Legal Landscapes, Migrant Labor, and Rural Social Safety Nets in Michigan, 1942-1971
57 Pages Posted: 13 Nov 2020 Last revised: 22 Dec 2020
Date Written: May 25, 2020
In the 1960s, farmers pressed trespass charges against aid workers providing assistance to agricultural laborers living on the farmers’ private property. Some of the first court decisions to address these types of trespass, such as the well-known and frequently taught State v. Shack (1971), limited the property rights of farmers and enabled aid workers to enter camps where migrants lived. Yet there was a world before Shack, a world in which farmers welcomed onto their land rural religious groups, staffed largely by women from the local community, who provided services to migrant workers. This article uses Michigan as a case study to examine the informal safety net those rural women created and how it ultimately strengthened the very economic and legal structures that left agricultural workers vulnerable. From the 1940s through the 1960s, federal, state, and local law left large gaps in labor protections and government services for migrant agricultural laborers in Michigan. In response, church women created rural safety nets that mobilized local generosity and provided aid. These informal safety nets also policed migrant morality, maintained rural segregation, and performed surveillance of community outsiders, thereby serving the farmers’ goals of having a reliable and cheap labor force.
Keywords: Property, Trespass, Safety Nets, Rural, Migrant Labor, Gender, Religion
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