Strike City: A few determined African-Americans found they could change a way of life in Mississippi
June 4, 1995
By Douglas A. Blackmon
Strike City, Miss. – On a lonely road in the heart of Mississippi Delta cotton country, miles from the nearest town, there’s a nearly forgotten place born of a once unthinkable act.
On a cool May morning in 1965, a defiant band of black farm hands said, "No, " to their white employer.
A dozen tractor drivers told plantation owner A.L. Andrews that they and their wives and children would not work, unless he raised the men’s daily wage from a flat $6 a day to $1.25 an hour. Andrews refused.
That day, John Henry Sylvester, a charismatic farm mechanic, led his wife, their 15 children and 11 other families – nearly 80 people in all – out of their homes and off the plantation.
For a year they maintained picket lines at Andrews’ 1,300-acre farm. And within sight of the fields where they had toiled, the workers set out to build a town of their own, a place where African-Americans in Mississippi would be free of an economic system dictated by whites.
They named it Strike City.
They are still there.
"When we wasn’t chopping cotton, we didn’t have nothin’ to do, and we wasn’t making much money, " Sylvester, 76, said recently. "We sat down and we talked to him one day in the shop. . . . We said, ‘If you don’t give us a raise, we’re gonna stop working for you.’ "
"That day, he put us off the place, " Sylvester said.
Today, Strike City is a remote island of abject poverty at the end of a pitted, asphalt road. It is as rundown as were the old tenant houses at the Andrews place. Butted against each other like crumbling cotton bales standing on end, eight simple houses jut from behind a stand of scrubby trees. A gaping burned-out hole yawns from one roof.
Most of the original strikers, including Sylvester’s first wife of 53 years, are dead. Five remain at Strike City, with an assortment of relatives totaling about two dozen people. A striker now lives in the community center where meetings were once held to rally other laborers. The cottage industry brought in to sustain them – making Nativity scenes for churches – has been abandoned. The people get by on Social Security, public assistance and subsistence farming.
Last Wednesday, three decades after Andrews’ attorney – later a U.S. district judge – told the county sheriff to dump Sylvester’s belongings on the gravel road leading from the plantation, hardly anyone even remembered the anniversary.
By its very existence, though, Strike City remains a potent symbol of Mississippi’s passage. It is a monument to the defiance in 1965 which triggered reverberations still felt in the Delta. It is also a living demonstration of how the achievement of political rights for African- Americans often had little effect on the economic chasm between blacks and whites. The poverty of Strike City today proves how powerfully difficult it is to close that gap.
Strike an earth-shaking event for the Delta
"It wasn’t a very fair fight when you think about it. You’ve got 20 or 40 or 50 people who are disenfranchised, who have absolutely zero political power, zero economic power, no education, no resources whatsoever, trying to have some sort of collective action, " says Noel Workman, who covered the strike as a young reporter for the (Greenville) Delta Democrat-Times.
"In terms of numbers, it was no big deal, " Workman said. "But it was a big deal in terms of what it portended. It was kind of a wake-up call saying that the old system really, really is dead."
The walkout on the Andrews plantation – the first farm strike in the South since a sharecropper revolt was bloodily suppressed in the 1930s – was an earth-shaking event for the Delta.
To whites, it signaled that a cotton labor system under African- Americans lived almost as indentured servants would not continue unchallenged.
For the strikers, the walkout was the nerve-racking abandonment of the only way of life – and personal security – most had known.
"We didn’t know what was gonna happen. We was taking a chance. But we had got tired of working for nothing, " said Garther Lee Martin Sr., 64, another striker still at Strike City.
"We was lost just like a bird flying in the air, " Sylvester said. "When they get lost, they don’t know if they going east or going west."
Where the strike counted most, though, was in its effect on younger African-Americans who watched it unfold. The walkout emboldened a generation who would force even more astonishing political change in a place that had seemed as immovable as the vast fields themselves.
A few months after the strike, the local public schools announced a long-delayed desegregation plan under which blacks could put their children in white schools. Few dared.
The youngsters from Strike City were the first to register.
Mississippi Freedom Labor Union organized
The cotton was just beginning to nudge its way out of the dark Delta soil that spring – the annual signal that the winter "lay-by" of no work, no money and little food finally was over for black tenant families. The men were already in the fields on tractors. It was time for their wives and children to take up hoes and begin the annual "cotton chopping" ritual – the rooting out by hand of millions of weeds choking back the endless rows of cotton.
Largely unbeknownst to whites, though, laborers from across the Delta had been organizing for months. They were meeting late at night at a broken-down country store owned by a black man near the tiny town of Tribbett. Activists were encouraging them to disrupt the Delta’s economic cycle. The workers organized the Mississippi Freedom Labor Union, and Sylvester, a towering man with a booming voice, emerged as one of its grassroots leaders.
