During the tumultuous “great upheaval” of American labor in the mid-1880s, the Knights of Labor became the largest and most powerful labor organization in the nation’s history to that point. Organizing skilled and unskilled workers (including farmers and farm laborers), male and female, white and black, the Knights claimed a national membership of more than seven hundred thousand in 1886. In Mississippi, membership peaked two years later at about three thousand in forty-four chapters, or “local assemblies.” Although the Knights of Labor all but disappeared in the 1890s, the organization nevertheless led some significant labor conflicts and local political challenges in Mississippi and across the nation.
Formed in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in December 1869, the Knights of Labor first appointed southern organizers nine years later. In 1880 the Knights chartered Mississippi’s first local assembly in the rural community of Back Creek. The group lapsed by the end of the year, however, and the Knights did not make another foray into Mississippi until 1882, when the first of Jackson’s five locals received its charter.
Not until 1886 did the Knights begin to organize a significant number of Mississippi workers. Local assemblies already existed in Jackson and Meridian, and the Knights added chapters in Hattiesburg, Natchez, and Vicksburg as well as in lumbering communities along the Gulf Coast. The Knights entered Biloxi in 1887, organizing one hundred employees of canning and fish pickling plants in one local assembly and African American male and female packers and shippers in another.
Although the national leader of the Knights of Labor, General Master Workman Terence V. Powderly, opposed strikes, Knights across the country participated fully in the wave of walkouts that swept the nation during the mid-1880s. In 1887 the Knights struck against a foundry and machine shop in Vicksburg because of late payment of wages, with strikes soon following in Gulf Coast lumber mills to protest fourteen-hour workdays. The Knights won at least some of these strikes and, in keeping with another national trend, ran a labor ticket in Vicksburg’s municipal elections in the spring of 1888, electing the mayor and justice of the peace as well as an alderman.
As in the rest of the nation, however, the Knights of Labor could not maintain momentum in Mississippi. Lumber mill owners banded together and crushed strikes in 1889, and the Knights’ political success in Vicksburg proved an isolated victory. Furthermore, many white farmers left the Knights and joined the fledgling (and ultimately much larger) Farmers’ Alliance. By the early 1890s the Knights’ dwindling membership in Mississippi became increasingly rural and African American. The organization soon faded into oblivion, although local assemblies still existed as late as 1894 in Jackson and Vicksburg and as late as 1900 in rural Harrison and Jackson Counties. Nevertheless, the Knights of Labor played a pioneering role in organizing Mississippi workers in a large variety of occupations, and the Knights’ recruitment of African Americans (albeit into segregated local assemblies) made the organization more racially egalitarian than many labor unions that would follow.
- Leon Fink, Workingmen’s Democracy: The Knights of Labor and American Politics (1983)
- Matthew Hild, Greenbackers, Knights of Labor, and Populists: Farmer-Labor Insurgency in the Late Nineteenth-Century South (2007)
- Melton A. McLaurin, The Knights of Labor in the South (1978)
- Donald C. Mosley, “A History of Labor Unions in Mississippi” (PhD dissertation, University of Alabama, 1965)