King Cotton in Modern America

King Cotton in Modern America: A Cultural, Political, and Economic History since 1945

D. Clayton Brown
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 432
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    King Cotton in Modern America
    Book Description:

    King Cotton in Modern America places the once kingly crop in historical perspective, showing how "cotton culture" was actually part of the larger culture of the United States despite many regarding its cultivation and sources as hopelessly backward. Leaders in the industry, acting through the National Cotton Council, organized the various and often conflicting segments to make the commodity a viable part of the greater American economy. The industry faced new challenges, particularly the rise of foreign competition in production and the increase of man-made fibers in the consumer market.Modernization and efficiency became key elements for cotton planters. The expansion of cotton- growing areas into the Far West after 1945 enabled American growers to compete in the world market. Internal dissension developed between the traditional cotton growing regions in the South and the new areas in the West, particularly over the USDA cotton allotment program. Mechanization had profound social and economic impacts. Through music and literature, and with special emphasis placed on the meaning of cotton to African Americans in the lore of Memphis's Beale Street, blues music, and African American migration off the land, author D. Clayton Brown carries cotton's story to the present.

    eISBN: 978-1-60473-799-8
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-2)
  4. PROLOGUE The Power of Cotton
    (pp. 3-7)

    During Thanksgiving weekend in 1989, television viewers saw the release of a new advertising campaign, “The Fabric of Our Lives,” which promoted cotton as a natural fabric. With music by the rock singer Richie Havens, the campaign with its catchy slogan appeared on NBC’sToday Show, ABC’sGood Morning America, andMacy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.¹ These soft-sell ads appealed to the preference for a naturally grown material rather than an artificial fiber like polyester. With its ease of wear, durability, and versatility for all seasons, cotton has long been the most popular fabric for clothing and household furnishings. Consumers admire...

    (pp. 8-30)

    In the closing months of World War II, the U.S. cotton industry was nervous about the future. It anticipated technological and scientific breakthroughs that would lead to higher production and more efficient farming, but it feared the loss of world markets and the rising popularity of synthetic fibers in the consumer market. These developments had national implications because not only did the 1.5 million growers across the Cotton Belt produce the country’s most important commercial crop, but cotton farming was the southern way of life.

    In 1945 the industry could not know the future, but it understood the past. It...

    (pp. 31-46)

    In 1945 the cotton industry had a new political dynamic based on the rejection of an order in which compliance and acceptance of existing practices were deemed insufficient. To restore prosperity to cotton farming, industry leaders knew that new rationales were needed, and they began with the insistence that poverty was not inherent in the cotton culture, that by infusing it with a renewed intellectual vigor and giving it consistent and sharply defined goals, practices and policies could be devised that would free farmers from hardship, sharecroppers from serfdom, and planters from fear of bankruptcy. This new energy and enthusiasm...

    (pp. 47-61)

    “The American Cotton Shippers Association appreciates the opportunity of participating in this meeting, whether it is an autopsy into the corpse of King Cotton, or will lead to a clear diagnosis of his ills.” his brutal statement succinctly described the atmosphere of the Cotton Conference, hosted by the Subcommittee of the House Committee on Agriculture. It occurred in December 1944, about two weeks before the German offensive on the western front, the Battle of the Bulge. No meeting of such magnitude had ever occurred on behalf of cotton. It brought together all segments of the industry from field to fabric,...

    (pp. 62-77)

    King Cotton remained weak and frail in 1945, but with a sense of vigilance its subjects intended to construct a new order to overcome cotton’s stigma as the national example of poverty. A cold realization had set in that with the failure of the Pace Committee to develop legislative proposals, the roadway for the rehabilitation of cotton had yet to be constructed. Industry leaders resolved to remake cotton into a modern and vibrant part of the global economy, and they realized that with much of the world ripped apart by war, the United States had to take a leadership role...

    (pp. 78-104)

    The South had long championed international trade, and the importance of cotton in the southern economy accounted for that attitude. Interests linked to growing and processing cotton depended on world commerce for their well-being, and like an axiom of mathematics, they stood against restraints on the flow of goods across borders. This faith in trade was driven by the demand for an abundant and low-cost spinning fiber in Britain and Europe that since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution had made cotton the principal export of the United States. The cotton industry had experienced a dramatic drop in overseas sales...

