Something else that intrigued me recently, on the list of "true things that don't fit into the present paradigm," is the Southern Populist movement of the 1890s. This political revolution forged -- for a time -- a common cause between poor whites and blacks, just at the time when, most people are taught to believe, the South was celebrating its re-enslaving of the freedmen.
Not only that, the Populists, in their approach to blacks, steered clear of the patronizing approach of the radical Republicans and the noblesse oblige of the conservative Democrats.
But the most amazing fact is that the movement came right out of the depressed, deprived lower class of Southern whites -- the very crackers who are supposedly the most fanatic racists in the world. The movement, and the racial bridge, eventually failed, but the wonder of it is how far they all came before they did. And it gives the lie in a big way to the notion that Southerners are historically incapable of achieving racial harmony without Northern intervention.
Though the Populists had their share of two-faced politicians and race-baiters, the movement as a whole made a remarkable call for trans-racial solidarity, based on an equality of want and poverty, a common grievance and a common oppressor. "They are in the ditch just like we are," as a white Texas Populist put it. Tom Watson, the leading light of Southern Populism had the vision of "presenting a platform immensely beneficial to both races and injurious to neither," and "making it in the interest of both races to act together for the success of the platform." The success of the party overall hinged on black cooperation, and Watson promised blacks that, if they succeeded at the ballot box, the Populists would "wipe out the color line and put every man on his citizenship irrespective of color."
"You are made to hate each other," he said, addressing both races, "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 you both."
My interest is not in Watson's polemics or his party's assumptions about human nature. But rather in the success it had, as an indigenous Southern movement, in breaking down racial barriers and achieving some degree of equalitarianism. There was political pragmatism behind it, of course. The president of the first Populist convention in Texas said, "We have no disposition to ostracize the colored people. I am in favor of giving the colored man full representation. ... He is a citizen just as much as we are, and the party that acts on that fact will gain the colored vote of the South."
But the pragmatism led to sincere action. The convention cheered the Texas speaker's sentiments, and what's more it elected two blacks to the state executive committee of the party. Other Southern states followed the example. In terms of real integration, the Populists far outstripped the radical Republicans. Blacks were not shunted into figurehead appointments with nominal power. They operated in the inmost councils of the party. They served alongside whites in county, district, and state executive committees, campaign committees, and as delegates to national conventions. Black and white campaigners spoke from the same platform, to mixed-race audiences, and both had places on official party tickets. Populist sheriffs made sure blacks were represented on jury duty, and Populist newspaper editors praised the achievements of black citizens.
Watson, in Georgia, announced that it was the object of his party to "make lynch law odious to the people," and the 1896 Populist Party platform in the state contained a plank denouncing lynching. In the campaign four years earlier, a black Populist had made 63 speeches for Watson. He was threatened in one town and fled to Watson for protection. Watson called for aid, and some 2,000 white farmers showed up, some of them after riding all night, and remained on armed guard for two nights at his home to prevent violence to this man. Henry Demarest Lloyd wrote that the Southern Populists had given "negroes of the South a political fellowship which they have never obtained, not even from their saviors, the Republicans."
Sadly, in the end the surge of the Populists and the Farmer's Alliance helped push the South into Jim Crow. The conservative old guard, which had taken at least a paternalistic interest in blacks and protected them from the most fanatic racists since 1877, was thrown back on the defensive. To keep their grip on a power that was slipping away from them, the conservatives went overboard and turned to fraud, bribery, violence and terror to defeat the Populists. And as part of that, they raised the cry of "Negro domination" and white supremacy. The Populists protested, to no avail. "It is no excuse," a Virginia Populist newspaper wrote in 1893, "to say that these iniquities are practiced to 'preserve white civilization.' In the first place it was white men who were robbed of their votes, and white men who were defrauded out of office."
Because in the ultimate irony, the conservatives used the black vote to defeat the aspirations of the white lower class. The conservatives still dominated in the Black Belts, and they bought and intimidated some black voters, but mostly they just stuffed the ballot box, or counted up all the votes on their side, regardless of reality. In election after election, thumping majorities of black votes turned up for the party of white supremacy. In 1896, the conservatives carried only one-fifth of the parishes of Louisiana that had a white majority, but, as the New Orleans Times-Democrat cynically noted, the party of white supremacy was once again "saved by negro votes."
Seeing their votes stolen and the party stalled, black Populists grew apathetic. Seeing their party fail through failure of black votes, many white Populists decided the attempt at a black alliance had been a mistake. In some cases they turned their bitterness against the black race. And the white conservatives were on the one hand stuck with the devil's bargain they had made with racist fanatics, and on the other more interested in disfranchising the blacks to prevent their votes from defecting again. Their opponents, meanwhile, often found no harm in legally disfranchising blacks from votes that were only going to be stolen anyhow.
It was one more step in the slow stagger of America, and especially the Southern part of it, into the deplorable race relations that characterized the first half of the 20th century. But for a time, the two races surprised each other and astonished their opponents by cooperating with harmony and good will.
"[T]hings have not always been the same in the South," C. Vann Woodward wrote in 1955. "In a time when the Negroes formed a much larger proportion of the population than they did later, when slavery was a live memory in the minds of both races, and when the memory of the hardships and bitterness of Reconstruction was still fresh, the race policies accepted and pursued in the South were sometimes milder than they became later. The policies of proscription, segregation, and disfranchisement that are often described as the immutable 'folkways' of the South, impervious alike to legislative reform and armed intervention, are of a more recent origin. The effort to justify them as a consequence of Reconstruction and a necessity of the times is embarrassed by the fact that they did not originate in those times. And the belief that they are immutable and unchangeable is not supported by history."
It's yet another irony of the situation that some (most?) of the best studies of the evolution of race relations in the South 1865-1920 came out during the early days of the Civil Rights movement. They were written by Southern historians of liberal/progressive (lower-case "p") inclination, and the slant to them was exploding the myth that the South has always been (and always will be) a segregated, racist, white supremist culture. Since this was the rallying point of the die-hard segregationists, the historians pointed out that the position was not borne out by history.
Always a great introduction to the topic is C. Vann Woodward's "The Strange Career of Jim Crow," first edition 1955, which is still in print. Martin Luther King Jr. called it "The historical Bible of the civil rights movement."
Today, half a century later, the same material comes to bear on those who say federal/Northern pressure on the South is the only agent of positive social change in the region, and that the dinosaurs of the Civil Rights era must never relax their iron vigilance over matters like the Battle Flag, or else the South will revert to its natural, segregated, white supremist "folkways" path. The received wisdom is that Southern whites are incapable of lifting their benighted selves out of the crudest collective racism without the Better Angels of the North to guide them.
There seems to be truth in the maxim that if you fight something too long, you start to resemble it.
|©2002Douglas Harper||"When misunderstanding serves others as an advantage, one is helpless to make oneself understood." -Lionel Trilling|