep the peace. Monday morning, September 10, the village people awakened to find themselves in the middle of an armed military camp. James Rushing, fifteen years old at the time, recalls that his mother Louise awakened him and his younger brother Jewel early that morning to see the troops marching in the village.
Adjutant General Thomas Grayson had arrived during the night with two hundred and twenty-five National Guard troops. Machine guns, tear gas guns and bombs were set up in readiness on the mill roof and at other vantage points, sentinels posted, and troops assigned to patrol the mill grounds and streets. At noon, General Grayson returned to Jackson to coordinate related activities throughout the state, leaving the troops at Magnolia under the command of Colonel G. H. Snyder of Laurel and Major R. G. Sexton of Meadville. The troops apparently quelled all threats of violence as no bloodshed or significant strike-related incidents occurred after their arrival.
On September 20, General Grayson and members of his staff returned to McComb where they met separately with representatives of the McComb Cotton Mill, a strikers committee, and a citizens (or businessmen) committee. Between 250 and 300 businessmen had petitioned the governor to send National Guard troops to protect workers who desired to work. The textile workers, supported by four local Railroad Brotherhoods, con- demned the action of the businessmen and petitioned the governor not to send troops. Unlike the situation at Magnolia where violence had occurred, Sheriff Statham felt that the McComb strike presented no immediate danger and sided with the strikers. Grayson, after listening to the various parties, decided not to bring National Guard troops to McComb.
On Monday, September 24, two weeks after it started, the strike ended when President Roosevelt, after promising to establish a Textile Labor Relations Board to study and handle labor problems in the industry, asked that all workers return to work and that the mill owners take them back without discrimination. By "2 o'clock Monday afternoon the last of the khaki-clad warriors in Magnolia had been relieved of duty and military occupation of the cotton mill village was an incident of the past." The Magnolia and McComb mills quietly opened without incident, and the nation-wide textile strike of 1934, the largest single strike in the history of the country, was over.
The McComb Cotton Mill employees, however, struck again the next day, the fourth time in less than a year, when an employee was not allowed to return to work on charges of intoxication. The dispute was settled later the same day.
During the general strike, National Guard troops were also dispatched to the Stonewall and Kosciusko mill villages. Like Magnolia, machine guns, tear gas guns and bombs were set up in readiness on the mill roofs and at other vantage points, and troops set up camp on the mill grounds and patrolled the streets. The Kosciusko-Attala Historical Society reported:
We experienced a new and tense situation in our town in August and September--a strike at Aponaug Manufacturing Company. Because of threatened violence and sabotage, Sheriff Blanton requested that National Guardsmen be sent here for the protection of the million dollar cotton mill. One hundred twenty-five guardsmen, along with their machine guns, gas bombs, tents, etc., arrived and set up camp on the mill grounds. Citizens of the county generally welcomed the coming of the guardsmen who have so completely dominated the situation as to scare away all threatened violence. Though this episode was naturally exciting to our young people, the town was very thankful when, after a short time, things settled back to normal. At Koscuisko, Sanders requested the use of National Guard troops to remove some twenty-seven families from their village homes. He argued that the family heads were union agitators, and for that reason, he had right to force them from their village homes. Governor Conner quickly and publicly denied the request. It is worth noting that the Berthadale Cotton Mill in McComb was not affected by the nation-wide strike; its employees continued to work throughout the strike. A. K. and Lober Landau, the owners, were known for their fair treatment of workers and, as a result, benefited from the unusually good employer/employee relations. Recall the July 4th barbacue and brass band provided by A. K. Landau at Magnolia in the early twenties.
The Magnolia mill had been reopened only two years when the strike occurred, and understandably many of the workers opposed the strike. At its beginning, several workers sent a petition to the governor indicating
that they were not affiliated with the Union, desired to continue work and requesting the Governor to afford them protection from intimidation or violence. Governor Conner replied that under the law he could not send out the National Guard unless advised by the sheriff that the situation was serious and that he could not handle it. The sheriff's subsequent wire apparently satisfied that requirement as the governor quickly dispatched troops.
The National Guardsmen in Magnolia were highly commended by all who came in contact with them and were given credit for keeping the peace. After it was over, Colonel Snyder, a more relaxed commander, said that the soldiers had a good time while on duty in Magnolia, and that "they mingled freely with the people of the community, and some of the boys made warm friendships, particularly with Magnolia girls." The mayor, many of the merchants, and some of the mill workers sent letters of appreciation to the governor.
