THE POPULIST COALITION

In some southern states, the Populists made remarkable efforts to unite black and white small farmers on a common political and economic program. The obstacles to such an alliance were immense—not merely the heritage of racism and the political legacy of the Civil War, but the fact that many white Populists were landowning farmers while most blacks were tenants and agricultural laborers. Unwelcome in the southern branches of the Farmers’ Alliance, black farmers formed then own organization, the Colored Farmers’ Alliance. In 1891, it tried to organize a strike of cotton pickers on plantations in South Carolina, Arkansas, and Texas. The action was violently suppressed by local authorities and landowners, some of them sympathetic to the white Alliance but unwilling to pay higher wages to their own laborers.

In general, southern white Populists’ racial attitudes did not differ significantly from those of their non-Populist neighbors. Nonetheless, recognizing the need for allies to break the Democratic Party’s stranglehold on power in the South, some white Populists insisted that black and white farmers shared common grievances and could unite for common goals. Tom Watson, Georgia’s leading Populist, worked the hardest to forge a black-white alliance. “You are kept apart,” he told interracial audiences, “that you may be separately fleeced of your earnings.... This race antagonism perpetuates a monetary system which beggars both.” While many blacks refused to abandon the party of Lincoln, others were attracted by the Populist appeal. In 1894, a coalition of white Populists and black Republicans won control of North Carolina, bringing to the state a “second Reconstruction” complete with increased spending on public education and a revival of black officeholding. In most of the South, however, Democrats fended off the Populist challenge by resorting to the tactics they had used to retain power since the 1870s—mobilizing whites with warnings about “Negro supremacy,” intimidating black voters, and stuffing ballot boxes on election day.

In a cartoon from Tom Watson’s People’s Party Paper, February 25,1892, northern and southern Civil War veterans burp their past antagonism and unite in the Populist campaign.

The Populist movement also engaged the energies of thousands of reform-minded women from farm and labor backgrounds. Some, like Mary Elizabeth Lease, a former homesteader and one of the first female lawyers in Kansas, became prominent organizers, campaigners, and strategists. Lease was famous for her speeches urging farmers to “raise less corn and more hell” (although she apparently never actually uttered those exact words, which would have been considered inappropriate for a woman in public). “We fought England for our liberty,” Lease declared, “and put chains on four million blacks. We wiped out slavery and... began a system of white wage slavery worse than the first.” During the 1890s, referendums in Colorado and Idaho approved extending the vote to women, while in Kansas and California the proposal went down in defeat. Populists in all these states endorsed women’s suffrage.

Populist presidential candidate James Weaver received more than 1 million votes in 1892. The party carried five western states, with twenty-two electoral votes, and elected three governors and fifteen members of Congress. In his inaugural address in 1893, Lorenzo Lewelling, the new Populist governor of Kansas, anticipated a phrase made famous seventy years later by Martin Luther King Jr.: “I have a dream.... In the beautiful vision of a coming time I behold the abolition of poverty. A time is foreshadowed when... liberty, equality, and justice shall have permanent abiding places in the republic.”

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