Founded in 1902 in Point, Texas, the Farmers Educational and Co-Operative Union of America was originally established as a secret organization that sought to raise farmer’s incomes by forming cooperatives that would negotiate fair prices for its membership. If necessary, members agreed to withhold crops from the market to ensure acceptable prices. Members also negotiated collectively for better prices on commodities such as seed and fertilizer. Membership in the Farmers Union, which was open to both farmers and farm laborers as well as to teachers, ministers, and almost anyone who supported farmers’ cause, expanded dramatically after it removed the veil of secrecy. The first chapters outside of Texas were established in Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, and Alabama. Mississippi joined the second tier of states to establish chapters, along with South Carolina, Tennessee, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Colorado, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Washington.
In Mississippi, as in most of the South, the plight of both whites and African Americans who worked farms improved very little after the Civil War. Slavery had ended and the plantation system had collapsed, but the lien system that replaced it merely offered a new form of bondage, leaving most farmers without land and in perpetual debt. The idea of collectively negotiating for better crop prices had much appeal to individuals with little opportunity to better their plight and no political clout.
The year 1906 represented a turning point for both the National Farmers Union (NFU) and the Mississippi Farmers Union (MFU). Charles S. Barrett of Georgia was elected NFU president, and J. M. Bass took the reins for a two-year term as president of the MFU. One of the primary objectives of both groups was the establishment of courses in public schools that would teach farmers’ sons economics and government. The Farmers Union agenda also included enforcement of antitrust laws, improving rural roads, and more stringent immigration laws. The MFU achieved considerable success in its efforts to reform the state’s educational system. Under Gov. Edmund F. Noel (1908–12), the state established agricultural high schools, many of which later became part of the state’s junior/community college system. With help from Sen. George Robert Hightower, the MFU pushed through legislation that laid the groundwork for agricultural extension programs.
Hightower resigned his position in the legislature to serve as the MFU president in 1908–12. During his presidency the NFU began to call for the direct election of all US senators, holding up Mississippi as a model for the rest of the country, since in 1902 the state had become the first to implement direct primary elections. The MFU’s momentum was short-lived, however, and membership began to wane both in Mississippi and in most other southern states. The MFU declined for a variety of reasons. Hightower resigned to accept the presidency at Mississippi Agricultural and Mechanical College (now Mississippi State University). By 1916 the NFU advocated voting rights for women, an unpopular position in the state. In its early years the NFU had welcomed both white and black farmers, a policy that went against the state’s segregation practices. Increasing racial tensions encouraged by race-baiting politicians such as Theodore G. Bilbo also played a role in the demise of the MFU and similar organizations elsewhere in the South. The NFU continues to exist and boasts considerable membership in other parts of country but has almost no presence in the states of the former Confederacy.
- Stephen E. Ambrose, Georgia Historical Quarterly (March 1964)
- Charles C. Bolton, Poor Whites of the Antebellum South: Tenants and Laborers in Central North Carolina and Northeast Mississippi (1994)
- William Tucker, Agricultural History (October 1947)
- Harold D. Woodman, New South—New Law: The Legal Foundations of Credit and Labor Relations in the Postbellum Agricultural South (1995)