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And now, two years later, here again is Thomas Frank, who, once again, has published a book full of revelatory insight into why we Americans must rediscover the lost promise of democracy.
By John Siman, a classicist
In his new history of anti-populism, Thomas Frank’s most stunning insight is this: In the 1890s, in the states of the Old Confederacy, the threat of “a political union” between poor black Republicans and poor white Populists so panicked the ruling post-Reconstruction Bourbon Democrats that their official, narcotizing lie ofwhite solidarity was weaponized into the inhumanly degrading dogma of white supremacy.
“The South in the 1890s,” Frank writes, “was filled with poor farmers both white and black, and keeping these two groups at each other’s throats was virtually the entire point of the region’s traditional politics” (p. 42). Hence the usefulness of the lie of white solidarity: For a generation or more after the Civil War poor whites were propagandized to believe that their true interests lay with those of their wealthy Lost Cause betters. But the advent of the Populist movement shattered this lie. “In 1892,” Frank continues, “the Populist leader Tom Watson of Georgia declared in a national magazine that ‘the People’s Party will settle the race question’ by addressing the common economic interests [italics mine] of black and white farmers” (p. 43).
Frank proceeds to quote Watson: “‘You are kept apart,’” with remarkable eloquence did Watson address the poor farmers of the South, “‘that you may be separately fleeced of your earnings. You are made to hate each other because upon that hatred rested the keystone of the arch of financial despotism which enslaves you both. You are deceived and blinded that you may not see how this race antagonism perpetuates a monetary system which beggars both’” (p. 43).
And poor whites and poor blacks, as Populist leaders like Watson exhorted them, did indeed begin to make viable political alliances — to the horror of the Bourbon Democrats.
This is all very exciting to learn, but Frank cautioned me not to get too excited. “It’s important to understand that the Populists were not racial liberals by modern standards,” he told me. “Even though the Farmers’ Alliance had a black wing, the two units were formally segregated. Their leaders often said blacks and whites should come together politically, but not necessarily in other ways.”
That qualification having been duly noted, it is still amazing to read of the explosion of progressive energy unleashed during those few years in the early 1890s when blacks and whites could and did come together politically, and, in turn, of the viciousness of the Bourbon suppression of it. Frank was particularly enthusiastic when he told me to read W.E.B. Du Bois’s summary of Tom Watson’s career (in Du Bois’s 1924 essay on the state of Georgia in the anthology These United States: “Suppose a man of the people, that is, of the white people,” Du Bois wrote, “arose in Georgia and said, ‘We are being exploited, tremendously and shamelessly…. It is worth while to arouse the workers and get them to vote in better industrial conditions.’ What would happen?”
Du Bois proceeds to answer his own question: “There was once such a man in Georgia, Tom Watson. He tried to unite labor. He organized the Populist Party in Georgia and invited the blacks to help. It was a critical situation that developed in the early nineties when it was increasingly difficult to keep the Negro disenfranchised illegally and yet not possible to disenfranchise him legally…. [T]he captains of industry mobilized…. Internal dissension in the labor ranks followed…. The whole movement swung into intense Negro hatred; and the net result was that the white labor vote was swung into a movement to finally and completely disenfranchise the Negro labor. The mob shot down Watson’s Negro leaders in their tracks…” (Du Bois, “Georgia,” pp. 339-340).
And Frank’s own account of the dramatic success of the Populist + Republican Fusionist coalition in North Carolina provides for us an especially vivid encapsulation of both the potential political power of such transracial coalitions — and the barbaric violence of the white supremacist response.
For in North Carolina the new Populist Party, “… in ‘fusion’ with the local Republican Party,” Frank explains, “actually captured the government in 1894 and ‘96 and then made reforms that allowed blacks to sometimes gain political power in places where they were in the majority” (pp. 79-80). Interestingly, in the 1896 presidential election, the (non-Bourbon) Democratic + Populist Fusionist candidate William Jennings Bryan won North Carolina’s eleven electoral votes, which were also, quite remarkably, split between his two running mates: the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, Arthur Sewall of Maine, won six of North Carolina’s electoral votes, while the eloquent Georgian Watson, as the Populist vice-presidential candidate, won the other five. Such Populist and Fusionist shows of strength constituted a Democracy Scare(to use Frank’s term) to end all Democracy Scares, and the ensuing blowback was savage, even murderous.
