Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Not-So-Plain-Folk

The following is a guest post from Fred C. Smith, author of Trouble in Goshen: Plain Folk, Roosevelt, Jesus, and Marx in the Great Depression South. This book chronicles three communitarian experiments, both the administrative details and the struggles and reactions of the clients. Smith covers the Tupelo Homesteads in Mississippi, the Dyess Colony in Arkansas, and the Delta Cooperative Farm, also in Mississippi.


Below Smith outlines one of the (not so) plain folk characters he encountered during his research Delta Cooperative Farm, a product of the active cooperation between the Socialist Party of America and a cadre of liberal churchmen led by Reinhold Niebuhr. The Delta Co-op  attempted to meld the pieties, passions, propaganda, and theories of Jesus and Marx. A. James McDonald captured Smith’s attention to the point his curiosity outran the available research materials. 

Trouble in Goshen: Plain Folk, Roosevelt, Jesus, and Marx in the Great Depression South is now available

A. James McDonald’s letter of introduction to William R. Amberson of Delta Cooperative Farm must have seemed to be an answer to somebody’s prayer. It would take a while to discern just on which side A. James Macdonald—Mac to the cooperators and bosses at Delta Cooperative Farm—would lend his sentiments and considerable skills. 

Two distinct views co-created Delta Cooperative Farm.  The first view, held by the liberal Christian bunch led by Reinhold Niebuhr endeavored to “exemplify the return of Christianity to its prophetic mission of identification with the dispossessed.”  The second bunch were socialists affiliated with the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union, and thus, with the Socialist Party of America, wanted to “take over all the damn plantations” and make cooperative farms of them.

A.  James McDonald brought with him business, literary, transcription, and legal skills.  Of course his status as an “on the run Louisiana lawyer” may have somewhat limited his effectiveness.  Nevertheless, Mac wrote a letter of introduction to William Amberson and told Amberson that he might be of use at Delta Cooperative Farm because of his experience as a member of the Llano Louisiana Colony.  There are more interesting hints about the Llano Colony in Trouble in Goshen, but that is one of the things I would like to know more about.  At any rate, Mac “threw in” with the socialist bunch and his work with the cooperators and his socialist agitation made him somewhat unattractive—even odious to Sam Franklin and the liberal/Christian wing at Delta Cooperative Farm.

All I know about Mac is what I have learned from his extensive correspondence with William Amberson (a most interesting not-so-plain-folk in his own right) and from the papers of the Delta Cooperative Farm and the Socialist Party of America.  Mac spoke little of the actual operations of Llano, but he became the office manager at Delta, wrote pieces for the Daily Call, and served as a sort of unofficial legal advisor for the colony.  He was “waiting on the disposition of his case,” he told Amberson in explaining why he was not more gainfully employed and his presence at Delta facilitated a near cooperator rebellion.

I would like to know what happened to Mac after the Delta Cooperative Farm was sold.  What was the “disposition” of his case, and the larger question, what was the nature of his case?  A. James McDonald was a lawyer and thus technically not a member of the plain folk.  Somehow, I suspect he was born one.

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