Populism and Jim Crow

My forthcoming book (in May) on William Jennings Bryan and the Populist movement argues that constitutional law was transformed for decades by the backlash against the Populists in the 1890s.  Here is an excellent statement of that point with respect to race. See if you can figure you who said this:

“Racial segregation as a way of life did not come about as a natural result of hatred between the races immediately after the Civil War. There were no laws segregating the races then. And as the noted historian, C. Vann Woodward, in his book, The Strange Career of Jim Crow, clearly points out, the segregation of the races was really a political stratagem employed by the emerging Bourbon interests in the South to keep the southern masses divided and southern labor the cheapest in the land. You see, it was a simple thing to keep the poor white masses working for near-starvation wages in the years that followed the Civil War. Why, if the poor white plantation or mill worker became dissatisfied with his low wages, the plantation or mill owner would merely threaten to fire him and hire former Negro slaves and pay him even less. Thus, the southern wage level was kept almost unbearably low.

Toward the end of the Reconstruction era, something very significant happened. That is what was known as the Populist Movement.  The leaders of this movement began awakening the poor white masses and the former Negro slaves to the fact that they were being fleeced by the emerging Bourbon interests. Not only that, but they began uniting the Negro and white masses into a voting bloc that threatened to drive the Bourbon interests from the command posts of political power in the South.

To meet this threat, the southern aristocracy began immediately to engineer this development of a segregated society. I want you to follow me through here because this is very important to see the roots of racism and the denial of the right to vote. Through their control of mass media, they revised the doctrine of white supremacy. They saturated the thinking of the poor white masses with it, thus clouding their minds to the real issue involved in the Populist Movement. They then directed the placement on the books of the South of laws that made it a crime for Negroes and whites to come together as equals at any level.  And that did it. That crippled and eventually destroyed the Populist Movement of the nineteenth century.”

Martin Luther King, Jr., Speech in Montgomery, AL (March 25, 1965) (The “How Long, Not Long” Address)

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1 Response

  1. Kent says:

    Often my thought process goes straight from “The Slaves were freed” to “blacks and whites could not use the same drinking fountain.” I have never really thought about the intervening years when the actual laws were formed, thanks for this excerpt.