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“The White Man’s Law”: African-American Migrant Workers Tell Congress Their Version of a Strike

In the early 20th century, large-scale commercial agriculture displaced family farms, tenant farmers, and sharecroppers. Hand labor, however, remained more cost effective for harvesting certain fruits and vegetables. Farmworkers under this new system were hired only for seasonal work and had to travel frequently. The migratory experience left these workers—primarily Mexicans, Mexican Americans, African Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Filipinos—permanent outsiders and vulnerable to exploitation, low wages, and wretched working and living conditions. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 established rights of industrial workers to unionize. The Act omitted farmworkers, though, due in part to fears that the powerful farm growers’ lobby would prevent passage. Organized efforts by unions and others to rescind the exemption failed in subsequent years. In the 1960s, the United Farm Workers of America (UFW), led by Cesar Chavez, started a strike and boycott of table grapes that gained nationwide support. Although California enacted the first state legislation to protect farm labor union organizing in 1975, other states did not follow, and many union gains in California have since been lost. In the following testimony from a 1969 Senate hearing, two migrant African-American farmworkers from North Carolina presented their version of a strike. Since 1970, fresh fruit consumption in the U.S. has risen sharply increasing the demand for hand labor. Living and working conditions for migrants remain poor in much of the country.


Mrs. SMITH. Morris was just talking about the strike of the community workers. He is wrong, entirely wrong. I came here to tell the truth and that is what I want to tell.

We have been working at this strike some years because when I first started I wasn’t getting but 40 cents a flat. Just like we have to do these later years, that is what we first began having to do, put 15 pints on one flat. That made us put about a crate and a half on one flat.

At the time I began to work, I was working for 40 cents a flat. They went up to 50, from 50 to 60 and from 60 to 75, and they have been paying 75 cents a flat, I don’t know how long, but it has been for some years.

I will say it has been about 6 years, to the best of my knowledge that they have been paying 75 cents.

So it looked to me like he wasn’t going to ever pay any more. So we got to talking it over in the field, and I went to homes and different places, and we asked—did we think that Morris was paying the right price? So we said, no. So we have been trying to get together ever since he has been paying this 75 cents.

Senator MONDALE. He testified that no one had asked him for improved pay.

Mrs. SMITH. He is wrong. I don’t know about this one, because I never talked to this man about it, because he was never out in the field, or rarely. Once in a while he might leave the packinghouse and go down in the field and talk with his brother.

But his brother, Ted, is the one that operated the field. So he is the one that we all asked for more money.

Senator MONDALE. You did ask him for improved pay?

Mrs. SMITH. Yes; because he was the manager of the field. We didn’t know anyone else to ask but him because the other one was taking care of the packinghouse, and the little one, Ted, was taking care of the fieldworkers. So he is the one that we asked for higher wages. He says to us—when I say “us” that means more than one asked him in my presence—he said, “I am not able to pay any more. I am paying the second highest price of wages; 75 cents is all I have ever paid, 75 cents is all I am going to pay.” That was the year that we asked again. Of course, we had asked several times back during the years we were working. So this year past we went to him and asked again, so he said the same thing. We said, “We cannot make anything at this price, no more berries that we can pick in the run of a day.” Everything is going up; our rent is going up, and we just cannot make the money to take care of our homes at this price. But this is all of the kind of work that we have to do. Naturally, we were going to try to stick there because that is all of the work that we had to do. So it looked like to me everybody began to get on the right side of this strike. So we got together and we talked it over. So I am the one who asked the question, “Let’s have a meeting and see if we can’t get together on this price and this strike.” So the workers wanted to know what is there for us to do? I said, “Let’s go and ask different people,” which we had already asked some and they didn’t know what to tell us but to go to the employment office. We went to the employment office and they said they didn’t have anything to do with Morris prices. So then we got together and we decided we would have a meeting. So I said, “Before we have a meeting, suppose we consult with the community workers.” I knew a little something about them, if we wanted advice we could go to them and get advice.

Senator MONDALE. Up until this point, the conversations that you are talking about took place among the workers in the field, there were no outside poverty workers or agitators or anything like that?

