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The Confederate Lawyer
August 19, 2011

Progressives, Populists, and the Black South
by Charles G. Mills
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GLEN COVE, NY — Most people believe that with the end of Reconstruction came the end of black participation in Southern politics until the Civil Rights era starting in the 1960s. The truth is more complex.

The role of the Army in Southern political processes — as well as that of New England veterans who had assumed fictitious Southern residences to hold office — came to a close. While the end of Reconstruction did have an adverse effect on the black share of political power in the South, what really diminished the role of blacks was the rise of the Progressives and Populists. These new forces ousted the Conservative Democrats who had dominated Southern politics during the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

When Mississippi was represented in the Senate from 1877 to 1879 by both the unquestioned leader of the anti-Reconstruction forces in Mississippi, Confederate officer and former slaveholder, Democrat Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar, and black Republican Blanche Kelso Bruce, they not only worked together for the good of Mississippi but liked each other and were political allies. The last black Republican Congressman from the old South left office in 1901, and the last black Republican victory in municipal elections in a major Southern city was in 1898 — precisely the era when Progressivism and Populism were beginning to take over the Democrat Party.

From 1877 to 1913, all U.S. presidents except Grover Cleveland were Republicans, most Republicans in the South were black, and blacks held some federal appointive offices. Most of the Southern blacks who could read lived in the cities. When most of the South after Reconstruction implemented a literacy requirement to vote, the number of black voters fell sharply. With this decrease came a gradual decline in the number of black candidates elected to office.

Political power in the South in this era was in the hands of former slave owners and people who had been assimilated into their society. The majority of the white population (and, in most of the South, the majority of the entire population) consisted of sharecroppers, mill workers, and small farmers. The attitudes of the two groups toward the black population were quite different. The former slave owners employed blacks, often members of families formerly owned by their families or those of their friends. The poorer whites, in contrast, felt threatened by black upward mobility and wanted to enforce a strict exclusion of blacks from their own opportunities.

At the dawn of the twentieth century, the Progressive movement emerged. Progressives viewed all progress as necessarily good. They believed strongly in Darwinian evolution and that the white race had evolved through natural selection from other less biologically developed races.

Theodore Roosevelt was by and large a Progressive, but he believed in racial equality. He did not consider President William Howard Taft to be progressive enough and conducted a third-party campaign against him that resulted in the election of the complete Progressive, Woodrow Wilson. As President Wilson racially segregated both the Armed Forces and the federal bureaucracy, he killed off all the federal support that black Southern politicians had previously enjoyed. The result was to effectively eliminate them from the Southern political equation.

At about the same time as the rise of the Progressives, the Populist movement emerged in the West and was typified by William Jennings Bryan. Progressives and Populists were natural allied in trying to overthrow the powerful classes in America. When Progressivism reached the South, it became a movement of sharecroppers and mill workers (and those who were good at pretending to be such) to overthrow the rule of the “Bourbons” or former slave owners. Southern Populism often included a good dose of racism and also two new things alien to the traditional culture of the South — anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism.

Under Populist rule in the South, every aspect of public life became segregated. Lynching became common. Indeed, the Populists ushered in the period that American historians call the “nadir of race relations.” When labor unions came, their memberships were either exclusively white or black, never biracial. The white unions worked to make it impossible to hire blacks in unionized workplaces by such devices as laws requiring separate doors for black and white workers.

When the Conservative Democrat Bourbons ended Reconstruction, they had reduced the role of blacks but did not try to eliminate them or prevent their advancement. With the overthrow of the Conservative Democrats and beginning in 1890, however, the new governing class of Populists and Progressives replaced reasonable literacy requirements with ones that voters be able to read and explain the state constitution. They used these harsher requirements against the literate as well as the illiterate blacks to achieve a virtually all-white electorate, closed off employment opportunities for blacks, and instituted a regime of racial suppression that lasted more than half a century.

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The Confederate Lawyer column is copyright © 2011 by Charles G. Mills and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation, www.fgfBooks.com. All rights reserved.

Charles G. Mills is the Judge Advocate or general counsel for the New York State American Legion. He has forty years of experience in many trial and appellate courts and has published several articles about the law.

See his biographical sketch and additional columns here.

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