Book: 'Bill Clinton: An American Journey'

As C. Calvin Smith noted in his history of modern Arkansas, by the 1930s the state of Arkansas in the mind of most Americans had become synonymous with "watermelons, the unshaven Arkie, the moonshiner, slow trains, malnutrition, mental debility, hookworms, hogs, the big fat lie, shoelessness, illiteracy, windy politicians, and hillbillies with paddlefeet who could not pronounce correctly the name of their state." With Arkansas politicians indifferent or powerless to improve conditions in the worst areas of rural poverty, revolution had become a looming possibility. In January 1931, white Arkansas farmers made national radio news history by marching on England, a small town south of Little Rock, in a strange repeat of Wat Tyler's fourteenth-century peasants' revolt in old England. "When we get to town, we'll ask for food quiet-like," their organizer declared, "and if they don't give it to us, we'll take it, also quiet-like." Some on foot, some in buggies, some on horseback, the rest in rusting trucks, they made their way toward the banks that had failed them, in despair of being helped by the Red Cross, which was now refusing even to give out provisions. "Red Cross headquarters at St. Louis was called by phone and advised of the situation," the Arkansas Gazette reported as the men-more than half of them armed-shouted, "Our children are crying for food and we're going to get it!"

In fear of looting, England's local merchants handed out enough food for 1,500 white mouths, hoping the Red Cross would reimburse them. But the march became symbolic, nationwide-and a further nail in Herbert Hoover's approaching presidential coffin. Thanks in large measure to Hoover's successor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and his new administration, America survived the Depression, but the experience for Arkansans was grim. Roosevelt's revolutionary New Deal measures to help farmers proved of little immediate assistance to poorer folk in Arkansas. The administration's agricultural initiatives worked through grants to landowners, not tenants or sharecroppers-who were thus the last to benefit.

Rightly or wrongly, the Depression further cemented an image of poorly educated hillbillies clinging to outdated, pretractorized forms of agriculture and using obsessive, die-hard racism and hatred of the North as their calling cards. When one of Roosevelt's administration officials sought to speak at a meeting in Birdsong, Arkansas, in 1935, the Southern Tenant Farmers Union official who began the convocation with the words "Ladies and gentlemen" was interrupted by a group of riding bosses from nearby plantations, "There ain't no ladies in the audience," they shouted, "and there ain't no gentlemen on the platform. We don't need no Gawdamn Yankee bastard to tell us what to do with our niggers"-and they ran the Roosevelt official out of town.

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