The Cotton Holiday Movement in the South
Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
David H. Bennett
Southern agricultural, Cotton market, Stability, Crop Reporting Service, Federal Farm Board, Drop-A-Crop
Over the years Southerners came to fear the financial and psychological damage disruption of the cotton market could cause as much as a hurricane battering inland or the Mississippi river cascading over its banks. The Federal government tried to provide stability and security to volatile commodity markets through agencies such as the Crop Reporting Service and the Federal Farm Board, but only further alienated and radicalized Southern agricultural interests.
The Crop Reporting Service had difficulty in forecasting crop size because of such sensitive variables as the weather, insects, and diseases. The Federal Farm Board's practice of purchasing surpluses encouraged farmers to even larger production and contributed to bigger carryovers. Cotton farmers never shared in the general prosperity of the 1920's, so the Great Depression hit them particularly hard. When the Federal government's crop forecast broke the price of cotton on commodity markets in August of 1931, the South regressed into the most severe cotton crisis since the Civil War.
To raise the price and reduce the supply, governor Huey P. Long proposed that the South should observe a cotton holiday--one entire year off from producing the staple. He called public officials from the cotton states together for a convention in New Orleans, and they overwhelmingly endorsed the drop-a-crop idea. Long then summoned the Louisiana legislature into special session. The Louisiana legislature made the holiday state law, provided states producing 75% of the crop would follow suit. Over the airwaves of radio station KWKH, and through the pages of the New Orleans Item, Long marshaled support for the holiday and directed the movement's course Southside.
In state-after-state thousands of Southerners met in countywide mass meetings to debate the holiday. In discussing the effect a sabbatical year for an entire industry would have on the courts, employment, alternative crops, overseas producers, and other issues, they fleshed-out features of the plan, and petitioned their governors to call special legislative sessions to enact holiday legislation. As farmers agitated for stopping production to raise prices, laborers refused to pick cotton to raise wages. Throughout the South communities had to resort to forced labor practices to harvest the crop.
South Carolina joined Louisiana in making the holiday state law and demanding that states producing 75% of the crop take similar action. As the South's largest producer, Texas held the key to the cotton situation. Despite popular sentiment in favor of a holiday, the Texas legislature refused to endorse drop-a-crop, insisting instead on the more conservative approach of 30% acreage reduction. Although Mississippi and Arkansas joined Texas in passing acreage reduction laws, both states included escape clauses that set dates beyond which acreage legislation would end, something Texas had neglected to consider.
When Texas subsequently failed to recruit additional states behind acreage reduction, it appeared that the Lone Star state would be compelled to observe restraint while the others went right alone producing as before. But state courts in Texas intervened to declare acreage restriction null and void, and the whole production control movement collapsed. The cotton crisis and holiday movement nonetheless provided a capstone to the agricultural protest of the 1920's, and a foreshadowing of future national agricultural policies.
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Snyder, Robert Edward, "The Cotton Holiday Movement in the South" (1980). History - Dissertations. Paper 68.