Greenbackers, Knights of Labor, and Populists: Farmer-Labor Insurgency in the Late-Nineteenth-Century South

Article excerpt

Greenbackers, Knights of Labor, and Populists: Farmer-Labor Insurgency in the Late-Nineteenth-Century South. By Matthew Hild. (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2007. Pp. xvi, 327. Acknowledgments, maps, introduction, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. $42.95.)

Between 1874 and 1966, the Democratic party in Arkansas faced only one serious challenge to its near-absolute control of the state's political machinery-a fusion of the Union Labor party and Republican party in 1888 and 1890 that the Democrats were able to defeat only after resorting to race-baiting, intimidation, fraud, violence, assassination, and, ultimately, electoral reforms that made it more difficult for poor blacks and poor whites to vote. This Union Labor-Republican challenge in Arkansas plays a prominent role in Matthew Hild's study of the producerist movements-Greenbackers, Agricultural Wheel, Farmers Alliance, Knights of Labor-that swept the southern states in the years after Redemption and culminated in the Peoples' (Populist) party campaigns of the 1890s. Unlike many historians who consider the Populist movement to be basically a farmers' movement and have lamented that industrial workers did not rush to a party promising to unite all producers of wealth, Hild persuasively argues that members of the Knights of Labor played prominent roles in the movement.

In Arkansas, as Hild demonstrates, these producerist movements played out a little earlier than they did elsewhere in the South and in the form of the Union Labor party rather than the People's party. In the 1880s, tens of thousands of white Arkansas farmers unhappy with the course of the state and the nation's political and economic development-powerful railroads and trusts, changes in lending and monetary practices, falling crop prices, the political domination of the planter and merchant classes-rushed to the Agricultural Wheel and the Brothers of Freedom (the two organizations would merge in 1885). White and black wage workers-railroaders in Pine Bluff and Little Rock, coal miners in the Arkansas River Valley, cotton laborers in east Arkansas-who were similarly dissatisfied joined the Knights of Labor.

In 1886, a biracial delegation from a Knights of Labor assembly in Little Rock met with the leaders of the Agricultural Wheel to propose the creation of a new political party dedicated to protecting the interests of the farmers and wage workers who produced the nation's wealth. This visit eventually led to the formation of the Union Labor party in Arkansas. The new party finished a distant third in the gubernatorial race that year, but in 1888 it joined with the Republicans-effectively creating an alliance of poor whites and poor blacks-to challenge the Democrats. …