The Drought And The Dole

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H. C. Coney worked forty-one acres of cotton land near the town of England—appropriate name—in Lonoke County. He was forty-six years old, married, and the father of five sons; tuberculosis in his boyhood had partially crippled him. All his life he had been a renter. “I have tried to get able to buy me a home,” he later related, “but about the time I thought I was about to reach the goal, along came 1930 and buried me alive.” Coney had been hit hard by the drought, but he was better off than some: at least his family was not starving.

Then, on January 3, a Saturday, a woman neighbor came to his place and told him that her children hadn’t eaten for two days. She was crying. As Coney put it, something went up in his head. He asked her to wait while he and his wife drove over in his truck to the Red Cross depot. He found a crowd of men already gathered there. They were pleading with the Red Cross agent, who refused to give them food because his supply of application blanks for relief had run out. Others, men who had been relatively prosperous until the disaster of the summer, were being turned away because they were too warmly dressed; the Red Cross was obsessed with the fear of “impostors.”

Coney shouted to them to climb on: they would get food in England if they had to take it. Forty-odd men accompanied him, clinging to his old truck as it puttered, a little more sullenly than usual, toward the main street. Newspaper accounts alleged that some were carrying guns. Though Coney and other eyewitnesses later denied it—and the spontaneous character of the demonstration would seem to make the possibility unlikely—the guns were the detail that stuck in people’s minds. Were things really this bad? Was somebody hiding the truth?

Coney and his small party first sought out the mayor and the police chief. By this time a sizable crowd had collected, and it soon became apparent that there were many others desperate for food. A local lawyer named George Morris tried to calm the gathering. He was interrupted by shouts: “We are not going to let our children starve.” “We want food and we want it now.” Meanwhile merchants made panicky calls to Red Cross regional offices in Little Rock and St. Louis. The St. Louis authorities suggested that they issue $2.75 worth of food for each family but hedged about reimbursement: food orders could not be approved unless they were made on the regulation application blanks. The Red Cross promised to rush a fresh supply. The England merchants, many of whom were broke themselves, finally decided that it was better to distribute free food than to risk being looted. By late evening, from three to five hundred persons had been provided with food. As Morris said, “These men and women who came here today just simply got hungry, that’s all. Why, one man told me they were impostors, but when I saw those women standing before me, crying openly and begging food for their children, they can’t tell me they are impostors.”

There had been “bread riots” in the cities before this, but they could be, and usually were (with good reason) dismissed as Communist publicity stunts. But H. C. Coney and his kind could not be branded with any of the customary epithets of political opprobrium—though some of Hoover’s well-intentioned supporters tried to do so. Here were white, American-born farmers, not foreign Reds from a ghetto, behaving like revolutionaries. “Paul Revere just woke up Concord, these birds woke up America,” Will Rogers wrote in his boxed “letter” syndicated to newspapers from coast to coast. He went on to warn: ”… you let this country get hungry and they are going to eat, no matter what happens to Budgets, Income Taxes or Wall Street values. Washington mustn’t forget who rules when it comes to a show down.”

But Washington gave every sign of having forgotten. The President refused to believe what had happened in England, terming it in his Memoirs an “alleged riot by ‘starving people.’ … When I sent my military aide, Colonel Hodges, to investigate the ‘riot’ [which Hoover placed in February], he found that it was a fake.” The demonstration hadn’t been a riot, of course, but Hoover had missed the point. In fairness to him, however, it should be pointed out that the drought had not produced a famine comparable to the Russian one in the early i92o’s, when his relief efforts (largely depending on federally appropriated money) had saved an estimated ten million lives. Perhaps that memory clouded his view. It was one of those needless ironies of history that Herbert Hoover, the man who had gained his fame by feeding the hungry of the world, should have been undone by his apparent insensitivity to starvation at home.