During the late nineteenth century a number of agrarian groups formed in response to depressed agricultural prices, high freight rates, and rural isolation. The National Farmers’ Alliance was the largest of these groups. Based in the South, the Midwest, and the Plains states, the organization reached a peak membership of 1.2 million in 1890. The alliance promoted economic cooperatives that favored farmers in buying, selling, and storing agricultural produce.
In 1887 lecturers from the Texas-based Southern Farmers’ Alliance traveled throughout the South and rapidly established suballiances. The first Mississippi chapter was founded at Oak Hill, in Carroll County. Over the next three years the Mississippi organization grew from one thousand members to eighty thousand—more than half of the state’s rural men. In 1888 the National Farmers’ Alliance held its meeting in Meridian. A year later, the Southern Farmers’ Alliance joined the National Farmers’ Alliance.
Membership in the Southern Alliance grew throughout the state but remained concentrated in nonplantation white-majority counties. While women participated in alliance meetings, they did not receive full membership privileges. The Southern Farmers’ Alliance banned African Americans from membership but recognized the Colored Farmers’ Alliance and Cooperative Union as a parallel association. Founded in Texas in 1886, the Colored Farmers’ Alliance later spread to Mississippi. Like the Southern Alliance, the Colored Alliance grew rapidly. In December 1890, the Mississippi Colored Farmers’ Alliance included ninety thousand members. Although the two groups met separately, they engaged in similar activities. Both the Southern Alliance and Colored Alliance organized cooperative purchasing and selling efforts, held regular meetings, engaged in rituals, and founded newspapers.
From 1888 to 1891 alliance members participated in a successful regional boycott of jute-bag manufacturers and planned to open a cotton-bagging factory. In 1888 the Mississippi Alliance established a state exchange in Winona to purchase goods in bulk. Despite the short-term success of these efforts, the association failed to achieve long-term improvements, and the exchange moved to Memphis in 1890.
Events in Leflore County also demonstrated the limits of alliance success. In 1889 organizer Oliver Cromwell established several Colored Alliance branches in the county. Cromwell convinced his fellow African Americans to take their business to a Southern Alliance store in Durant. Angered by the loss of business and control over the black laborers, a group of Leflore County whites threatened Cromwell. In response, seventy-five African Americans marched military-style to deliver a note to Shell Mound whites announcing that three thousand men would defend Cromwell should whites choose to attack. Hoping to avoid racial warfare, the county sheriff called on Governor Robert Lowry for support, and three companies of national guardsmen quickly arrived in Leflore. According to state newspapers, over the next five days, the troops arrested forty African Americans, killed five ringleaders, and ended the potential for greater violence. Outside Mississippi, newspapers reported that greater atrocities occurred, resulting in at least twenty-five deaths. White planters subsequently ordered the Southern Alliance store in Durant to cease its relations with the Colored Alliance and pressured the Vaiden Colored Farmers’ Alliance Advocate to stop distribution in Leflore and Tallahatchie Counties. While little is known about the role of Southern Alliance members in the Leflore County events, white planters succeeded on both accounts. Most historians argue that the Leflore County Massacre marked the decline of the Mississippi Colored Alliance.
Faced with the failure of the state exchange and the cotton-bagging factory and the violent suppression of the Colored Alliance, some alliance members turned to politics as a more effective means of reform. Led by Chickasaw Messenger editor Frank Burkitt, alliance members gained sway in the state legislature. By 1890 two congressional representatives supported the alliance, and fifty-five delegates to the state’s constitutional convention received support from the organization. The farm organization encountered its greatest test in the 1891 state legislative elections. With both US Senate seats open, control of the state legislature was especially important, since the legislature would elect Mississippi’s senators. Alliance candidates Ethelbert Barksdale and Burkitt supported the subtreasury plan, under which farmers could store their crops in government-owned warehouses to await higher prices while the government extended low-interest loans to farmers in the interim. Proposed at the 1890 National Alliance meeting, the subtreasury plan became the rallying cry of the agrarian organization and the central issue of the Mississippi campaign.
After an emotional campaign and a fraudulent election, alliance candidates failed to win a majority in the state legislature. The defeat ensured that Mississippi’s senators would not support national legislation to implement the subtreasury plan. Suballiances fell into rapid decline as many farmers joined the Mississippi Populist Party in 1892. Other farmers quit the alliance because of its increasingly political tone, the failure of its economic cooperatives, or its turn from local initiatives to state and national reform. Internal divisions over politics and interracial and intergender cooperation ended the brief but strong surge of the Mississippi Farmers’ Alliance.
- Martin Dann, Journal of Ethnic Studies (Fall 1974)
- Gerald Gaither, Blacks and the Populist Movement: Ballots and Bigotry in the New South (rev. ed. 2005)
- Steven Hahn, A Nation under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration (2003)
- Matthew Hild, Greenbackers, Knights of Labor, and Populists: Farmer-Labor Insurgency in the Late Nineteenth-Century South (2007)
- William F. Holmes, Phylon (3rd Quarter 1973)
- Albert Kirwan, Revolt of the Rednecks: Mississippi Politics, 1876–1925 (1964)
- Michael Schwartz, Radical Protest and Social Structure: The Southern Farmers’ Alliance and Cotton Tenancy, 1880–1890 (1976)
- C. Vann Woodward, Origins of the New South, 1877–1913 (1951)