And so in 1898, as Frank writes, the Bourbon Democrats mounted a “white supremacy campaign” of “… anti-black hysteria to defeat forever their political rivals. The supremacist leaders played in particular upon the nightmarish threat black empowerment supposedly posed to white women” (p. 80). Frank continues: “Amply funded by the state’s business class[italics mine], they issued an amazing assortment of racist cartoons, newspapers, and pamphlets…. Then they used paramilitary gangs of so-called redshirts to intimidate Populist and Republican voters” (p. 80).
The bloody culmination of this white supremacist campaign occurred in Wilmington, at that time the largest city in North Carolina, on Thursday, November 10, two days after the 1898 election. A tightly-organized gang of Bourbon Democrats, calling themselves the “White Man’s Party,” led a mob of about 2,000 vigilantes through the black neighborhoods of Wilmington, where they destroyed black businesses and attacked black citizens with the expressed intent of killing “every damn n – – – – r in sight.” At least sixty were murdered, perhaps many more. The massacre then became an actual coup d’état: The leaders of the mob forced, at gunpoint, Wilmington’s Fusionist-Republican mayor to resign, as well as the police chief and the board of aldermen. The mob then installed a new, unelected, white-supremacist government.
Both the violence and the coup in Wilmington were lauded throughout North Carolina — and throughout the South. The resurgent Bourbon Democrats proceeded to — unconstitutionally — disenfranchise black voters (and to a lesser extent their poor white potential allies), and by 1904 black men had been entirely eliminated from the voting rolls in North Carolina. “A similar mania for disenfranchisement,” Frank continues, “swept other southern states at about the same time — a movement that historians have attributed, in part, to elite fears aroused by the Populist threat to white solidarity” (pp. 81-82).
I do not want to oversimplify Frank’s case by saying that the Populist Party was the direct cause of the Democracy Scare that was in turn the direct cause of the white supremacy campaign; indeed Frank explained to me that “[in] some states disenfranchisement happened before Populism, in some as a direct response to Populism, and in others as a delayed response to Populism.” Nevertheless, we can fairly observe, I think, that, throughout the Old Confederacy, the demolition of the transracial Populist movement ca. 1898 segues into a seven-decades-long nightmare of American apartheid and one-party rule. Here originated the utter disenfranchisement of all black citizens in the South; here originated the Jim Crow laws which enforced their brutal segregation, their universal ostracism and constant degradation.
And as if all this were not tragic enough, Frank tops it off with asickeningand demoralizing detail. Quoting the great Southern historian C. Vann Woodward (1908-1999), who had written his 1937 University of North Carolina doctoral dissertation on Tom Watson, Frank describes how, after white supremacy had conquered the South, Watson reinvented himself as a vicious racist, an enthusiastic advocate of flogging and lynching, whose “‘… tirades against his onetime allies of the Negro race … were matchless in their malevolence’” (p. 45).
Reading Woodward’s dissertation eight decades later, one would more likely describe Watson’s “malevolence” as not merely “matchless,” but as dumbfounding, as truly incomprehensible to our current sensibilities. Woodward quotes Watson thus: “‘Negroes,’ [Watson] observed, ‘simply have no comprehension of virtue, honesty, truth, gratitude and principle.’ ‘In the South we have to lynch him [the Negro] occasionally, and flog him, now and then, to keep him from blaspheming the Almighty by his conduct, on account of his smell and his color.’ [Watson] defended lynching both in principle and in specific instances…. [Watson] wrote, “Lynch law is a good sign: it shows that a sense of justice yet lives among the people.’ As for himself, he would no more hesitate to lynch a Negro rapist than to shoot a mad dog” (C. Vann Woodward, Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel, p. 374).
Has there been a betrayal more vile since the time of Judas? “A friend betrayed,” Woodward concluded, “is the enemy most despised” (p. 374).