In spite of their best efforts, however, tragedy struck the village three days after the strike on September 27. Alice Bernice Sullivan, the two-year old daughter of Bill Sullivan, a mill worker, was killed while playing with her young brother Robert and companion Trelles Case at a small house next door to the mill. The two boys, each about four years old, played near the house as Alice found her way under it. She unfortunately found a shotgun, believed to have been left by a striking employee, and discharged it when she pulled on the barrel. The death of Alice Bernice became a reference point in time for the village people, they all remember the strike in which the "little Sullivan girl" was killed.
The nation-wide strike was not successful from the union's point of view. Sanders, along with other Southern mill owners, won as the strike failed to bring either labor organization or collective bargaining to the Southern textile industry. In her book The Men and the Mills, Mildred Gwin Andrews concludes that there was really no "settlement" of the strike. It wore itself out and strikers, most of whom did not belong to any union and who did not know why they had gone on strike, gradually returned to work.
While there was no formal agreement, there was a "settlement" of sorts. It was really a retreat for the union, leaving Southern mill owners free to misinterpret and misapply the collective bargaining provisions of Section 7(a) of the NRA. Many of them, unfortunately, took advantage of amspanuities in the law, but to make matters worse, the Supreme Court in May of 1935 struck down the NRA, leaving the industry virtually unregulated until passage of the Fair Labors Standard Act in 1938.
Shortly after the death of the NRA in May of 1935, the National Labor Relations Act (Wagner Act) of 1935 reinstated the right of workers in interstate commerce to organize and bargain collectively. Many Southern mill owners, however, routinely and repeatedly ignored the new law by discharging union sympathizers and even closing plants to prevent collective bargaining. Southern workers, Mississippians in particular, were reluctant to press the issue or even openly complain; unorganized workers were not inclined to join the union in a fight against the mill owners with long lines waiting at the gates for employment.
In any event the General Strike of 1934 was a failure, and it is doubtful that the failure could have been avoided. From the beginning, unionism was weak in the South, and the depth of the Depression made it extremely difficult to organize workers at the small privately held Southern mills. The failure, according to James Hodges, was "a dramatic example of the limits of New Deal labor policy." It was a devastating blow to the South where, as a result of the failure, unions in all Southern industries retreated, and the South fell behind the rest of the nation "in the quest for effective unionization and collective bargaining."
Milton Derber, in Labor and the New Deal, argued that the failure of textile unionism had an epidemic effect throughout the South, particularly in the smaller towns and villages, where its leading industries--lumber, furniture, chemicals, and food-processing--were hardly touched by union organization dur- ing the New Deal period. Historian Bill Wyche observed that textiles represented the leading industry in the South, “and that historically and universally the industry had over-expanded and overproduced; and, as a means of maintaining lower production costs, Southern textile manufacturers vigorously resisted unionization which could lead to higher wages.” In any event, the Sanders mills came out of the strike with far fewer union sympathizers and no known union members.
Sanders mill workers, like other Southern mill workers, used the 1934 rebellion as an immediate protest against the low wages, long hours, and the abusive stretch-out, but, unfortunately, they were influenced too much by their rural customs and traditions--including the ingrained individualism, the pov- erty, the apathy, and the suspicions of northern unions moving southward--and failed to see the long-range benefits of acting collectively. Mississippi, even though the poorest state in the union, clearly was not ready for unionization, collective bargaining or, for that matter, industrialization in 1934.
Two years after the strike, Hugh White, the newly elected governor, tried to attract industry by launching a development program, called Balancing Agriculture with Industry (BAWI), but the program did not address the lingering anti-union attitude and was doomed to failure from the start. As discussed ear-lier, Governor White attempted to mediate at the Tupelo Cotton Mill strike in April 1937, but he was ineffective in bringing the parties together, because, partially at least, of the pre- vailing anti-union atti-tude in the community.
The failure to deal with the anti-labor attitude was devastating; the state, as a consequence, continued to lag far behind the nation and its sister states and made no significant move toward industrialization until President Roosevelt, concerned about the state's wide-spread poverty, used his influence during World War II to bring several war plants and military establishments to the state. Ironically, the curtailment of unionism in the state not only stifled industrial development, but, as I will show later, contributed to the demise of its cotton mill industry in the early 1950s. The anti-union attitude permitted Sanders Industries to rely too much on low wages, long hours, and the abusive stretch-out system, which in the long run contributed to the flight of textile workers from the Sanders mills to jobs in other industries, providing better pay and better working conditions.
