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This essay explores the social and political struggles and experiences that characterized the southern United States with regard to politics from 1883 to 1915. Sometimes called the “nadir,” or the worst period of race relations in America, this period begins with the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Civil Rights Cases of 1883, which canceled previous civil right legislation and permitted racist vigilante groups such as the Ku Klux Klan with impunity despite the equal rights protections of the Fourteenth Amendment. The case that most stands out in this period is the landmark Supreme Court case Plessy V. Ferguson (1896). At issue in this case was a Louisiana law of 1890 that required passenger trains operating within the state to provide ”separate but equal” accommodation for ”whites and colored persons.” The Court held that segregation of the races did not violate the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment because people of each race received equal treatment. Booker T. Washington condoned the principle of ”separate but equal” and became an international celebrity.
Jim Crow Laws
Between the 1871 amnesty of ex-rebels against the federal government and 1876, the southern Democratic Party regained control of Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. Disputes over presidential electoral vote totals in Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina led to the Compromise of 1876, which was settled by the South ceasing to challenge the election of referees. This electoral victory gave the twenty-year-old Republican Party its third president. It also freed the party from dependence on a southern base of new black voters whose numbers were being reduced through violence from white supremacist vigilante groups, through the maneuvers of white election officials, and finally, through the adoption of ”grandfather clauses,” or rules exempting would-be voters from literacy tests if they could prove that their grandfathers had voted prior to January 1, 1867, a year before blacks became citizens. The grandfather-clause voting requirement was widely employed until the U.S. Supreme Court declared this practice unconstitutional in the case of Guinn v. United States in 1915.
The Civil Rights Cases of 1883 represented a conservative U.S. Supreme Court’s stand at the beginning of a new era in the South, and its agenda was set by states enacting Jim Crow laws calling for segregation of the races. A few examples illustrate this point. In 1872, West Virginia legislators passed a law restricting jury duty to ”all white male persons who are twenty-one years of age.” In 1875, the Tennessee legislature gave to owners of public accommodations of any sort the right to choose their customers, a right that ”shall be as perfect and complete as that of any private person over his private house, carriage or private theatre, or places of amusement for his family.” In 1877 Georgia lawmakers enacted a law stipulating that ”separate schools shall be provided for white and colored races.” Mississippi enacted a similar law in 1878. In the early 1880s, similar state and local segregation laws were adopted across the South, allowing southern whites to deny blacks social, educational, economic, and political equality. The majority of southern states enacted Jim Crow laws that forbade interracial marriage and cohabitation and allowed the segregation of the races in nursing homes, buses, railroads, restaurants, pool houses, toilet facilities, prisons, hospitals, burial grounds, restaurants, parks, sports arena, beer parlors, housing, transportation, educational institutions, libraries, telephone booths, lunch counters, libraries, movie theaters, and other public accommodations.
The Civil Rights Cases Of 1883
Between 1875 and 1883 seven incidents summarized as the Civil Rights Cases were fundamental to the politics of the South. According to Rayford W. Logan (1965), these cases ”included the denial of hotel accommodations to Negroes in Kansas and Missouri; the denial of a seat to a Negro in the dress circle of a theatre in San Francisco; the denial to a person (presumably a Negro) of the full enjoyment of the accommodations of the Grand Opera in New York; the refusal of a conductor on a passenger train to allow a colored woman to travel in the ladies’ car of the Memphis and Charleston Railroad Company” (p. 116). The Court ruled that such actions were constitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause because the amendment specified private individual actions and because Congress was not authorized to make general rules, but only corrective regulations.
The dying breed of Southern Unionists in the Republican Party began switching to the Democrats in this period, concluding as did one Mississippian that ”no white man can live in the South in the future and act with any other than the Democratic party unless he is willing and prepared to live a life of social isolation and remain in political oblivion” (Davidson et al. 1990, p. 637). In the party platforms of the elections of 1884, 1888, 1892, 1896, and onward, both parties verbally celebrated the sanctity of the ballot and the value of freedom regardless of race or previous condition, but in reality did little to protect blacks politically or personally.
