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

By Matthew Hild | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FIVE
Southern Labor
and Southern Populism,
1892–1896

Despite some apparent tensions between Southern Farmers’ Alliance and Knights of Labor delegates at the St. Louis conference of industrial organizations in February 1892, Tom Watson’s People’s Party Paper of Atlanta assured its readers weeks later that “the Knights of Labor will vote the People’s Party ticket almost to a man, and their influence will bring thousands of other laboring men to the polls to vote the People’s Party ticket also.”1 The latter half of this sanguine prediction was especially important, since the Knights of Labor only had about 125,000 dues-paying members across the nation by this time, contrary to the insistence of the Journal of the Knights of Labor that the Order still had 275,000 members. If the Populists hoped to secure support from the American Federation of Labor, Samuel Gompers soon made it clear that he had other ideas. In an article that appeared in the North American Review in July 1892 the president of the AFL, which claimed 255,000 members at this time, declared that his organization would “maintain as a body a masterly inactivity” in the forthcoming political campaigns. Gompers refused to give the Populists even a mild endorsement. “Composed, as the People’s Party is, mainly of employing farmers without any regard to the interests of the employed farmers of the country districts or the mechanics and laborers of the industrial centers,” Gompers wrote, “there must of necessity be a divergence of purposes, methods, and interests.”2

Thus the Populists continued to look to the Knights of Labor to deliver labor votes. Tom Watson’s optimism notwithstanding, the prospect could not have been comforting. As historian Melton McLaurin has noted, “By

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