In the late 1870s and early 1880s, Mississippi’s Republicans, Greenbackers, and independents joined forces to attempt to overthrow the entrenched Democrats. After some brief successes in the early 1880s, the experiment in fusion and cooperation declined, and Democrats moved the state toward the disfranchisement of African Americans in the 1890s. A solid, one-party state emerged.
Fusion politics arose for several reasons. First, an economic downturn and decline in cotton prices led many agrarians to support the new Greenback Party, which promised an inflated currency and government intervention in the economy. Beginning in the late 1870s, the Mississippi Greenback Party found support among former Whigs, some African Americans, and some white small farmers. Greenback strength was concentrated in the north-central section of the state. Second, the Democratic Party, controlled by merchants, lawyers, and railroad interests, refused to accede to the small farmers’ demands. Third, straight tickets of Republicans, Greenbackers, and independents at the county and congressional levels could not win in four-way fights, so leaders and activists advocated fusion tickets. Fusion was a marriage of convenience, not an ideological or programmatically coherent enterprise: the parties never formally fused but merely saw cooperating as the only way to defeat the Democrats. To coalesce, fusionists focused on securing federal supervisors of elections (and thus, honest elections) and local control of government (home rule).
To siphon off Democrats and appeal to more than just activists, the fusionists persuaded several important Democrats to bolt their party. Former Democrat Benjamin King, a state senator from Copiah County, ran for the governorship in 1881, winning 40 percent of the vote but losing to Robert Lowry. Other converts included lawyer Elza Jeffords and Confederate hero James R. Chalmers. Despite massive fraud and violence across the state, the fusionists captured two congressional districts in 1882—one after a contested election case—and won scores of local offices. However, not all opponents of Democrats favored fusion. Some Republicans and Greenbackers ran independently. Some African Americans, including Republican leader John R. Lynch, preferred sharing offices with Democrats to guarantee that at least some Republicans would hold office, particularly in the Black Belt, where political fraud and violence were common.
Fusionists’ victories proved sporadic and short-lived. The Democrats, seeing their power erode and fearing that fusion politics might expand, co-opted much of the Greenbackers’ platform; used fraud and violence to steal scores of elections, leading to a US Senate investigation in 1883; and used the color line to lambaste their opponents. In addition, the fusionists began to divide over strategy and office sharing. Many fusionists became disillusioned and demoralized as their newspapers closed down and the Democrats controlled the national government. By 1886 fusion forces were in disarray, and by the end of the decade, in the face of terrible violence and massive fraud, the experiment was dead. Not until the rise of the Populist Party in the 1890s would Democratic hegemony again come under threat.
Despite the fusion forces’ failure to sustain their opposition to the Democrats, capture the governorship, or control the state legislature, the fusion experiment affected Mississippi politics. It showed that alliances could oust the Democrats and that grassroots oppositional movements could work, a legacy on which the Populists built. Fusion forced the Democrats, at least for a time, to acknowledge farming interests, though the party’s leadership quickly returned to ignoring agrarian issues in the 1890s.
- Stephen Cresswell, Multiparty Politics in Mississippi, 1877–1902 (1995)
- Michael R. Hyman, The Anti-Redeemers: Hill Country Political Dissenters in the Lower South from Redemption to Populism (1990)
- Albert D. Kirwan, Revolt of the Rednecks: Mississippi Politics, 1876–1925 (1951)