The rise of white agrarian unrest was abetted by the depressions of the 1880s and early 1890s and by the rise of small-scale farms personally worked by their white owners or more commonly with black sharecroppers. The period also saw more and more small-town merchant suppliers placing liens on crops for goods sold, higher prices for supplies the farmers bought, and a decline in prices for the crops they sold, and similar developments. This small farmer constituency called for government regulation of banks and railroads, the extension of credit and a more flexible fiscal policy, the establishment of subtreasuries, and the establishment of produce warehouses or grain elevators to hold crops until prices rose to yield a fair profit.
Because at least 85 percent of the African American population worked in agriculture, their presence could hardly be ignored in any effort to deal with the economic hardships now common to all. Thus, a class aspect of agrarian unrest was added to the conundrum of race, proportionately most of the rural workers being black.
The Rise Of Populism
Black workers, especially farmers, had good success in joining the Southern Farmers’ Alliance (SFA), founded in Texas in 1877 by R. M. Humphrey. Although like all workingmen’s organizations of the era, the SFA kept the locals of the alliance racially separate, blacks flocked to the movement via the Colored Farmers’ National Alliance and Cooperative Union. In its statement of purpose, the alliance said that ”the object of this corporation shall be to elevate the colored people of the United States . . . to labor more earnestly for the education of themselves and their children, especially in agricultural pursuits . . . to be more obedient to the civil law, and withdraw their attention from political partisanship.” By the 1890s, every southern state had local Colored Farmers’ Alliance units. According to Humphrey, the numbers included Alabama, 100,000; Georgia, 84,000; South Carolina, 90,000; Mississippi, 90,000; Texas, 90,000; Arkansas, 20,000; Louisiana, 50,000; Virginia, 50,000; Kentucky, 25,000; Tennessee, 60,000; and North Carolina, 55,000.
The sum of these numbers in the states listed nearly equals that of the 600,000 blacks who voted as citizens in the first presidential election after slavery.
Although their state and local units were color coded, the Farmers’ Alliance national conventions were remarkably open on the issues of race and gender; an observer of a score of black male delegates felt compelled to also note ”wimmin is everywhere” (Davidson et al. 1990, p. 785). Humphrey himself claimed that 300,000 females were among the 1,200,000 members of the national Colored Farmers’ Alliance. One hundred black delegates were present at the St. Louis alliance convention in 1892, when the movement decided to go explicitly political with a new entity called the People’s Party (Populist Party). Many of the delegates had political histories in the Republican and Democratic Parties. By the election of 1896, many activists resolved the contradictions by voting as Populist Party members in the election of 1896. Here and there blacks again won local election as fusion candidates, either Republican/Populists or Democrat/People’s Party candidates. The wall between economics and politics, always porous, collapsed. Black political activism was met with cynical manipulation and strong resistance from southern whites within the movement. Class could not surpass race.
In some places, the Populist Party’s strength was great enough to garner the support of established Democratic politicians such as Benjamin ”Pitchfork” Tillman of South Carolina and Thomas Watson of Georgia, each of whom advanced himself as a champion of the working poor regardless of race. Tillman posed as a friend of white farmers to enable him take over the South Carolina Farmers’ Alliance by adopting its platform, thus leaving it nothing to say. In 1890, he was elected governor of South Carolina. Once in power he repudiated black participation in electoral politics. Tillman organized the state constitutional convention in 1895, which relied strongly on Jim Crow laws to disenfranchise most of South Carolina’s black men. In 1900, Tillman was quoted as boasting: ”We have done our level best to prevent blacks from voting. We have scratched our heads to find how we could eliminate the last one of them. We stuffed ballot boxes. We shot them. We are not ashamed of it” (Logan 1997, p. 91). He was philosophically opposed to the emergence of a mass or people’s party, as he feared that its national program for agricultural renewal would eventually bring about the empowerment of southern blacks.
