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Populism and Race: Separate and Unequal

By Charles Postel, San Francisco State University

The People's Party confronted a racial and sectional dilemma. The traumas of the Civil War, the Reconstruction experiments in bi-racial government in the former Confederate states, and the violent destruction of those experiments were fresh in memory. In the South, most white voters supported the Democratic Party of white supremacy, while most black voters had little choice but to vote for a Democratic candidate or a weak Republican opposition. The Populists had to parlay Democratic charges that the third party represented treason to the white race. In much of the Midwest and West, farmers voted for Republicans, and the Populists had to grapple with Republican accusations that they were a stalking horse for the Democratic Party of secession.

A common misunderstanding is that Populism responded to these challenges by efforts to unite poor black and white farmers in a common cause. But the reality was more complex. The Farmers' Alliance provided the foundation for the People's Party, and enforcing segregation was a reform backed by the Alliance movement. Charles Macune and the other leaders of the Farmers' Alliance argued that a whites only clause was an essential feature of a modern business organization. And as the Alliance expanded north and west it made segregation a principle of farm organization. At the same time, the Farmers' Alliance and the People's Party appealed for reconciliation between the former Confederate and Union states on the basis of a common nationalism, including support for white supremacy and Chinese exclusion.

In the South, the Farmers' Alliance mobilized to push legislators in several Southern states to adopt Jim Crow laws segregating railroads and other public accommodations. The Colored Farmers' Alliance was tolerated by the white Farmers' Alliance, but only within the framework of strict segregation and inequality. That tolerance evaporated, however, when in the summer of 1891 black cotton pickers attempted to go on strike against white farm owners.

In the South, most of the leadership and membership of the People's Party had come out of the Democratic Party. No less than the Democrats the white Populists promised to abide by the white supremacist ideal that “this is a white man's country.” At the same time, as black men continued to vote into the 1890s, both Democrats and Populists competed for African American votes. Both white Democrats and white Populists made election promises to African Americans of economic opportunity and other reforms. Black Populists, such as John B. Rayner of Texas, saw this as an opportunity to press for increased school funding for black children, placing blacks on juries, and other rights.

The emergence of Populism had split the white vote, opening up a limited space for African Americans political mobilization. This was especially the case in North Carolina, where mainly black Republicans made a political alliance with white Populists to turn out the Democrats from state offices. This was a unique defeat for the Democratic Party in the post-Reconstruction South. In 1898, the Democrats mounted a violent “white supremacy campaign” that destroyed the Republican-Populist alliance. In the aftermath, white Democrats, most often with the support of white Populists, disfranchised black voters across the South by way of poll taxes, literacy tests, and whites-only primaries.

Finally, what of Populist attitudes towards Catholics, Jews, and other religious minorities? Most Populists were born in the United States, spoke English, and read the Protestant Bible. Many of them supported prohibition of alcoholic beverages, a measure favored by many Protestants but opposed by many Irish, German, and other Catholic groups. The People's Party tried to avoid the pitfalls of such ethnic divisions. Despite the personal preferences of most of its members, it refused to endorse prohibition laws so as to not alienate Catholic voters.

In the main, the Populists had a similarly open policy towards the Jews as well. But there were exceptions. Populist literature, for example, occasionally employed the anti-Semitic stereotype of Shylock to stand in for the greedy banker. Of course, such stereotypes were widely employed in the United States during those years, and the academic and corporate elite often embraced a more virulent strand of anti-Semitism. As for the Populists, in all but rare cases their references to Shylock were metaphorical and did not address actual Jews. Whereas they demanded segregated train cars for African Americans and the enforcement of exclusion laws against Chinese immigrants, the Populists sought no similar measures against the Jewish population. Indeed, generosity towards religious and ethnic minorities – at least those deemed to be white – was more often than not a hallmark of Populist nationalism.

© 2009 Illinois During the Gilded Age Digitization Project