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John L. Handcox was born Feb. 5, 1904, in Brinkley, and became the voice of the sharecropper through his poems and songs for the Southern Tenant Farmers Union.
Handcox’s father was a landowner, and Handcox attended school up to the ninth grade, idolizing poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar. But the Handcox family lost their homestead after Handcox’s father was crushed by a wagon in 1921.
The Southern Tenant Farmers Union was formed in Tyronza in 1934 amid existing tension between farm labor and planters in the Delta. Racially integrated from its inception, the STFU organized strikes and lobbied state and federal officials for better working conditions and protested the evictions of tenant farmers. Members of the union were beaten and killed. Handcox joined the STFU in 1935 and “found out singing was more inspiring than talking ... to get the attention of the people.”
For safety, the STFU eventually moved its offices from Poinsett County to Memphis. But, by the late 1930s, the STFU had more than 30,000 members.
Handcox based the song “Mean Things Happening in This Land” on the gospel song “There Are Strange Things Happening Every Day,” recorded by Cotton Plant’s Rosetta Tharpe. H.L. Mitchell, the STFU’s founder, used the Handcox song title for his 1979 autobiography and also dedicated the book to Handcox.
Handcox’s “Roll the Union On,” based on the gospel song “Roll the Chariot On,” has been called a labor classic. Onetime Arkansas Gov. Marion Futrell is called to task in “Roll the Union On”: “If Governor Futrell’s in the way, we’re going to roll it over him, roll it over him.” The eviction of sharecroppers by landlords for organizing and the mass arrests by law enforcement in Arkansas had drawn national attention; Futrell had sided with planters.
Through Handcox’s recordings for the Library of Congress, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger had discovered his songs by the 1940s. They sang them for union organizations across the country and included his songs in their songbook “Hard Hitting Songs for Hard Hit People.”
Handcox actually had forgotten his song “Strike in Arkansas,” documenting state labor struggles in the mid-1930s: “In Earle, Arkansas, they threw so many in jail ... the planters was using pistols and whipping the labor across their head, telling them ‘If you don’t get in my field, I’ll kill you dead.’ ” Fifty years later, Mitchell found the lyrics and returned them to Handcox. Handcox then recorded a version for the Smithsonian Institute in May 1985. After years of inactivity in San Diego, Handcox was again recognized by the labor movement by this time — which a half-century later faced many of the same issues it had in the 1930s. He was invited to labor events across America.
In the mid-1980s, Handcox came out with two new songs concerning presidential re-election candidate Ronald Reagan: “Oh No, We Don’t Want Reagan Anymore” and “Let’s Get Reagan Out.”
Handcox died of cancer Sept. 18, 1992. But his work lives on — striking Kroger workers reportedly sang “Roll the Union On” in 2003. In late 2004, West Virginia University Press released the CD “John L. Handcox: Songs, Poems and Stories of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union.”
• “Mean Things Happening In This Land”
• “The Planter & the Sharecropper”
• “Strike in Arkansas”
• “Roll the Union On”