Mills & Villages: Depression Years
The strike failure and the
absence of adequate protective labor legislation left Southern mill owners,
including Sanders, free to dominate the industry. Like the plantation
owners before them, the powerful Southern mill owners and other Southern elite
were in a position to effectively dominate the white mill workers who too often
huddled together and accepted the difficult working conditions that included low
wages, long hours, shoddy housing, and a burdensome workload under the
stretch-out system. There were no other industrial jobs available to
them; thus the only alternative for most was the hard and isolated life of
tenant or share crop farming.
After the strike the stretch-out system continued to be used by mill owners, particularly Southern mill owners, to re- duce labor costs. Its wide and extensive use made it, accord- ing to historian James Hodges, "the one issue which most concerned textile workers, much more than wages and other working conditions." He cites the case of a worker forced to resign because of the burdensome workload, who told his general manager "that to work under it was the same as committing suicide."
Sanders apparently used the dreaded system at most, if not all, of his mills throughout the thirties. Several former Sanders workers recall that the practice was often a topic of conversation. Using the non-Sanders mill at Tupelo as a comparison, a former worker said that the workload at the Sanders mills at Magnolia, Kosciusko, Meridian, and Winona was far greater; and using the non-Sanders mill at McComb as a standard, another said that the workload at the Sanders mills at Kosciusko, Magnolia, Meridian, and Natchez was greater. Others agreed these assessments and said that it was common knowledge that the stretch-out system was used, but added that, while the workers discussed the heavy workloads among themselves, few dared to complain to their supervisor.
Most workers felt that Robert Sanders had little empathy for the struggling mill workers; they considered him to be arrogant, domineering, and selfish in his relations with them. But as expected, most concealed their feelings out of fear of losing both a job and a house; for the individual worker, the fear may have been justified for there was always someone waiting in line to replace him.
Sanders's opposition to labor organizations and collective bargaining was well known; he used it effectively to control his mill workers throughout the Depression years. Workers suspected of involvement in union activities were often summarily dismissed. It appears, however, the dismissals were usually temporary unless avid agitators were involved. Ella Chadwick recalls that several co-workers persuaded her to ask for a pay raise, and that when she did, she was fired instantly. But after a few days of pleading, she was rehired to work the night shift. A mixture of harshness and compassion.
On one occasion. Sanders reportedly denied a request for an increase in pay with the retort that "a house and a dollar a day is sufficient for a mill worker." Consistent with that view, General Superintendent G. M. Tidwell later reduced the pay by ten percent at the Magnolia mill, and not hearing of any serious opposition, imposed an-other reduction the next day. One worker recalls that he was a victim of the consecutive pay decreases and that his father was present and heard the dollar-a-day statement. No one was surprised; Tidwell was known by the workers to be ambitious and eager to play the role of hatchet man. It was just another of his overzealous acts.
The Sanders mills, including the Magnolia mill, were noto- rious for long workdays, low wages, and burdensome workloads. As late as 1939 Sanders, as will be discussed later, was still fighting the implementation of the first minimum wage and forty-hour week law (FLSA of 1938) when most of the industry was already paying more than the minimum wage. But the harsh treat- ment of employees was not limited to low wages and long hours; workers were not expected, for example, to complain about on-the-job personal injuries.
Lester Rushing learned the cost of complaining when he in 1938 suffered permanent injuries to his foot while working in the Magnolia mill and, being unable to negotiate a settlement, initiated a civil action for damages. The court awarded him a trifling amount, most of which went to his lawyers, but the Magnolia mill was not to pay any amount without retaliating. Rushing and his spouse, along with three brothers and their spouses, were summarily dismissed; and the four families, with several children between them, were forced to vacate their vil- lage homes and move on in the midst of the lingering depression. Ironically, the four families moved to other Sanders mills at Meridian and Kosciusko, and after a brief absence, the Drew Rushing family returned to the Magnolia mill. Another example of mixing harshness and compassion.
Oppressive working conditions during the Depression years were not unique to the Sanders mills but were bad in the tex- tile industry throughout the country, and people everywhere reluctantly accepted it, made the best of the situation, pulled together, and went on with their lives. The Sanders village peole, including those at Magnolia, felt fortunate just to have jobs, for several million people throughout the country were unemployed. As people generally do in a crisis, they bonded together to find and share some good times in their personal lives, and in the process, the good times strengthened their will to survive and, in the end, over-shadowed the oppressive working conditions in the mills.
