Agrarian-Industrial Revolt

Against the Current, No. 137, November/December 2008

Jim Toweill

Greenbackers, Knights of Labor and Populists: Farmer-Labor Insurgency in the Late-Nineteenth-Century South
by Matthew Hild
University of Georgia Press, 2007 344 pages, $42.50 hardcover.

REFORMERS AND RADICALS in the post-reconstruction South faced a daunting set of circumstances. Many of these are well known: In the former confederacy, Black laborers were eventually shut out of the electoral process via disfranchisement, terrorized by legislation, a lien system not dissimilar to slavery, and rampant violence. The convict-lease system put the state, via farmers’ prisoners (largely Black men), in conflict with free labor that might be organized. Prospects for organizing biracial resistance were slim as the color line was diligently policed by force and ideology.

The Bourbon Democrats maintained illiteracy and ignorance with their reluctance to fund public schools, disproportionately affecting African Americans and poor whites. These Democrats, who faced no deeply entrenched opposition in most Southern states, were often able to co-opt the demands of dissident agrarian and labor organizations. As the region rapidly industrialized, migrations were frequent, limiting the stability of collective power, and the paternalistic ideas that had helped maintain the legitimacy of the antebellum planters bled into urban factories.

Another widely held assumption is that because the South remained largely rural well into the 20th century, the interests of the much larger agrarian population were often incompatible with the burgeioning proletariat, even in times of unrest. Matthew Hild’s Greenbackers, Knights of Labor and Populists: Farmer-Labor Insurgency in the Late Nineteenth-Century South questions this.

Hild intends to show that the Populist revolt in the South was not merely an agrarian movement, but the result of years of concerted farmer-labor activity. Challenging assumptions about the disorganization and docility of southern popular movements, Hild traces the development of and collaboration between cooperative organizations and the three major third party efforts of the 19th century.

Beginning with the Granger movement in the late 1870s, small landowners, tenant farmers and rural wage laborers developed successive waves of agrarian cooperative organizations to provide protection from industrial monopolies, speculators and railroad barons. Most also demanded reform of the nation’s monetary policy, which they felt contributed to the lack of currency and credit allotted to the South.

These movements, most notably the Southern Farmers’ Alliance, gradually but inconsistently developed more progressive positions and eventually broke with the Democrats. Throughout the last quarter of the 19th century, they fueled third-party dissent in the forms of the Greenback-Labor party, The Union Labor Party and eventually The People’s, or Populist Party. Third-party gains were especially heavy in Arkansas, Texas and Alabama, where the farmers’ organizations were well developed, the Republicans virtually non-existent, and the state Democrats less efficiently ruthless than in Louisiana or South Carolina.

Yet as Hild takes pains to point out, third-party success in these states, along with parts of Georgia and North Carolina, had another common denominator – they were also strongholds for the Knights of Labor. Even though the Knights officially eschewed political affiliation during their most prominent years, they were crucial to the success of independent politics and biracial farmer-labor resistance in the south.

The Knights organized and led strikes of industrial and agricultural workers, male and female, white and non-white. In the South, Knights’ assemblies were usually segregated, but they did help provide Black workers with platforms for collective political action through strikes and third-party support.  Organizations like the Alliance and the Agricultural Wheel (which later merged) expressed support for Knights-led strikes, like the Southwest Railroad strike of 1885, which forced the infamous Jay Gould to make concessions. Eventually, in 1889, the Knights and the Alliance pledged to “act in concert before congress,” sharing an electoral strategy.

The coordinated efforts of the Alliance and the Knights helped create a base of support for the Populists in the South, and succeeded in winning a number of state and local races. Unfortunately they were declining just as the party began its presidential runs, and mass third-party support seemed to fade with them. As successors like the AFL entirely denounced such broad, third-party politics, this marked the end of organized farmer-labor collaboration in the South for some time – and with the end of the Knights, biracial organizing as well.

Limits of Political History

Hild is very successful at profiling the complex and overlapping series of organizations and campaigns that constituted the “largest electoral revolt in American history.” He’s also extremely keen in showing how the failure of biracial organizing, which was largely due to violence and fraud, doomed that revolt.

This book is almost exclusively a political and organizational history, however, which greatly limits its audience as well as the usefulness of its conclusions.

We’re provided with a litany of campaigns, elections, assemblies, and conventions. Candidates and leaders like Terence Powderly, Isaac McCracken and Tom Watson are covered thoroughly, but Hild generally refuses to include any of the more colorful rhetoric – campaign slogans, debates, the newspaper as verbal battlefield. Of course this information has been covered in broader histories of the period, but some of it might have been useful to show that this was an insurgency, with all the indignant energy that word implies, and not just a series of agreements between gentlemen.

Such a circumscribed view of the era leaves little room for the lives of laborers except as a generalized mass of voters or members of this or that local assembly. Early in the book Hild mentions that significant interpersonal connections between agrarian and industrial laborers in the South helped make cross-occupational organization possible, but doesn’t pursue these rank-and-file connections at any length.

 One wonders how agricultural and industrial workers perceived one another apart from the interests of their bosses or leaders. And although it seems particularly obvious why an organization like the Farmers’ Alliance, which included landowners who bought labor as a commodity, might not be uniformly supportive of wage increases and the improvement of working conditions, Hild’s account seems to under-emphasize contradictions between the farmers’ organizations and the Knights. He does admit that the latter “seemed more in tune with the interests of renters, sharecroppers and farmhands.”

Hild proves beyond a doubt that there was remarkable consistency between platforms of the Knights, the Alliances and those of the third parties. Other than this, he provides little in the way of ideological analysis, although occasionally he addresses issues like the “gendered racial rhetoric” that circulated around the supposed need to protect the purity of white women from Black men.

Why address this and let it drop without analyzing its impact on the movement? Given that racial ideology helped prevent the unification of the Northern and Southern Farmers’ Alliances, and was a key point of conflict between the Knights and the Southern Alliance, Hild might have considered it at greater length.

The book is very selective in showing how national political, social and economic trends or events linked up with farmer-labor resistance. Hild analyzes the effects of the Southwest Railroad, Homestead and Pullman strikes on the movement, and rightfully so, but glosses over the impact of the 1873 depression, the mass migrations of laborers to the North and West, the heavily fluctuating demand for cotton and other crops and the impact of rapid industrialization.

Perhaps Hild chose to leave out these phenomena so as not to replicate earlier scholarship, but this makes for a specialized and constricted history that assumes the reader has a familiarity with the period.

A thesis that Hild doesn’t advance, but begins to seem plausible by the end of this book, is that the failure of Populism in the South had something to do with the fleeting and tenuous nature of farmer-labor collaboration in the first place.

For those already invested in studying the era, Greenbackers, Knights of Labor and Populists offers a new, if somewhat limited, perspective. This isn’t, however, the place to start. Melton McLaurin’s The Knights of Labor in the South, Gene Clanton’s Populism, and Edward Ayers’ The Promise of a New South provide better introductions.

ATC 137, November-December 2008