King Cotton, Weevil Plague, and Exodus North

Boll weevil002
Bolls of cotton paid the passage of a half a million slaves to America.

As cotton depleted the soil of the original colonies, the President of the United States himself bowed to the cotton king when he signed the Indian Removal Act of 1830 to make way for new plantations in Alabama.

White cotton made southern states from Alabama to Louisiana, some of the wealthiest in the nation, and sent common men, most who never owned a slave, to bleed red in the Civil war.

The British traded armaments for Cotton, keeping mills spinning in England but extending the war and causing thousands more to die in battle.

After the war, captains of industry, North and South, businessmen, political leaders, and bankers pledged allegiance to king cotton. In unison, they turned their backs on Reconstruction in 1876 and restored their power.

In 1892, the Boll Weevil crossed into Texas and by 1920, it had travelled to Georgia, destroying 50% of cotton production across the South. In 1903, testifying before Congress, the USDA chief called the insect a wave of evil. What the cities of North could not accomplish in drawing blacks into the WWI industry, the boll weevil achieved, for share-cropping became a losing proposition with the loss of crop yield.

King Cotton took on the aura of Pharaoh. The book of Exodus tells how God sent successive plagues of lice, flies, and locusts to free the Israelites from slave bondage to the Egyptians. The weevil’s effect in the early 20th century was as a plague that economically emancipated African Americans from the bondage of cotton and sent them on their exodus North.

What happened to the once prosperous king cotton of the Deep South that had once driven America’s economy? With the loss of share-croppers, cotton yield, and the subsequent drop in land prices of 40% due to less productive crops, Mississippi went from being one of the richest states to being the poorest in the union. Most of the Deep South followed and did not recover for another 70 years.

Before the Weevil, Georgia produced 2.8 million bales of cotton. By 1923, production was down to 600,000 bales. By 1983, the output was 112,000 bales. Simultaneous to the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, new eradication programs were devised and tested at Mississippi State University. Once established by the 1980s, cotton came back. By 1995, 2 million bales were harvested, re-establishing Cotton’s domain.

Plantation owners had created their own reality. Having invested the majority of their wealth in slaves, they lost their equity in the future. Clinging desperately to the caste system they had devised, they lost their work force through the plague of the Boll Weevil. The South held staunch views through the late 20th century and is now recovering both socially and economically.

Descendants of plantation owners, modern cotton farm industrialists, receive 2 to 3 billion dollars in subsidies from the Federal government annually. 85% of subsidy dollars go to the largest 7% of cotton farms. In order to keep giving large plantations subsidies, The U.S. taxpayer now pays Brazil $150 million annually in WTO compensation.

At the end of Lincoln’s first inaugural address, he stated:

” I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory stretching from every battlefield and patriots’s grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land will yet swell the chorus of the union when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.’

He knew the grave situation confronting him and that each of us has the ability to seek out from our own divided nature the better path. This is the path that I envision when I write of “America’s Thriving Path Forward”, in which our better natures seek out solutions that affect all positively.

At the Civil War’s end, a choice could have been made to let the wounds breathe while healing them. Sharecropping could have been one of the solutions, given equitable sharing of profit. Freedom of movement by African Americans in the South could have allowed them to seek the highest value of their labor, thereby giving both their families and the South more value that would multiply with each generation. With such a start, the indignities suffered could have begun their healing in 1865.

Instead, the scarcity principle practiced in capitalism was exercised through terror to eke out maximum profit for plantation owners from ex slaves at the expense of continuing this overt caste system that pitted men’s lesser natures against each other.

In the end, all in the South suffered the choice of this lesser path, and all in our nation suffered for not insisting that we heal the injustice of slavery as quickly as possible. This was the legacy that carried forward into our inner cities and that has affected them to this day.

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