Like other Sanders mill people, Magnolia village people found the time to enjoy social and recreational activities. For the women and young girls, the little Nazarene Church was the center of the social and community activities; for the men and young boys, there was hunting, fishing, and baseball. For the family, radio provided enter-tainment as members, often with friends and neighbors, crowded around it to listen to their favorite programs such as Lum and Abner, Amos 'n' Andy, Inner Sanctum, Gene Autry, Superman, Don Winslow of the Navy, Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy, The Lone Ranger, and The Grand Ole Opry. The Magnolia cinema was a span attraction, Saturday afternoons featured cowboy movies for the young, and Saturday nights had late shows for the older crowd.
At the Minnehaha River, a popular swimming hole, jokingly referred to by the boys as "Peter Deep" and the girls as "Deeper Peep," attracted both boys and girls. The loud chatter or laughter of girls approach-ing the swimming hole would alert the boys and usually sent some scampering for their clothes.
Everyone recalls that Sunday was the span day in the village with church in the morning, followed by a traditional Southern Sunday dinner, typically fried chicken or round steak with rice and gravy, fried corn or fried okra, lima beans or black-eyed peas, sliced tomatoes, hot biscuits or cornbread, and blackberry or peach cobbler or banana pudding for des-sert. The vitals remain popular today and are fondly referred to as "soul food."
After the week's heartiest midday meal, the younger children usually went out to play ball or marbles in the church yard or for a swim at "Peter Deep." Older teenagers often simply strolled in small groups about the village, town, or cemetery and at times gathered at the Minnehaha River bridge where they talked, laughed, joked, and counted cars with out-of-state license plates as they passed on U. S. Highway 51 enroute to seemingly far away places at the time, either New Orleans a hundred miles south or Memphis three hundred miles north. The dream was to go to one or the other some day.
Like teenagers across the country during the Depression, Magnolia village teenagers were creative and expert at improvising games and toys. Thread from the mill was used to make softballs; discarded iron gears became wheels for wagons; and roller skate wheels were used to make scooters. Old tires were made into swings, but as often, simply paddled along the street by young boys, sometimes with a small boy curled inside. Discarded inner-tubes made excellent floats for swimmers or, if they could not hold air, could be used to make slingshots. Homemade kites, especially the "skeeter kites," were very popular. The skeeter kite was easy to make; two slender pieces of straw or weed stems were simply crossed and pierced through the corners of a sheet of tablet paper. With a bobbin of light-weight thread from the spinning room, it could be put out of sight within minutes.
The Magnolia village grade school played an important role in the community. It was near the center of the village and within four blocks of its outer limits, and thus the short distance avoided the transportation problem that would have prevailed had the youngsters been required to attend the town school. Limiting the school to the first four grades turned out to be a substantial benefit because, unlike Kosciusko with its eight grades, Magnolia village children had more opportunity to interact with town children. After four years at the village grade school, they attended the town school where they competed and interacted with others on an equal basis. Some of the boys went on to excel in basketball and football, including Billy Parker, Charles Robinson, James Rushing, Steve Case, and Pat Fuller; while Betty Jean Shaw, Eddie Virginia Case, Edna Earl Goff, Evelyn Rushing, and Beatrice Morgan excelled at basketball. Betty Jean, Eddie Virginia, along with Laura Mae Case and Bernice Rushing, also became popular cheerleaders.
After being closed for a few years, the Magnolia village school reopened in 1935 with Miss Auline Coney Swearingen as one of two teachers. She had taught at the school before it closed in 1926 and often referred to the village children as "my kids." Some of her students in the 1920s included James Rushing, Clifton Lamkin, William Sullivan, Laverne Case, Robert Case, James Alford, Tom Fancher, Mildred McCaskill, Paul Case, Elmer Parker, and William McCaskill. Later students of the 1930s included Walter Lamkin, Bertrand Pugh, Robert Goff, Fred Sullivan, Leon Morgan, Hubert Parker, Doris Parker, James Earl Davis, Houston Parker, Johnnie Carl Rushing, Ethelene Chanell, Bernice Rushing, Geneva Chanell, Donnis Parker, Hazel Parker, Halbert Chanell, Bertie Goff, Rufus Morgan, A. D. Alford, Nona Fancher, Lucien Lamkin, James Alton Rushing, Herbert Randall, Robert Pezant, Helen Rushing, Willia Dean Sullivan, Laverne Richmond, William Earl Phurrough, Ethel Mae Dickinson, Benny Chanell, Avis Pugh, Janelle Taylor, Tommie Etta Dickinson, Norma Case, W. M. Ravencraft, Ollie McCaskill, Grace Westmoreland, Helen Richmond, Louise Fuller, Mavis Anderson, Othar Chisolm, James Chisolm, Billy Parker, June Taylor, Pat Fuller, Marvin Randall, Robert Sullivan, E. J. Westmoreland, Pauline Fuller, Trelles Case, Doris Pugh, Ralph Loggins, Robert Lamkin, W. L. Case, Lillian Chanell, Maurice Pugh, James Case, Betty Jean Shaw, and Evelyn Rushing. There were, no doubt, others who attended the school.