  10. CHAPTER 6 THE DINNER TABLE WAR Postwar Struggles
    (pp. 105-124)

    Restoring foreign trade accounted for only a portion of the endeavors to push cotton forward. Industry leaders knew the postwar era was unsettling and threatening to the status quo but realized that it provided opportunity for the imaginative and bold hearted, and that they had to act fast to keep cotton afloat in the swift currents of fashion and consumer tastes. To keep pace in this challenging environment, cotton would have to be lifted out of the quagmire of small-plot inefficiency, boll weevils, and reliance on mules. Among the immediate goals was an end to the discriminatory advantage enjoyed by...

  11. CHAPTER 7 THE SOUTH TRANSFORMED Cotton’s Mechanization, 1945–1970
    (pp. 125-146)

    “The Deep South is entering upon a process of change as dramatic, as rapid, and as profound as any of the major waves of the Industrial Revolution.” That prophetic statement, written in 1946, expressed the impact of cotton mechanization over the next twenty years. “The backward and poverty-stricken agriculture of the old Cotton Belt,” the author continued, “is likely to become efficient and moderately prosperous.” This anticipated advancement would, however, drive “millions of people … off the land, with results which will deeply affect the social structure of this nation, North as well as South.” Mechanization ended the remnants of...

  12. CHAPTER 8 THE WHITE GOLD RUSH Cotton Moves West
    (pp. 147-168)

    In the expansive climate that seized the United States at the end of World War II, the exuberance of the country shone in the rise of cotton farming in the West. From that point forward, cotton no longer confined itself to the land of magnolias and kudzu but reached to the mountain ranges of California’s Pacific shore. Youth and speed of movement characterized this extension of the cotton kingdom, and a new breed of growers met the challenges of the West, where wind and sand were abundant but water was scarce. New names appeared in the language of an old...

  13. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
    (pp. 169-189)

    In 1892 the Mexican boll weevil first appeared in the United States near Beeville, Texas, about one hundred miles above the Rio Grande border. This infamous beetle soon made its presence known by wiping out field after field of cotton in south Texas as farmers watched helplessly. It swept through east Texas and spread to the eastern seaboard, leaving ruin and devastation in its path. Named A.grandis, the weevil became the most dreaded insect pest of the South, riding the wind like one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. By 1921 it reached the Atlantic and threatened the...

  15. CHAPTER 10 MEMPHIS The Epicenter of the Cotton Belt
    (pp. 190-212)

    “Memphis is the cotton center of the world!” That statement, made in 1959 by Gerald Dearing, a columnist for the MemphisCommercial Appeal, expressed how the city on the Mississippi River served as the throne room of the cotton kingdom. No city depended more on the white gold that flowed into its warehouses and onto its wharves, and no city embraced cotton as did Memphis. The sweet aroma of cottonseed oil flowed through the air, and downtown lunch counters were packed with cotton classers whose trousers carried clinging puffs of lint. The city’s elite came from the cotton merchandising houses...

  16. CHAPTER 11 “THE FABRIC OF OUR LIVES” Cotton Incorporated
    (pp. 213-232)

    “By the 1960s, the age of the miracle fibers, polyester and synthetics had arrived in full force.” This statement by Morgan Nelson, a grower from New Mexico, explained the threat facing growers and why they organized Cotton Incorporated in 1970 and gave it a clear purpose: to raise cotton consumption. In 1970 Cotton Incorporated (CI) went into operation and quickly became the organization the public associated with cotton. It became the advertising arm of cotton and produced catchy commercials for national television, of which the “Fabric of Our Lives” campaign is the best known. The NCC had promoted consumption since...

  17. CHAPTER 12 THE TEXAS PLAINS America’s Cotton Patch
    (pp. 233-250)

    On the South Plains in Texas lies the most intensive cotton farming area of the world, the High Plains and Rolling Plains, which the inhabitants proudly call the “Cotton Patch.” King Cotton still reigns on the three million acres, where the cultivation of the royal plant continues to affect social and cultural outlook just as it drives the economy. Here is the most developed cotton infrastructure in the United States, which processes and handles 25 percent of the country’s crop each year. In the center sits Lubbock, the self-proclaimed “cottonest city in the world.” On this windswept plain survives a...