Mrs. SMITH. No; there were no agitators at all. So we went to them and we asked them for advice. They gave us the advice on what to do, and they didn’t give us violence advice.

After that, we went to Sheriff Berry and asked him about it.

Senator MONDALE. You went to see the sheriff?

Mrs. SMITH. Yes; we went to see the sheriff.

Senator MONDALE. What did you tell him?

Mrs. SMITH. We asked him about it and he said it was OK, and he told us how he wanted the picket line, he told us how not to violate the law and everything. He said, “What is wrong?” He called Mr. Morris and consulted him about the strike. He said that Morris told him that someone went to him and told him that somebody had been in the field and “gunpointed” him and this man ran out in the field and went on home. I don’t know where he went, but he didn’t go right straight to the sheriff. But the next day he went to the sheriff there and told him someone had “gunpointed” him out in the field. Sheriff Berry said he didn’t know anything about it, only what the man told him. He said the man was named Flowers, who said he was pointed out in the field. I asked Sheriff Berry how could five people, as Morris said “gunpoint” 965 people out in the whole field? One man could not get to all of those people, not even with an army gun, or with machineguns. How could he do that?

Senator MONDALE. Did you see anybody with a gun in the field?

Mrs. SMITH. No; I did not see anyone in the field with a gun, but as many as there were in the field, I could not say whether they did or they did not. But I didn’t hear any discrimination about anything.

Senator MONDALE. The owner said that there was a bomb threat, that people were afraid of a bomb.

Mrs. SMITH. I heard nobody say that. I heard nobody say that but Sheriff Berry. That is the only one I ever heard say anything about it, until I heard Morris say it this morning.

Senator MONDALE. You don’t think that there were any violent threats that you know of that encouraged people who would rather be working not to work that day?

Mrs. SMITH. No; I haven’t heard anything about that. In fact, I don’t even believe it, to tell you the truth about it.

Senator MONDALE. Why didn’t the workers show up that day, then? There were 900-some people who did not show up; is that right? They walked off the job?

Mrs. SMITH. The ones who were in here with the strike, some of them went back because they thought, you know how it is, when you say let’s do something, and then don’t do it; so some of them did not believe they were going to get on strike. So they went back in the field and when they saw that we meant business, they went out of the field. . . .

Mrs. SMITH. So during the last week that we were out there on the picket line, this same little Morris fellow, Ted, took these tacks do you see these, every one of us out there on the picketline saw this happen. Where these cars were parked on the highway, he took these tacks and went all under the people’s cars, and he threw them under the people’s tires.

(Witness is referring to some large tacks.)

He threw the tacks all under the people’s cars, so when they drove out, they could puncture their tires. Two ladies got their tires full of these tacks. We made up money for her to get a tire to go on her car after we got to New Bern.

But we did not say anything to him. He got in his red truck and rode down the highway and parked it, and came back with a bag like that and threw them all under the cars so they would puncture their tires.

That is why we picked them up and we carried them in to New Bern and gave them—I don’t know who we gave them to, but we left them at New Bern. We left some out there for evidence and we brought some to New Bern for evidence.

Senator MONDALE. Mrs. Smith, we will take these tacks and place them in the subcommittees permanent files.

Mrs. SMITH. Morris didn’t mention social security.

Senator MONDALE. No.

Mrs. SMITH. He did not take out any social security. He didn’t tell us he had us insured when one of the boys hit him with a truck. We told him how the boy was driving the truck and how many got hit, and how many had to jump in the ditch, and he did not say a word about it, only smiled.

Senator MONDALE. There is no social security deducted from your pay checks?

Mrs. SMITH. No, he did not take out any.

Senator MONDALE. You are not covered by social security?

Mrs. SMITH. I don’t know but I know he did not take out any.

Mrs. KEYS. He said that as fast as he could build a toilet shed, they were being torn out. Well, he has not built any toilets at all. There are no field toilets. There are no bathrooms and you can build a bathroom, because me and my husband have built one real cheap.

Senator MONDALE. You heard him testify that there were field toilets.

Mrs. KEYS. Yes.