The Magnolia village school was again discontinued in 1938, and in spite of the greater distance to school, its closing surely benefited the children by integrating them into the town school. There were, however, anxious moments when the first class entered the town school. Doris (Pugh) Case, who was in that class, indicates that the teachers at first opposed their admission on grounds of insufficient room. Miss Auline Swearingen, the village school teacher, apparently defused the explosive situation. Willa Dean Sullivan recalls that Miss Swearingen calmed everyone by accompanying "her kids" to the town school and introducing them to their new classmates. Miss Swearingen made a lasting impression on her kids, and today, six decades later, her former students fondly reminisce and relate anecdotes about her. Two village girls, one born in the late thirties and the other in the early forties, were named in her honor, Auline Sullivan and Auline Strickland.
The crime rate in rural America during the thirties was minimal, but for Magnolia and its mill village, it was virtual- ly non-existent. Without any fear, houses could be left unlocked and bicycles unattended for extended periods of time at the school or in front of the picture show. Several people recall the thirties as a period of tranquility, and no one recalls a serious violent crime of any type or a burglary or a robbery in the village. One village resident, who will remain nameless, was mentioned as an occasional chicken thief and another was accused of stealing firewood, but they were generally excused because of the hard times. Perhaps the worst transgression was that on payday some of the men occasionally drank too much, shot craps, and a few had fist-fights, but come Monday morning, all was forgotten. Robert Sullivan recalls that Mississippi was a dry state at the time, and that local humorists suggested "it will remain dry as long as Mississippians can stagger to the polls." It was the one issue that brought the churches and bootleggers together, for neither wanted a wet state and both went all out in an effort to keep it dry.
The Magnolia mill, in addition to the church building and the four-year grade school, made sure the villagers had medical care. Two doctors, G. W. Robertson and J. D. Smith, provided the care. Patients were generally treated in the doctor's office but house calls were also made. In fact, it was a common sight to see the doctors walking the village streets, stopping here and there to check on their patients. In the late thirties, a small fee of twenty-five cents weekly was deducted from each worker's pay and divided between the two doctors for their services. The fee also covered medical procedures performed by the doctors at the small Magnolia Hospital which were limited, primarily to an occasional appendectomy, tonsillectomy, attending a broken bone or stitching a skin laceration. Beulah Mae Bird, plant secretary at the time, confirmed that the workers were required to participate in the program and share in its cost.
Rememnsing about life on the Magnolia village during the 1930s, Dr. Trelles Case summarized the feelings of most vil- lagers in his statement that "we might have been poor, but the village was made up of good and caring people." Others supported his assessment; many remember the village as an extended family with people doing for each other, setting up with the sick or giving poundings of food and clothing to those in need. They were bound by an unwritten code to care for each other in times of need, and this camaraderie surely gave them strength in facing the hard times of the depression years.
Roosevelt's "New Deal" finally came to the textile industry in the late thirties: it was a great turning point for the Sanders mill workers as it was to bring about sweeping changes and improvements in working conditions. In 1939, the Textile Industry Committee accepted America's first wage and hour law (FLSA of 1938); it provided for a minimum wage of 32.5 cents per hour, a 40-hour week, and a minimum age of 16 years for child labor. Most of the industry was in fact already paying more than the minimum, but Sanders, paying far less, joined Opp Mills of Alabama in seeking an injunction against the enforcement of the new law.
The U. S. Supreme Court, in Opp Cotton Mills, Inc. v. Administrator, upheld the law which "put a floor under wages and a cap on the hours of the normal working day." The decision simply required Sanders to pay the wages most Southern cotton mills were already paying, and, contrary to the expressed fears of the Sanders and Opp mill owners, neither owner found it necessary to close a mill because of the new wage regulations. It was to be Robert Sanders's last major battle with labor.
