Populist movements post Reconstruction

In_the_Lions_Mouth--Omar_Ali.inline verticalFor the first time since the 1790s, a large number of Americans contested the emerging assumptions of a powerful economic establishment.  With its roots in the rural South and rural West, the People’s Party brought together a number of issues and touted the power of the people.

How does the Omaha Platform express these issues and that power? http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5361/

The issues the platform wishes to address are expressed in the preamble. Democracy and voting; “Corruption dominates the ballot-box”, “States have been compelled to isolate the voters at the polling places to prevent universal intimidation and bribery”. Public opinion and discussion stifled; “The newspapers are largely subsidized or muzzled, public opinion silenced”. Land and property ownership of the few and not the many; “homes covered with mortgages” and “land concentrating in the hands of capitalists”. Labor unions and rights undermined and violently opposed; “urban workmen are denied the right to organize for self-protection, imported pauperized labor beats down their wages, a hireling standing army, unrecognized by our laws, is established to shoot them down, and they are rapidly degenerating into European conditions”. And finally a summation claiming the existence of a caste system; “From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed the two great classes—tramps and millionaires.”

The power of the people represented in the Omaha Platform is rooted in agriculture and labor as expressed in the Second declaration “Wealth belongs to him who creates it, and every dollar taken from industry without an equivalent is robbery. “If any will not work, neither shall he eat.”” The food producers, the laborers, the people who create things for others to consume are the truly powerful and they should be fairly represented by the government – which is supposed to be of, for and by the people. “We believe that the power of government—in other words, of the people—should be expanded (as in the case of the postal service) as rapidly and as far as the good sense of an intelligent people and the teachings of experience shall justify, to the end that oppression, injustice, and poverty shall eventually cease in the land.”

According to Postel, what role did women play in the movement–especially as the movement entered the electoral arena?

Women found within the movement an opportunity to express and educate themselves outside of daily farm life. They found opportunities to organize and create social networks outside of the rural connectedness that is a network, but “the treadmill routines of housework obliged a woman “to make a slave working from daylight to bedtime” (Postel pg.77) would limit the expressiveness and outreach a woman was able to employ in her community.

Because women sought “changes in marital relations, domestic economy, parenting and community life” they believed that from an evolutionary standpoint, “a more independent woman – strengthened in mind and body – would produce offspring similarly bright and strong” (Postel pg.72) This gave early founders such as Marion Todd a strong belief in reform.

In addition to the theory that better women will make better people, women felt the “economic burdens of falling farm prices, mounting debts and repossessed farms” women were engaged with the issues even though they were not on the front lines of the battles, at least in the beginning.

To this end, women populist leaders sought reform in morality and considered this to be their contribution to the movement, in addition to their own empowerment from educational and occupational opportunities presented to them by the Farmers Alliance.

The Farmers Alliance came close to putting women’s suffrage on the national political agenda, but failed to deliver but because it was on the same plank as prohibition “Herman Tauebeneck of the Farmers Mutual Benefit Association and other leaders of the new party feared that these interconnected issues would split the reform vote” (Postel, pg.94) Nonetheless, women were an important component of the movement in heart and home, and pioneered future feminist movements at the same time.

Finally, how does Ali define and characterize black populism in this period?  How was it both connected to and different from the much better understood white populist movements of the period?

Black Populism was founded and maintained by both black and white people consisting of the Colored Farmers Alliance, Colored Agricultural Wheels, the Knights of Labor, the Cooperative Workers of America and the Colored Farmers Union.  The larger National Farmers Alliance, however, consisted only of white people and had in its constitution “No person should be admitted as a member of this order except a white person over sixteen years of age” (In the Lions Mouth, pg.46)

Black Populism found its first ally in the Greenback party, a party created for the farmers and farm laborers, who wanted a national currency established for the purposes of economic equality and fair trade. Because they did not discriminate, they allowed black members to be part of the organization, so long as they maintained their own separate groups.

Black populists had to work with white populists in order to achieve their goals,”White supremacy prevented black farmers from performing the kinds of collective public acts essential to the creation of an authentic movement culture” (Ali, pg.74) but this should not be mistaken as white populists having power or control over the black populist African-Americans. African-Americans were fighting for their own equality, primarily because white people either saw their equality as a threat (uprising or repeat of Reconstruction) or because they believed fundamentally African-Americans were second class citizens.

Black Populism was independent from the white Alliance because it had to be. African-Americans were largely poor and landless. “As a result, the economic interests of most African-Americans in the Colored Alliance were usually at odds with the white farmers and planters that dominated the white Alliance leadership.” (Ali, pg.71)


“In the Lions Mouth Black Populism in the New South, 1886-1900” Omar H. Ali, University Press of Mississippi, 2010