Thomas E. Watson, elected to the Georgia legislature in 1882, also found ideological cover under the social and political climate in the South. His use of the Farmers’ Alliance/Populist platform helped to catapult him into the U.S. Congress in 1890. While in Congress, he abandoned the Democratic caucus and attended the first Populist Party congressional caucus as the only and first Southern Alliance democrat to do so. As a populist, Watson helped unite agrarian (rural) farmers in the South across racial and class lines. He also supported the right of African American men to vote. As his attempts to use biracial politics to build a progressive majority coalition failed, he blamed black political activism for that failure. Indeed, with Populist James Baird Weaver as its presidential nominee, the party won a million votes but in the process built the Democratic Party in the South.
Determined to regain the support of the largely antiblack majority, Watson transformed himself into an ardent racist. He saw that the Democratic Party conservatives were determined to end black political participation, which they termed ”Negro domination.” In local elections, the Populists elected three governors, five senators, ten congressmen, and nearly 1,500 members of state legislatures. In the elections of 1896, the Populist Party lost overall, even though blacks won control of several local governments, most notably that of Wilmington, North Carolina, only to literally be driven out of office in the riots of 1898. White populists became Democrats, and the Democrats became advocates of a solid South, all white. Black disfranchisement became an openly promoted objective. Of the black male, Watson wrote, ”In the South, we have to lynch him occasionally, and flog him, now and then, to keep him from blaspheming the Almighty, for his conduct, on account of his smell, and his color.” He also declared that ”lynch law is a good sign; it shows that a sense of justice yet lives among the people” (Crowe 1970). Editors such as Hoke Smith of the Atlanta Journal published racially inflammatory writings that helped to create a climate for the infamous Atlanta Riot of 1906. When blacks were finally eliminated from political influence, Watson again supported the Populist Party’s economic program, becoming its presidential candidate in 1904 and 1908 when blacks were no longer visible in party circles.
Into The New Century
At the height of racist politics in the South, politicians such as Mississippi governor James K. Vardaman (19041908) rode to power in a landslide victory, propelled by white racial fears in 1903. The time was ripe for advocates of black oppression. Vardaman denounced the education of blacks. He called it nothing but a form of ”kindness that would make blacks unfit to serve whites.” He generally characterized blacks as ”lazy, lying and lustful animals for which no amount of training can transform into tolerable citizens,” a sentiment that was both popular and well received among southern whites.
Vardaman even went as far as stating that whenever convenient and ”necessary it would be a good idea to lynch blacks in the state of Mississippi in order to maintain white supremacy” (Lopez 1965).
Against a background of triumphant white supremacy, on September 18, 1895, Booker T. Washington made his famous racial compromise speech in Atlanta, Georgia, at the Cotton States and International Exposition held to celebrate the South’s recovery from the Civil War. In this address, Washington urged blacks to eschew political activity, saying that ”in all things that are purely social, we (blacks and whites) can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.” This address made him a national figure and the most powerful African American of his time. Although many southern whites embraced his speech, most prominent blacks, such as writer and sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois, did not. Du Bois not only disagreed with Washington’s ideas and public utterances but condemned outright his philosophy and strategy with respect to fighting black exploitation and oppression. Du Bois further challenged Washington’s leadership through the platform of the Niagara Movement, which demanded economic and educational equality for blacks, and an end to discrimination in public facilities.
Although the Niagara Movement was not directly responsible for the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), it was hailed as a catalyst, at least for establishing a precedent that brought together black and white intellectuals opposed to the coexistence strategies of Booker T. Washington. The Niagara Movement met in New York in 1909 to discuss the formation of a new organization whose goal would be to improve the social, economic, and political condition of blacks. These efforts culminated in the establishment of the NAACP in 1910. Although the founding members were overwhelmingly white, they elected Du Bois as one of their members.
A series of other events gave impetus to the racial relations status quo in the South. In the landmark Supreme Court case Guinn v. United States (1915), the Court ruled unconstitutional an Oklahoma law that provided an exemption that served no discernable purpose other than to favor white voters at the expense of black citizens’ right to vote. This verdict severely curtailed the challenges of Jim Crow laws. It also helped to enforce sweeping segregation laws in the southern states in particular and the United States in general, supposedly in perpetuity.
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