The 1930s were a turbulent time for the South. A decade earlier, the boll weevil wrecked the cotton crops—a major part of the South's fragile economy. As prices for cotton and other agricultural goods fell, so did the farm workers' ability to earn a living wage. Tenant farming and sharecropping were common. The collapse of the stock market in 1929 and falling prices of farm products signaled a death knell for the "Old South."
People flocked to cities, hoping for steady wages as laborers in the textile mills. Though the industry had once been located mostly in northern states, by the mid 1930s southern mills produced more than 70 percent of cotton and woolen textiles. Dispossessed Southern farmers earned roughly 40 percent less than workers in the North. Many mills in the South were owned by northern corporations. As the economy slowed, mill owners cut employees' hours and decreased production, angering workers who were already living near the poverty line.
Some workers, enraged by reductions in wages, turned to a form of Marxism that embraced working-class emancipation. In the opening of The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx writes, "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles." Marxist theory addressed a wide range of social issues, including the alienation and exploitation of the workforce, capitalism, and materialism.
While the South wrestled with its economic challenges, it was also battling the devastating effects of racism. Racial segregation and discrimination were prevalent throughout the South. For example, blacks were not allowed to eat in the same restaurants, drink from the same water fountains, or attend the same schools with whites.
By the late 1930s, blacks began to protest against discrimination. President Roosevelt shepherded in a new era when he appointed Hugo Black—a U.S. Senator from Alabama and eventual proponent of racial equality—to the Supreme Court in 1937. As early as 1938, courts began to display a new attitude toward minority rights, and the seeds of the Civil Rights Movement were sown.
"The largest buildings in the town were the factories, which employed a large percentage of the population. These cotton mills were big and flourishing and most of the workers in the town were poor. Often in the faces along the streets there was the desperate look of hunger and of loneliness."
—Carson McCullers, from The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter