In January 1939, motorists on highways in the “Bootheel” of southeastern Missouri began reporting a strange sight: thousands of sharecropper families were camped out on the roadside, their meager possessions piled around them, exposed to the wintry cold.

The families, almost all African-American, had been evicted by the owners of the farms where they had lived. Because sharecroppers were entitled to a portion of the harvest of the fields they worked, the government had recently announced they were also entitled to a direct portion of federal farm subsidies — a distasteful arrangement for the landowners, who had decided they would rather keep the full subsidies and hire day laborers to bring in their crops.

Within hours of their appearance on the roadside, word began to spread through St. Louis and beyond of the pitiful people on the Bootheel highways, desperate for relief, with nowhere to go.

But the encampments, despite their appearance of ramshackle spontaneity, were the result of months of canny organizing.

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