"John Henry. He was the leader of that group, " said Frank Smith, 52, who lived with the strikers as a young civil rights worker from Georgia. Today, he is a Washington, D.C., city councilman. "People followed him because they trusted him. He was tough. He was loud. He was firm in his beliefs. And he didn’t have any fear."
On the night before the strike, a gathering of workers from four plantations placed their hands on a Bible and swore that they all would quit the fields. But in the morning, only Sylvester’s group followed through.
For the next year, the strikers were the focus of the civil rights movement in the Delta. Unlike the voter registration drives that had dominated racial activism in Mississippi – and bloody Freedom Summer the year before – the objective at Strike City was to end black economic dependence on the white agricultural system.
The strikers encountered tremendous resistance. In the first year, whites repeatedly fired guns into the tent encampment from passing cars. Strikers were dismissed from jobs when their new employers learned where they lived. The walkout was ridiculed by the nearest white weekly newspaper as the antics of "gullible and easily influenced Negro laborers."
The effort attracted more sympathetic attention from across the country. Walter Cronkite intoned their plight at Christmas 1965, when the harshest winter in a decade beseiged the tent encampment. A liberal Chicago socialite donated money for a well and building materials. In 1966, the strikers went to Washington D.C. to demand federal help.
But government assistance never came. Instead, the strikers formed their own non-profit corporation to oversee construction of Strike City. They bought five acres of land from a black farmer and hired carpenters and plumbers to guide them in building homes. It took two years.
Smith wanted to establish at Strike City a ‘Freedom Now’ brick factory to produce building materials for African-Americans to build their own homes. Sylvester simply wanted a refuge.
"I wish one day I could come see this place here be a great nice place, " Sylvester said as the houses were being built. "See this to be a real city, right: Strike City . . . Everybody be happy, enjoying one another, kids be playing. Peoples don’t have no hatreds of one another."
Strike City succeeded in the least tangible goals. But it never became a town. No houses were built after the initial eight. The brick factory never got off the ground. In 1968, Smith left Mississippi. He lost contact with the strikers about 10 years ago.
"Mississippi was just too hostile, " Smith said. "If I had had 20 years, I probably could have had it happen."
Today, the story of Strike City sounds like a naive vision doomed from the start. But Sylvester and the others know different. Their accomplishment was what they proved for others: that African-Americans could stand up for themselves in Mississippi, and survive.
"They said, ‘Run ‘em off the land, run ‘em out of the county, " Sylvester said. "But we didn’t run."
Poverty still a big problem in the Delta
The Delta today is vastly changed. The region where Sylvester was unable to vote the first 46 years of his life is politically governed by African-Americans from school boards to the U.S. Congress. But poverty remains most African-Americans’ birthright. Little is happening to change that.
A flaking tin sign with two painted hands, a black one clasping a white one, used to mark the turn to Strike City. It is gone now, disappeared into a tangle of vines rising from a ditch. Gone with it is the bi-racial partnership between laborers and outside activists which gave rise to Strike City.
On their own, the strikers never climbed far. But they never stopped trying. They worked hard, went to church, raised families, tilled the soil to feed themselves.
"We was only trying to build up ourselves, " Mr. Martin said. "We were willing to work, but we wanted to be paid like everybody else."
Alone and nearly forgotten, Strike City today takes care of itself. When the property tax bill arrives each year in Sylvester’s name, the remaining strikers gather to split it up. "All us go together and pay it, " Sylvester said. "We’re still together."
Cotton farmers in Mississippi Delta counted on long hours, little pay
When the Strike City workers walked off their plantation in 1965, they were defying a labor system under which generations of African- Americans had lived almost as indentured servants to white cotton farmers.
Mississippi Delta planters needed thousands of workers to chop weeds and pick the crop on their vast farms. The landowners kept low-wage laborers from year to year by giving black men and their families rent- free houses, small garden plots, enough money to survive the winter, emergency medical care and sanctuary in a society hostile to "independent" blacks.
But the workers rarely made enough in the summer to pay off their accumulated "debts" to the landowner during winter. So they stayed on the plantations, year after year.
That system continued even after mechanical cotton pickers, pesticides and herbicides came on the market in the 1960s. "They were prohibitively expensive compared to people who would work for $2 or $3 a day, " said Noel Workman, a reporter in the Delta in the 1960s.
In spring, when the weeds were thick, and fall, when the cotton bolls were bursting, every man, woman and child on the plantations was pressed into service in the fields. In the 1960s, women and children were paid $3 for 12 back-breaking hours of chopping. The men got up to $6 to drive the farmer’s machines.
"We’d go from about 5:30 in the morning ’til we turned the [tractor] lights on coming back from the fields, " said Garther Lee Martin, one of the strikers.
Frank Smith, a former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee activist who was born on a Georgia plantation, was shocked when he arrived in the Delta.
"These people lived a cut above slavery. These people got paid in script. I saw people on that plantation who didn’t see money for months, " Smith said. "And they were getting paid so little money that there was no way for them ever to get out."