Issue LXXXVI: Southern Populism and the Secret History of Segregation

15 Jan

Facing economic ruin and political isolation, the farmers of the American South sought to overthrow the existing political duopoly of the Democrats and the Republicans in the late 1800s. After the Civil War, the value of agricultural commodities bottomed out while crop loans from banks increased in value due to the deflationary policy of the Gold Standard. A call to action began in Lampasas, Texas with the formation of the Farmer’s Alliance. At first, they focused on self-education, newspapers, agitation, and formation of cooperatives to improve their lot. But soon they realized that neither the Democrats or Republican Party cared about them or their issues.

Politically, the Alliance faced a tremendous regional and racial divide. Northerners and Southern blacks were loyal to the Republicans, the party of Lincoln; the party of emancipation and free labor now run by and for major industrialists. Southern whites were loyal to the Democratic Party. To rebuild the Southern economy after the Civil War, the Democratic Southern elite promoted the South to northern capitalists in New York (also Democrats). The Bourbon Southern Democrats pitched the South to northern industrialists as a sort of domestic colony with no labor laws, no unions, and plenty of state government subsidies and tax breaks.

With the Democratic Party in the hands of the conservative, free market Bourbon faction in the North and South, farmers moved in an independent direction. The Greenback Party, the Grange, Union Labor Party, and the Farmer’s Alliance all came together to form the Populist Party. The People’s Party, founded in 1891, called their followers Populists. An unabashedly anti-corporate movement, they sought to fight the banks, railroads, and merchants. Economically, they opposed the deflation of the Gold Standard and instead move towards a fiat currency (such as we have now) by returning to the Greenback policy of the Civil War. A policy far ahead of its time, most academic economists then opposed what we now take for granted.

Unite or Perish

Quickly, the Southern Populists realized leaving the Democratic Party was not enough. The racial division of poor people led to political division which prevented the poor from succeeding at the ballot box. One Populist warned:

You are kept apart that you may be separately fleeced of your earnings. You are made to hate each other because upon that hatred is rested the keystone of the arch of financial despotism which enslaves you both. You are deceived and blinded that you may not see how this race antagonism perpetuates a monetary system which beggars both.” (1892)

On the ground, this famous warning of Tom Watson’s led to cooperation with the Colored Farmers’ Alliance and a pledge to focus on shared economic struggles over the prior divisions of the Civil War. Black Populists spread the gospel of the Farmer’s Alliance and began to vote for the Populist Party. In North Carolina, the white Populists formed a Fusion Party with the black Republicans and won control of the entire state government, overthrowing the Democrats in 1894. White Populists defended blacks from lynching threats from racist Democrats, riding horseback all night to protect their fellow party members from the Klan.

Nothing terrified the Southern elite more than a cross-racial alliance on class grounds. A horrific white supremacy campaign was launched by the Democrats throughout the South to convince all whites to vote their race not their class. In 1898, this peaked in the infamous coup and massacre in Wilmington, North Carolina (then the largest city in the state) where the Fusion Populist-Republican city government was overthrown by racist mobs incited by the major newspaper and the Democratic Party. The Wilmington Massacre was the death knell for the Populists. Soon after, every Southern state introduced Jim Crow segregation laws and disenfranchisement laws for black voters. But they also pushed poll taxes to prevent poor whites from voting either to prevent another Populist rebellion (in fact, Texas only had the poll tax officially for disenfranchisement).

And the Party of Lincoln and Emancipation? Why didn’t the Republican Party and North object to the complete destruction of the vision of Ulysses S. Grant and the Radical Republicans for the South? As Southern historian C. Van Woodward pointed out, the United States took possession of multiple non-white islands like Guam, Puerto Rico, and Hawaii in the 1890s. It was not convenient to let the natives vote as they probably would object to American imperialist policy. So the federal government took the lead from Mississippi and agreed that voting was best left to the white man.

In our current year of 2021, do not let anyone think that racism, mobs, coups, and voter disenfranchisement have nothing to do with big business or imperialist foreign policy. In fact, it is the latter that causes the former. Only a new Populist vision and strategy can heal the racial, regional, and economic divides created by our modern Bourbon Democrats and big business Republicans…… after their defeat.

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