Senator MONDALE. You say there are not?

Mrs. KEYS. There are no field bathrooms.

Senator MONDALE. And you worked in his field?

Mrs. KEYS. I worked in his field for 4 years, and the water out there is not fit to drink. It tastes like rotten egg.

Senator MONDALE. Where do you go for water?

Mrs. KEYS. The water is just that we have a drum, and he has a spigot on the outside of the packinghouse and this water looks like it comes out of the ditch. If you run it off, it will get a clear color. If you just go there and turn the faucet on and drink it, it will be a reddish-looking color, an orange-looking, and it really makes you sick when you are hot and drink this water, because I have drunk it and been sick as a result.

Senator MONDALE. Do they have any first-aid help out there—nurses—to help people when they get sick in the hot weather?

Mrs. KEYS. No. . . .

Senator MONDALE. Is there anything else that you think the committee ought to know about this matter?

Mrs. KEYS. On the day that he asked us off the field, we asked the sheriff what was we charged with. He said he would think of something when he got us downtown. We stayed down there a couple of hours and the solicitor came in and talked to us. He told us to go back and pick Morris' berries.

On the third day there was a warrant issued for my arrest as agitator, and a couple of more charges were added on. These charges were not true.

Senator MONDALE. In other words, when you were taken into the sheriff’s office, they encouraged you to go back to work. You did not go back to work. The next thing you knew, you were charged with being an agitator, violating the law.

Mrs. Smith, were you charged, too?

Mrs. SMITH. No, I was not charged.

Mrs. KEYS. There is one more thing also. After the sheriff gave us something like permission to picket, to walk on the road and stay off of Morris' property, he had us facing the traffic, meeting the traffic at first, and as we were going to get in place, a log truck came by and it run right on the edge of the road, right off the highway, right on the edge, and I had to jump in the ditch to keep from being hit.

They took us and moved us on the far side of the road, going with the traffic, and he told us we had to stand still. I will say there were about 30 or 50 people in the picket line, and here come the same log truck, and this log truck run right off along us people and we had to jump in the ditch and on Morris' property to keep from being killed.

This log truck did not give a signal, it did not give us any warning at all, and the sheriff and his men stood on the other side and laughed. He was approached about this and he said that man can stop and get a soda whenever he wants and this is a busy highway over there. I believe it is 70.

And he just comes and runs right into us. And he said, “I am the sheriff, I make the laws here and I enforce the laws.”

But he enforced the law for Jason Morris and not for the black people, because we were manhandled by the sheriff, we were pushed by the sheriff’s men, we were cursed at by the deputy sheriff, I was, and he pushed me back from the highway. I told him he didn’t have to push me and he didn’t have to curse me because I was no dog.

One of the gentlemen went across the road in front of us. There were two groups and that gentleman sitting right there, and the sheriff and also a man came out of the berry farm, whether he was a law officer I don’t know, but as this gentleman was going across the road and across Morris‘ driveway, the sheriff grabs him, this other man comes out of Morris’ berry farm and asked the sheriff, “Do you want to get him back across the road?” And when he said that, he pulled out a shiny object out of his pocket.

We were standing on the far side of the road, so we could see what was happening, because that man who came out had his back to us, and I was standing at the head of the line. I said, “Ladies, are we going to stand here and see that man mobbed by the knife?”

We went over there and that is when the deputy grabbed us. I said, “Don’t you know I am not going to let you mob my husband?” When we got there, the sheriff and his men surrounded us so we could not get to this man. He told us, “Get back across the road.” He said, “I mean get across there now.”

Then for the rest of that day he had his deputies patrolling the road all day long, and whenever we went out there, it was really the white man’s law and the black people had to take it and swallow it, even if it was bitter. We had no protection at all. . . .

Source: Congress, Senate, Committee on Labor and Public Welfare, Migrant and Seasonal Farmworker Powerlessness: Hearings before the Subcommittee on Migratory Labor of the Committee on Labor and Public Welfare, United States Senate, 91st Congress, 1st Session on Efforts to Organize, July 16 and 17, 1969, Part 3-B (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1970).