Frank Burkitt was one of the most important advocates of small-farmer interests in Mississippi during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Benjamin Franklin Burkitt was born in Lawrenceburg, Tennessee, on 15 July 1843 to lawyer Henry L. Burkitt and Louisa Burkitt. By 1860 he was working as a clerk for a merchant in nearby Waynesboro. During the Civil War, Burkitt enlisted in Company I of the 9th Tennessee Cavalry, serving through the war and ending up a captain. Burkitt subsequently taught school in northern Alabama before moving to Chickasaw County early in the 1870s. He acquired the Okolona Chickasaw Messenger and commenced a career as an outspoken newspaper editor. Like most Mississippi whites, Burkitt opposed the Republican state government, and his editorials advocated aggressive efforts to overturn Republican power. During the pivotal 1875 campaign during which Democrats emerged triumphant, he helped lead conservative efforts in Chickasaw.
After Reconstruction, Burkitt’s views began to diverge from those of most elite whites. After joining the state Grange, a farmers’ organization, he emerged as arguably the leading advocate of small-farmer interests. Having championed the formation of a state agricultural college, he was named one of the original trustees of Mississippi Agricultural and Mechanical College (now Mississippi State University). By the time of his election to the state House of Representatives in 1886, however, Burkitt had grown disenchanted with the college, which he viewed as a wasteful expenditure that served wealthy students and drained money from the common schools. Such views formed the centerpiece of The Wool Hat, a widely distributed pamphlet in which Burkitt glorified small farmers, railed against the elite, and argued for retrenchment of state expenses.
Embracing the Farmers’ Alliance movement, Burkitt, often wearing a Confederate uniform and wool hat, traveled the state in the late 1880s and early 1890s as the organization’s state lecturer. He pushed for a new state constitution to redress the political imbalances he perceived at the root of Bourbon power. Elected to the 1890 constitutional convention, he served on the franchise committee and worked to alter apportionment to favor white-majority counties. He was one of the few delegates to vote against the constitution because its disfranchising provisions, aimed at African Americans, targeted poor whites as well. In an impassioned speech he exploited pro-Confederate sympathies: “This constitution deprives many poor men of the right to vote, one of whom was my comrade in the army. . . . My right arm shall fall palsied at my side before I put my signature to such a document.”
For the next two years Burkitt continued to work for agrarian interests within the Democratic Party. While remaining committed to retrenchment of the state government, he embraced the Alliance’s most radical national goals, including the subtreasury plan, government regulation of railroads, and an income tax. In 1891 he led the state Farmers’ Alliance in a failed effort to replace Sen. James Z. George with Ethelbert Barksdale, a Democrat more sympathetic to Alliance-supported initiatives. The following year he forfeited a slot as a Democratic presidential elector after the party nominated Grover Cleveland for president. Leading many of his supporters into the People’s (Populist) Party, Burkitt ran a competitive but unsuccessful campaign for Congress and then threw his efforts into building up the Populist cause.
From the outset, Mississippi Populists faced insurmountable obstacles. Although the racial views of Burkitt and other Populists did not differ substantively from those of Democrats, the latter made partisan and racial orthodoxy virtually synonymous. Burkitt did not flinch from Democratic attacks and continued to defend the interests of the state’s poor, whether they were white or black. However, by disfranchising almost all of the African American electorate and many poor whites as well, the Constitution of 1890 minimized potential Populist growth. Burkitt fought gamely to overcome such problems, but his race for governor in 1895 underscored the party’s weakness, and he received less than 30 percent of the total vote and carried only Choctaw County.
Like many Populists, Burkitt later returned to the Democratic Party. Early in the twentieth century, as Mississippi’s agrarian interests gained new strength behind the leadership of James K. Vardaman, Burkitt remained a powerful advocate. In 1907 he returned to the state House of Representatives, where he became one of Vardaman’s chief allies. Elected to the State Senate in 1911, Burkitt chaired the joint committee on contingent funds prior to his death in December 1914.
- John K. Bettersworth, People’s College: A History of Mississippi State (1953)
- Stephen Cresswell, Multiparty Politics in Mississippi (1995)
- Albert D. Kirwan, Revolt of the Rednecks: Mississippi Politics, 1876–1925 (1951)
- Thomas Adams Upchurch, Journal of Mississippi History (Fall 2003)