Other Views of Nate Shaw

Other Views of Nate Shaw


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His father had been a slave and had been emotionally crippled by it. He took out

his frustration on his family, often beating his wife and children. When he was old

enough, Cobb started to farm on his own. He worked as a sharecropper and eventually

became a tenant farmer. A hard worker with a deep knowledge of crops and animals,

Cobb managed to escape the financial traps set for him by local whites.


All God’s Dangers

The Life of Nate Shaw

By Theodore Rosengarten

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Biography of Ned Cobb


By Richard Wormser


Ned Cobb was a tenant farmer living in Tallapoosa County, Alabama, who joined the Sharecroppers Union in 1931 to fight for justice for black people and against exploitation by white landowners. He had been fairly successful as a farmer, an extraordinary achievement for a black man in rural Alabama. In a series of interviews in 1969 conducted by Theodore Rosengarten, a Harvard scholar, Cobb told the remarkable story of his life. 

Rosengarten’s book, All God’s Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw detailed many of Cobb’s life experiences. (“Nate Shaw” was a pseudonym for Cobb.)

His father had been a slave and had been emotionally crippled by it. He took out his frustration on his family, often beating his wife and children. When he was old enough, Cobb started to farm on his own. He worked as a sharecropper and eventually became a tenant farmer. A hard worker with a deep knowledge of crops and animals, Cobb managed to escape the financial traps set for him by local whites. They extended credit to him, hoping he would fail so they could then claim all his possessions and force him to work for them. Cobb stayed out of their debt, as he managed to avoid being destroyed by natural disasters such as the boll weevil epidemic and the collapse of cotton prices. 

“All God’s dangers,” he said, “ain’t white men.”

In 1931, Cobb was profoundly impressed by the arrival of the Communist Party in the cotton fields of Alabama. He was aware that the party was defending the Scottsboro Boys, nine black youths who had been falsely charged with raping two white women. Cobb saw the Communists as the heirs to the abolitionists who came South during the Civil War and Reconstruction to finish the job their predecessors had started. He joined the party’s union, the Sharecroppers Union, and distributed leaflets and literature and recruited new members. In 1952, when a sheriff tried to foreclose on a friend’s home and livestock, Cobb defended his friend and became involved in a shootout. Wounded, Cobb was arrested. Offered the opportunity of a lighter sentence if he cooperated with the court and named fellow union members, Cobb refused and was sent to jail for 13 years. He lived long enough to see the triumph of the civil-rights movement.

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Biography: Ned Cobb (1885-1973)By Rod Cameron

Born in 1885, Ned Cobb was a tenant farmer in Alabama in the early 1900s. As a cotton farmer, Cobb fought against unfair treatment of tenant farmers by forming a tenant farmers union. According to James R. Grossman, in the opening decades of the twentieth century Cobb clawed his way up the ladder from wage laborer to sharecropper, cash renter, and finally owner. 

Grossman explains that often the value of the land farmed by farmers in Alabama at the time was less than the value of the crops grown on it. In Cobb’s case, the crop was cotton. So when farmers had to borrow money to pay for expenses, bankers or merchants loaned money based on the value of the crop rather than the land.

So once the crop was sold after harvest, bankers and merchants took payment out of the cash produced by the crop. 

As a result, farmers were often forced to grow cash crops on all their land rather than use part of it to grow food for their own families. This forced them to go back to the same merchants to borrow more just to feed their families. The resulting cycle made it nearly impossible to ever rise above the poverty level.

Cobb’s struggles are portrayed in the poem “In Egypt Land” by John Beecher and in the book All God’s Dangers by Theodore Rosengarten.

Cobb, whose real name is Nate Shaw, was the son of slaves himself and struggled throughout his life to gain independence. Rosengarten, whose book is based upon 1500 pages of oral history as told by Shaw, reveals Shaw in the1930s, joining a sharecroppers union and coming to the aid of a neighbor whose land is about to be possessed by deputies. After exchanging shots with the sheriff, Shaw was sent to spend twelve years in prison. Upon his release in 1945, Shaw was almost sixty.


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In Egypt Land

                                             By John Beecher

“You” Cliff James said “nor the High Sheriff” nor all his deputies is gonna git them mules. The head deputy put the writ of     attachment back in his inside     pocket then his hand went to the butt of his     pistol but he didn’t pull it. “I’m going to get the High Sheriff     and help” he said “and come back and kill you all     in a pile.”

Cliff James and Ned Cobb watched the     deputy whirl the car around and speed down the rough mud road. He took the turn skidding and was gone. “He’ll be back in an hour, ” Cliff     James said If’n he don’t wreck hisself.” “Where you fixin’ to go?” Ned Cobb     asked him. ‘I’s fixin’ to stay right where I is.” I’ll go git the others then.” “No need of ever-body gittin’ kilt” than perishin’ slow like we been a’doin”‘ and Ned Cobb was gone.

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John Beecher (1904-1980)

In 1934, Beecher was asked to study sharecroppers’ organizations. He published his findings in Social Forces, a respected journal of sociology. But what he’d seen and heard of Alabama sharecroppers during his research propelled him into a more direct engagement with the defiances he witnessed. He began a long narrative poem about two ignored American patriots, Cliff James and Ned Cobb, who fought and suffered trying to build a tenant farmers’ union. Their heroics brought out the best in Beecher. The resulting epic, “In Egypt Land,” is an evocative tribute to two men, who happened to be black, who refused to behave with the submissiveness demanded of them as black tenant farmers. His poem, like their defiance, was out of kilter with the times. Polite circles, even liberal ones, did not want to hear of blacks taking command of their own destinies, of their using guns, of their asserting a sense of self not beholden to whites.

For years the poem’s only notice were the rejection slips sent to Beecher. He fumed at being spurned, wondering aloud about “gutless publishers” in sometimes petulant terms. Other poems he was writing at the time weren’t being published either. “In Egypt Land” and other poems of the South’s people before the second world war were eventually printed by Beecher himself in a volume; titled To Live and Die in Dixie. (Not until 1974 did a “‘regular” publication Southern Exposure print “In Egypt Land,” and the magazine’s editors endeared themselves to Beecher forever.) 

On the other hand, Beecher’s irascibility came out most clearly after the publication of All God’s Dangers, an oral history of the life of Ned Cobb. The author’s note in the first edition of the book contained a reference to Beecher’s pioneering in the struggle 40 years before, but mentioned neither “In Egypt Land” nor the Social Forces article. Beecher, who had in fact introduced Ted Rosengarten to Cobb’s story, was furious. The paperback reprinting of All God’s Dangers after the book received national acclaim fully acknowledged the author’s debt to Beecher and to “In Egypt Land.”

By the completion of “In Egypt Land” in 1940, Beecher had left Chapel Hill to run a succession of New Deal agencies. He administered relief in North Carolina. He supervised a study of cotton tenancy in the Mississippi Delta, then surveyed farm labor conditions in the Southeast. He helped resettle farm families, and managed a resettlement project himself for three years. He opened resettlement camps in the Florida Everglades before abruptly quitting government employ to write editorials for a Birmingham newspaper, and then report news for the New York Post.

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posted 2 November 2007




Home Books N Review

Related files:  All God’s Dangers Preface   “All God’s Dangers Ain’t White Men.”  Crane’s Ford and the Sharecroppers Union (SCU)

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