The collapse of Reconstruction was not the end of African-American political activism in the South during the late 19th century as it is often portrayed – far from it, argues Dr. Omar Ali (African American Studies) in his new book, “In the Lion’s Mouth: Black Populism in the New South, 1886-1900.”
Black populism, an independent political movement of African-American farmers, sharecroppers and agrarian workers distinct from the white populist movement of the same period, was the largest black movement in the South until the rise of the modern civil rights movement, says the historian and associate professor in the African American Studies Program.
“After Reconstruction ended in 1877, African Americans in the South regrouped,” says Ali. “Black populists formed alliances with white populists and challenged the Democratic Party, a party of wealthy interests and white supremacy. They failed, but many of their demands would be enacted within a generation by the New Deal – so in some ways they were laying the groundwork for changes that came to pass.”
Published by University Press of Mississippi, “In the Lion’s Mouth” describes how the independent movement grew out of established networks of black churches and fraternal organizations in the region. From 1886 to 1900 African-Americans established farming cooperatives, raised money for schools, published newspapers, lobbied for legislation, protested the convict lease system and helped to launch the People’s Party.
“Ali correctly resists the common tendency to either see black populists as an offshoot of the white populist movement, or a failed effort at interracial organizing,” writes Dr. Robin D. G. Kelley in the book’s foreword. “Rather, he paints a compelling portrait of an independent movement. … Ali flips the script, if you will, and compels us to rethink the entire history of late 19th century Southern politics.”
In North Carolina, black and white populists formed an alliance that won control of the state legislature in 1894 and the governor’s office in 1896. The bloody Wilmington Riot of 1898 was a response by the Democratic Party to retake state control. The incident would signal the demise of black populism in North Carolina, and soon across the region.
A frequent commentator in the national media, with political analysis offered on CNN and NPR, among other networks, Ali sees similarities between the Democratic Party’s virtual monopoly in the South during the late 19th century and the dominance of the Democratic and Republican parties in the nation today. In both cases, entrenched parties have blocked important reforms, he says.
“It’s been the outsiders, the independents, who have been at the forefront of critical changes in American history, from the abolition of slavery to labor rights, from women’s right to vote to civil rights. All of these things came from outside forces, independents and third parties, until they were co-opted by the parties in power.
“What independents, black and white, are doing now is challenging the political control of the two major parties on the electoral process. In that way, they share a history with the populists of a century ago.”
Ali, a former Fulbright scholar with research awards from Harvard University and the University of South Carolina, previously taught in the History Department at Towson University in Maryland and has served as a visiting professor at Vanderbilt University. A graduate of the London School of Economics and Political Science, he received his PhD in history from Columbia University, where he wrote his dissertation on black populism under the supervision of Dr. Eric Foner.
Ali is also the author of “In the Balance of Power: Independent Black Politics and Third Party Movements in the United States” (Ohio University Press, 2008), which was described as a “landmark work” by The National Political Science Review.
By Dan Nonte
Collage: African-American populist leaders of the period: (top row, l-r) Rev. G. W. Lowe, President of the Colored Agricultural Wheel, AK; Rev. Walter A. Pattillo, Colored Farmers Alliance State Lecturer, NC; John B. Rayner, Executive Committee of the People’s Party, TX; Rev. Henry S. Doyle, People’s Party organizer, GA; (bottom, l-r) Lutie A. Lytle, Assistant Enrolling Clerk of the People’s Party, KS; Richard M. Humphrey, Gen. Superintendent of the Colored Farmers Alliance, TX; Hon. George Washington Murray, State Lecturer of the Colored Farmers Alliance, SC; Rev. John Simpson Jackson, Colored Farmers Alliance President, AL.