The Deadly Pixley Cotton Strike
Last updated 8/28/2016 at 7:32pm | View PDF
As the amount of irrigated land in California increased in the early 1900s, so did the need for farm workers. The workers came, and unionization soon followed. Job actions became common and between 1933-1939 California had 180 strikes involving nearly 90,000 workers.
One of the strikes occurred in Tulare County, and in 1933 the little town of Pixley became ground zero for a bloody incident. Cotton was picked by hand in those days and the local cotton pickers, through the Cannery and Agricultural Workers Industrial Union, were pushing to get $1per hundred pounds of cotton picked. The growers were only willing to pay 60 cents, so on September 25th the farm workers left the fields.
The mood on both sides was tense as the worker's wages stopped and the growers watched their cotton crops go unpicked. On October 10th, hundreds of strikers gathered near the railroad depot in Pixley to listen to a speech by Pat Chambers, a well-known labor organizer and communist. His speech was motivating to the strikers, but to others it was inflammatory, even criminal.
During the speech, about 10 vehicles packed with armed ranchers arrived. At this point, what followed is open to different interpretations. According to some, after Chambers was finished he and the strikers walked across the street to their Union Hall, although Billy Thomas, one of the strikers, saw events differently. He said that when the cotton growers came into town, they drove their vehicles through the crowd and scattered those listening to the speech. He added, "... when the farmers stopped their automobiles, they got behind the cars and opened fire without warning."
The ranchers' version was that they left their vehicles and began walking toward the union hall without firing a shot. As they approached the front of the hall, shooting began and continued for about five minutes. When the smoke cleared, there were two strikers dead and more than a half dozen wounded, both strikers and farmers. On October 11th, the Visalia Times-Delta reported that the two dead were Delores Hernandez, 50, and Delfino D'Avila, 45.
Within a half hour of the battle, according to the Delta, "nearly every peace officer in the county was en route to Pixley." Sheriff Robert Hill arrived with his deputies, as well as constables from the area, California Highway Patrolmen and the Tulare County District Attorney, Walter C. Haight, and his deputies.
Authorities moved quickly and initially arrested five ranchers and charged them with murder. Eventually, more would be charged. Seventeen strikers were arrested for various violations including rioting and disturbing the peace. Everyone was taken to the Tulare County Jail in Visalia.
The next morning, 300-400 strikers gathered on the courthouse grounds in Visalia and for a few hours they listened to speakers denounce the ranchers and county officials. Authorities watched the group carefully, but no incidents occurred and the strikers left peacefully.
In early January 1934, the murder case made it to the Tulare County Superior Court. Judge Frank Lamberson presided as eight ranchers were on trial for the murder of Hernandez and D'Avila. The ranchers, defended by attorneys Dickson F. Maddox and James M. Burke, argued the ranchers went to Pixley at the request of the Tulare County Sheriff's Department to maintain order, which was consistent with statements made by Tulare County Deputy Sheriff Jack Hill.
The trial lasted about three-and-a-half weeks and on February 1st, the prosecution and the defense finished their arguments and the case went to the jury. Three hours later a verdict was reached. All eight ranchers were found not guilty of murder.