    (pp. 251-269)

    Subsidies for cotton began in 1933 as temporary assistance during the Depression but continued through the farm bill of 2007. The purpose for federal assistance was simple: to better enable growers to survive the economic pressures of farming and remain on the land. Maintaining the beloved family farm served as the justification for the support programs, and crops such as wheat, corn, sugar, and rice were also subsidized. Since their inception in the early New Deal, assistance programs for cotton have varied widely, but the essential ingredient, a guaranteed floor price, remained in effect. Through the years the machinations and...

  19. CHAPTER 14 CROP LIEN TO FUTURES Financing Cotton
    (pp. 270-289)

    The impressive body of Depression literature on southern agriculture focuses heavily on social injustice. Writers attributed the crushing poverty in the cotton-growing areas to a culture embedded with racism, narrow social attitudes and outrageous behavior, and outdated farming practices. A topic that frequently appeared in the literature was the system for financing farm operations known as the crop lien. This referred to the practice of creditors, sometimes known as “factors,” making loans to landowners who then lent money to their sharecroppers and tenants. Interest rates were reputedly unfair, but the most damaging feature was the creditors’ insistence that the loans...

    (pp. 290-310)

    Cotton farmers and textiles mills have a symbiotic relationship, each depending on the other for survival. Raw lint must be spun and woven into cloth, which makes the mill a critical destination in the chain of growing and processing cotton until it goes to the apparel industry. Breakthroughs in the technology of spinning and weaving in Britain had accounted for the growth of the cotton kingdom in the antebellum era, but after the Civil War, mills in the United States became the principal market. Farmers became highly suspicious of the mills, however, believing that along with merchants and shippers, textiles...

  21. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  22. CHAPTER 16 RESEARCH The Key to Viability
    (pp. 311-325)

    “We are in accord as to the necessity for scientific research.” When Oscar Johnston made that statement to the founders of the NCC in 1938, he knew that cotton would have to depend on science and technology to remain viable in the U.S. economy. At the end of World War II, USDA research expanded in nearly all areas of agriculture—livestock, fruits and vegetables, grains—and cotton benefited, too. The NCC’s division of technical services stepped up its promotion and coordination of scientific projects, and later Cotton Incorporated, created in 1970, opened its research center at Cary, North Carolina. During...

    (pp. 326-349)

    Although the cotton industry achieved many objectives, there always seemed to be another hurdle to overcome. As soon as one challenge had been resolved or made manageable, another took its place, some of which were refashioned versions of older difficulties or unanticipated new perils. Whatever the origin and nature of the threats, the collective power of cotton interests sought to defuse them or accommodate and incorporate them into their operations. In the 1970s, a challenge arose unlike anything encountered before, one that directly touched only one segment of the industry but had threatening ramifications for all. It was byssinosis, or...

    (pp. 350-371)

    A feature of American life since World War II, driving economic, military, and cultural behavior, was the expanding and interconnected world economy commonly called globalization. The links of international markets, the emergence of transnational corporations, and the flow of capital across borderless economies, all recognized as powerful forces in the lives of people, made the United States the leading world power. Cotton had been the first item of trade to advance globalization when after the American Civil War cotton wove “together the far-flung threads to create the warp and woof of a new global political economy,” according to one account.¹...

    (pp. 372-386)

    In 1988 when the Cotton Council celebrated its fiftieth anniversary, Albert Russell felt that the old connection of cotton with slavery, exploitation of sharecroppers, and general poverty had been eradicated. “Cotton was linked historically with slavery … and was associated in many people’s minds with keeping blacks in poverty,” but Russell felt that cotton had achieved a perception as a “contemporary and progressive industry.”¹ Nearly all the symbols and trappings of cotton farming so common a half century earlier—mules, walking plows, sharecroppers, shacks—had been replaced with machines, computerized systems, mega-gins, and slick advertising. No longer did the image...

  26. NOTES
    (pp. 387-422)
    (pp. 423-424)
    (pp. 425-428)
  29. INDEX
    (pp. 429-440)