Yet here Frank exhorted me not to stop at Woodward but to reread the stunningly beautiful concluding paragraph of Du Bois’s essay on Tom Watson’s Georgia — and I feel obliged now to quote in full: “I am in the hot, crowded, and dirty Jim Crow car,” Du Bois writes, “where I belong. A black woman with endless babies is faring forth from Georgia, North. Two of the babies are sitting on parts of me. I am not comfortable. Then I look out the window and somehow it seems to me that here in the Jim Crow car and there in the mountain cabin lies the future of Georgia — in the intelligence and union of these laborers, white and black, on this soil wet with their blood and tears. They hate and despise each other today. They lynch and murder body and soul. They are separated by the width of a world. And yet — and yet, stranger things have happened under the sun than understanding between those who are born blind” (Du Bois, “Georgia,” p. 345).
Perhaps Du Bois had in mind Watson’s words: “You are deceived and blinded that you may not see how this race antagonism perpetuates a monetary system which beggars both [you poor white laborers and you poor black laborers].”
* * *
Woodward’s youthful study of the tragedy of Tom Watson provided the foundation for his most important book, The Strange Career of Jim Crow, which he published in 1955, a year after the Supreme Court had unanimously decided in Brown v. Board of Educationthat segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. Woodward’s book appeared, that is, at the beginning of the formal national legal assault on the unconstitutional edifice which had been built upon white supremacy. Woodward’s essential insight in the book was this: The universal Southern policy of disenfranchisement and brutal segregation — of American apartheid — was notput into place decisively until the early years of the twentieth century.
In other words, since segregation was an evil done in the recent past, one could envision its undoing in the near future. Segregation had to be understood as an ugly, freakish but temporary anomaly, not an enduring expression of our deeper human nature. Woodward’s insight here was so great that Martin Luther King called TheStrange Career of Jim Crow “the historical Bible of the civil rights movement.” Racism, argued Woodward, the biographer of Tom Watson, was an historical aberration that had to be opposed and corrected, not an undying, ineradicable demon in the souls of white people!
So now let us reconsider Frank’s essential insight in the context of Woodward’s. Both Woodward and Frank place the origins of the Jim Crow segregation laws in the years following the Wilmington Massacre of 1898. For both of them, I think, make it clear that, as the Populists began to advance their program of class solidarity (which was of necessity transracial, as Frank repeatedly emphasizes), the Bourbon Democrats,recognizing only too well the existential threat that Populist-inspired class solidarity posed to them, crushed it with their campaign of white supremacy and then kept it down with their Jim Crow segregation laws. Laws which, however brutal, could be undone. Betrayals which, however Judas-like, could be forgiven.
Woodward’s great insight enabled Martin Luther King to articulate with great clarity the feasibility of ending the Jim Crow segregationist regime. Frank’s great insight enables any or all of us to hear, as with new ears, the transracial, that is, the populist, source of King’s liberating words.
Thus Frank quotes, at great length and to great effect, from King’s “Address at the Conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery March” of March 25, 1965. These are, I think, the most revelatory pages in his book, for in them all of Frank’s analysis comes together, and one can therefore hear King’s words with a fresh understanding of their historical context: “‘The leaders of [the Populist] movement,’” King said in Montgomery, “‘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….’”
Hence the Bourbon Democrats’ campaign of white supremacy.
King: “‘Then they directed the placement on the books of the South laws that made it a crime for Negroes and whites to come together at any level. And that did it. They crippled and eventually destroyed the Populist movement of the nineteenth century….’”
And thus arose the nightmarish regime of segregation.
King: “‘They segregated southern money from the poor whites; they segregated southern mores from the rich whites; they segregated southern churches from Christianity; they segregated southern minds from honest thinking; and the segregated the Negro from everything. That’s what happened when the Negro and white masses of the South threatened to unite and build a great society [italics mine]: a society of justice where none would prey upon the weakness of others; a society of plenty where greed and poverty would be done away; a society of brotherhood where every man would respect the dignity and worth of human personality’” (pp. 169-171).
Frank makes clear that the populist exhortation implicit in King’s words is as compelling in 2020 as it was in 1965 — and as it was in 1895. It is for us to do now what they were prevented from doing then: It is for us to unite and build a great society of justice and plenty and brotherhood.
This populist exhortation to join together for a greater good represents, I believe, the very finest hopes of the American people. Frank told me that he believes “that populism must be transracial— and every true populist and labor leader knows it — but historically speaking that has turned out to be difficult to achieve.” It is the great virtue of Frank’s book to provide the historical context to make this so evident.
Thomas Frank recommending more reading.