Labor Militancy and Black Grassroots Political Mobilization in the Louisiana Sugar Region, 1865-1868
Rodrigue, John C., The Journal of Southern History
IN EARLY AUGUST 1868 THE FREEDMEN'S BUREAU AGENT FOR IBERVILLE Parish, Louisiana, Charles E. Merrill, was called upon to mediate one of the countless labor disputes that occupied much of his and other bureau agents' time. In this instance, Merrill investigated the complaint of John Williams, a freedman and the "head laborer" on Belle Grove plantation, who claimed that his employer, Henry Ware, had dismissed him "on account of his political opinion." Merrill ultimately concluded that Williams's dismissal did not involve his political views. Nonetheless, because political and labor conflicts had become inseparable in the highly charged atmosphere surrounding the 1868 presidential campaign, Merrill found it necessary to remind the local justice of the peace, James C. Adamson (whom Williams had at first evidently petitioned without success), that planters must not be allowed to use their authority as employers to interfere with their workers' political rights. "Mr. Ware has no right to discharge any of his laborers on account of their political opinion," Merrill lectured Adamson, adding that "[i]f the planters carry politics into the fields they will find it bad business." Planters who could not convince freedmen "to join their party by fair and honorable means" were to leave them alone. "If Mr. Ware does not want republican laborers on his plantation, let him pay them in full for the time contracted for, and they will leave his plantation at once," Merrill insisted. "If he wants their labor, let them go to work, without regard to politics."(1)
Merrill's sentiments notwithstanding, planters in the Louisiana sugar region and throughout the South would have found it impossible--even had they been so inclined--to let freedmen go to work "without regard to politics."(2) As Eric Foner, Michael W. Fitzgerald, and Julie Saville have convincingly shown, black grassroots political mobilization profoundly shaped labor arrangements on southern plantations in the years after emancipation.(3) Instances of black political mobilization in the South had appeared before the war's end but tended to be dominated at first by the antebellum free black elite and confined largely to urban areas. With the onset of Radical Reconstruction in 1867, by contrast, this mobilization expanded to include the mass of former plantation slaves, who formed political organizations, held rallies and engaged in debate, registered and voted en masse, and banded together for self-defense and to preserve internal unity. These activities injected politics into questions concerning the freedmen's working lives, as conflict over seemingly mundane aspects of plantation routine underscored the larger contest over decision-making authority between former slaveholders and freedmen. Black politics transformed the social landscape by shifting the balance of power on the plantations. In the fluid labor markets of early Reconstruction, it even tilted that balance--albeit briefly--in the freedmen's favor.
While it is true that black grassroots political mobilization altered southern labor arrangements, most scholarly attention has focused on how this development unfolded in the cotton South, where the freedmen's success in rejecting gang labor and in gaining access to land had unintended consequences. The various forms of sharecropping and tenancy that came to dominate in cotton production, whatever their much-debated origins, eventually undermined the very solidarity that had strengthened the former slaves' bargaining position in the first place. As individual black families or households spread out over the cotton plantations, it became increasingly difficult for them to mobilize for self-defense or to act collectively in other ways. "Ironically," Michael W. Fitzgerald observed in his study of black political mobilization and the emergence of sharecropping, "the freedmen's success in renting land dispersed them widely throughout the countryside, making them more vulnerable to attack. …