Joe Pullen: The Toughest Brother you Never Heard of

There are no known pictures of Joe Pullen Arthur Rothstein, Evicted sharecroppers along Highway 60, New Madrid County, Missouri, January 1939. FSA-OWI Collection, Library of Congress, LC-USF33- 002926-M3.
There are no known pictures of Joe Pullen
Arthur Rothstein, Evicted sharecroppers along Highway 60, New Madrid County, Missouri, January 1939. FSA-OWI Collection, Library of Congress, LC-USF33- 002926-M3.

Once there was a brother named Joe Pullen. He was a sharecropper from the Delta town of Drew Mississippi.

He’d lived 40 years of trouble; navigating the black codes and trying to make a living while his landlord tried his damnedest to rob him blind. Then one day he decided that he wasn’t going to take it anymore.

That day he killed at least three men, wounded many more, and made Black folks hold their heads higher for generations to come.

It was December 14, 1923 when Joe became a hero.

The incident was sparked by a dispute between Joe and his landlord W.T. Saunders. Saunders claimed that Joe owed him $50, and he’d showed up with another man, J.D. Manning, to collect his debt.

At that time, Landlords were known for demanding extra money from the farmers who worked their land. They preyed upon the poor education of the farmers and the knowledge that Blacks couldn’t get a fair day in court, and took as much as they could.

Sharecropper on Sunday, Little Rock AK. 1936
Sharecropper on Sunday, Little Rock AK. 1936

These incidents were especially common in December at settlement time. That is when the landlords paid the tenants for their crops.

It’s said that Pullen was sullen that day. He stood with his hands in his pockets, a sure sign of disrespect in the Jim Crow South.  It is known that Saunders carried a rifle with him. But what Saunders didn’t know, when he demanded that Pullen take his hands out of his pockets, is that Joe Pullen had a 38 revolver in his hand.

Fannie Lou Hamer, sharecropper turned civil rights leader, was eight years old when Pullen was killed.
Fannie Lou Hamer, sharecropper turned civil rights leader, was eight years old when Pullen was killed.

Civil Rights leader, Fannie Lou Hamer, was eight years old at the time.

She said that Pullum (her words) had already done a lot of work for Saunders that he had never been paid for. So, when Saunders gave him $150 to find people to work on his plantation, Pullen kept it as back pay, using it to make repairs to his house and buy supplies. It was only a matter of time before Saunders realized that Pullen hadn’t brought anyone to work the plantation.

Saunders shot with his rifle, but Pullen managed to shoot him down with his hidden 38.

After the Shooting, Pullen stopped at his mother’s house to get as much ammunition and weapons as he could. Then he waited quietly in either a ditch, or a hollowed out, rotten tree, (the story varies) for the lynch mob which, according to recent scholarship, number close to 1,000 men.

Reports of how many of them Pullen killed, vary. According to Akinyele Omowale Umoja in We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement, Pullen killed nine men in that ambush, and wounded nine others in the gun battle that followed. (Fannie Lou Hamer recalled that he killed 13 and wounded 26 more.)

The gun battle ended when reinforcements came from neighboring Coahoma County, armed with a machine gun.  They flooded the area with gasoline, and shot him down as he ran from the fire.

Afterwards they held up his shotgun as a battle trophy, and dragged his body through the town behind a car as an example to the Black community. They even cut off his ear, preserving it in a jar on display in a Drew Mississippi storefront for years.

His murder had the opposite effect. It didn’t intimidate the Blacks in Drew. It galvanized them.

That January, Marcus Garvey’s newspaper, UNIA’s Negro World, reprinted an article demanding a monument to Joe Pullen, calling his standoff, “…one of the most remarkable fights that has ever been recorded in this southern country of ours.”

“… it was awhile in Mississippi before the whites tried something like that again.” said Hamer.

It had previously been decided that the only way to fight lynchings was by meeting force with force. Joe Pullen became the perfect symbol for that struggle. For Black gun owners who relied on their guns as the only shield between themselves and the lynch mob, Joe Pullen became a symbol of defiance.

 

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