Mill workers at the several Sanders mills were ecstatic. For them, the decision upholding the minimum wage and 40-hour week law was the fulfillment of a long dream. After more than a hundred years of long hours, sunup to sundown in the industry, the 40-hour week had finally arrived. Wages were to start at 32.5 cents per hour, increased to 37.5 cents per hour in June 1941, to 40 cents in April 1942, and finally to 45 cents still later. The new law came on the eve of World War II (1939-1945) which was to bring great prosperity to the Sanders mills and, in turn, many opportunities and benefits to the mill workers.
By the beginning of the war, things had already started to change. Claude McDade had been promoted from weave room supervisor to superintendent and plant-employee relations were improving. It was apparent that McDade, who knew the workers and their families intimately, was given substantial latitude in dealing with their needs. For example, McDade made himself available every Saturday morning for workers in need of salary advances. Not having cash on hand, he would give the worker a handwritten note to deliver to the Corner Drugstore. Fred Andrews, the druggist, would give the worker the two or three dollars and payment was then deducted from his next payday. It was a good arrangement for the druggist because he was assured of quick payment of the loan along with all other charges.
In hardship cases, payment for house rent was often waived for extended periods of time. A prime example involved the widow of Charlie Case, a faithful employee of many years. After his death, his widow Laura, elderly and unable to work in the mill, remained in her village house until she died several years later without the mention of house rent. Rose Pressley was a similar case; there were others. While it did not make up for the low wages and long hours, the paternalistic benevolence surly left the workers with a sense of well-being and security.
The Depression years had been hard, but life on the Magnolia and other Sanders villages was about the same as, if not better than, that of most Mississippians. Indeed, times were bad for everyone, but the village people were at least gainfully employed and had money to spend. In 1940, near the end of the Depression, Mississippi was still tied to an ailing agricultural economy with 80 percent of its inhabitants still living in the country. Reviewing the period, Dunbar Rowland, former Director of Mississippi Department of Archives and History, concluded that:
The Second World War was the watershed of modern Mississippi history. Before it there was institutional continuity streaking back 100 years. After it nothing remained the same. This is not to say that World War II was the cause of all change, but it is a convenient dividing line.... Since the beginning of World War II every one of Mississippi's long-cherished institutions has been destroyed. King Cotton has lost its throne.... Everywhere mechanization and diversification have triumphed. ...Perhaps even more important, agriculture has lost its primacy in Mississippi's economy. No longer is it the chief employer and income producer. Manufacturing now employees more workers and produces more income than does
By 1940 the United States, responding to threats of war, had begun to mobilize its resources and prepare for war. The economic stimulus, provided by the massive military buildup, brought the Great Depression to an abrupt end. Suddenly, Mississippi, along with its textile industry, was in the threshold of its greatest change in history. Thanks to Roosevelt's influence, several war plants and military establishments, with new and higher paying jobs, would come to the South, especially Mississippi, and compete with the textile plants in industrializing Mississippi. Mill workers at all Sanders textile mills, including Magnolia, would be affected and their lives changed forever.
Sanders Industries, except for the Natchez, Winona, and Yazoo City mills, had survived the Great Depression. It had survived the hard times that forced hundreds of less fortunate cotton mills throughout the country to either close or operate in bankruptcy. Since the peak year of 1910, Mississippi had closed seventeen mills by either liquidation or fire, reducing Mississppi's cotton manufacturing to only eight mills by 1942 and the beginning of the war years (see Table 3). Sanders Industries controlled five of them--the Kosciusko, Magnolia, Meridian, Starkville, and West Point mills. The three non-Sanders mills were the Stonewall Cotton Mill, the Laurel Cotton Mill, and the Alden Spinning Mill in Meridian. Obviously, the Mississippi cotton textile industry was near collapse at the beginning of the forties, but World War II would give it breath and life for a few more years.
Table 3. MISSISSIPPI MILLS CLOSED, 1910-1942
Mississippi Mills Wesson 1910
Port Gibson Mills Port Gibson 1910
Batesville Yarn Mill Batesville 1910
Columbus Yarn Mill Columbus 1910
Tomspanbee Mills Columbus 1910
Noxubee Mills Shuqualak 1911
Mississippi Textile School Starkville 1914
Bellevue Mills Moorhead 1924
Yocona Mills Water Valley *1929
Natchez Cotton Mills Natchez 1934
Rosalie Cotton Mills Natchez 1934
Tupelo Cotton Mills Tupelo 1937
Yazoo Cotton Mills Yazoo City *1937
Berthadale Cotton Mills McComb 1938
Winona Cotton Mills Winona *1940
McComb Cotton Mills McComb 1942
* Mills destroyed by fire and not reopened.
Chapter XI & Biblography
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