Populist Movement

Support for a new party to represent farmers’ interests began to emerge in some Mississippi hill counties in January 1891 as falling cotton prices and rising costs of production meant that many small farmers could not meet the demands of unsympathetic creditors. To help them achieve economic independence, the Southern Farmers’ Alliance had proposed an innovative federal subtreasury loan and marketing program, which leaders of the National Alliance endorsed at a December 1890 meeting in Ocala, Florida. The subtreasury plan called for the federal government to store harvested crops in local warehouses, provide farmers with low-interest loans for 80 percent of the market value of the crops, and allow borrowers a reasonable time to redeem loans and sell crops if prices rose. The subtreasury became a controversial issue in state politics and provided fuel for insurgency in the Democratic Party’s ranks.

During the 1891 US Senate race, which pitted retired newspaper editor Ethelbert Barksdale, a strong subtreasury supporter, against Sen. James Z. George, an outspoken opponent of the plan, Alliance leader Frank Burkitt traveled from county to county to encourage members to stand united behind Barksdale. Leaders of the Southern Alliance came to the state in the heat of the canvass to boost Barksdale’s candidacy. Most of the county Alliances endorsed Barksdale, but the editor of the state’s Alliance newspaper and several prominent Alliance lecturers came out for George. The incumbent senator and his supporters aroused fears that militant farm leaders threatened white political solidarity, and he won reelection.

Despite bitterness over the loss, Barksdale opposed the formation of a third party. Burkitt and J. H. Jamison, president of the state Alliance, also defeated a move after the election to convert the farm organization into an agency of the People’s Party, known as the Populists. As dissident farm leaders organized the state People’s Party in 1892, they branded Burkitt a traitor for not joining them. At the state Democratic convention in April 1892, Burkitt served on the resolutions committee, and the party adopted the Alliance stand on national monetary policy—a bimetallic standard and a full and sufficient supply of money. Party leaders chose Burkitt to serve as one of the state’s two Democratic electors at large and as a delegate to the party’s national convention. The free and unlimited coinage of silver had become the primary goal of farm leaders by this time, but Burkitt pledged at the convention to support the party’s nominee, Grover Cleveland, an advocate of hard-money policies. Several weeks later, however, when Congress failed to pass a silver bill, Burkitt resigned his Democratic electoral post and joined the Populists. His decision injected new life into the third-party movement and gave it the strong leadership needed to challenge the Democratic Party’s monopoly in state politics.

In the 1892 general election, the Populists entered candidates in all of the state’s congressional districts except the Delta, where a black Republican challenged the Democratic incumbent. As the Democrats rallied to meet the Populist threat, they showed more concern about the 4th District race in North Mississippi between the People’s Party’s Burkitt and incumbent congressman Hernando de Soto Money. The two men had been political adversaries since 1882, when Money had made disparaging remarks about the Grangers, and some of the white yeomanry had neither forgotten nor forgiven. Prominent Democrats came to the district to denounce the Populists as a threat to white rule and to blame the Republicans for the farmers’ woes. Money defeated Burkitt by 2,318 votes, although the latter carried Chickasaw, Choctaw, Pontotoc, and Webster Counties. In the presidential contest, Cleveland received four times as many statewide votes as the Populist candidate, former Union general James B. Weaver, while Pres. Benjamin Harrison, the Republican candidate, trailed even farther behind. The Populists carried only Chickasaw County in the presidential race, but they achieved a measure of success by electing officials in some of the county contests.

The People’s Party challenged the Democrats in all of the state’s congressional districts in 1894. The Prohibitionists fused with the Populists in some districts, but none of the races generated much interest. Voter turnout fell well below that in 1892, and the Populists carried only five counties in the north and two in the south. Three of the Populist candidates challenged the results on grounds that the suffrage restrictions in the state’s constitution disfranchised illiterate voters, most of whom were black. The House Committee on Elections threw out the challenges, however, and declared that the Democrats were entitled to their seats.

The Populists nominated a full slate of candidates for state offices in 1895, but the gubernatorial contest between Democrat Anselm J. McLaurin and Burkitt attracted the most interest. Burkitt charged that Democrats had been corrupt and inefficient in managing state affairs, but McLaurin put his Populist opponent on the defensive by questioning his endorsement of the national Democratic ticket shortly before his defection to the People’s Party. McLaurin had served fourteen months of a vacated term in the US Senate, where he had supported free coinage of silver, an income tax, and other planks in the Populist platform. Rural voters admired and trusted him, and he carried every county except Choctaw. The Democrats easily defeated the Populists in every statewide contest, and only Marion and Choctaw Counties elected Populists to the state legislature. After the election, support for the Populist movement in Mississippi waned.

At the national convention of the People’s Party in 1896, the Mississippi delegation opposed a fusion ticket with the Democrats, who earlier had nominated charismatic silver advocate William Jennings Bryan for president and pledged support for the coinage of silver at a ratio of sixteen to one with gold. While the Populists accepted Bryan as their presidential nominee, they rejected the Democrat’s vice presidential nominee, Maine industrialist Arthur Sewall, and instead nominated fiery Georgian Tom Watson. The Bryan-Sewall ticket garnered seven times as many votes in Mississippi as the Bryan-Watson slate, which failed to carry a single county. The Populists lost in all of the congressional races and carried only Marion County in the southwestern part of the state.

In 1898 the Populists did not challenge the Democrats in three of Mississippi’s congressional districts and offered little opposition in the others. The following year, they nominated Dr. Rufus K. Prewitt of Choctaw County, editor of a Populist newspaper, the Phagocite, to oppose Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew H. Longino, but Prewitt’s candidacy generated little interest, garnering a mere 6,421 votes to Longino’s 42,227. Although the Populists in Marion and Franklin elected two legislators, the People’s Party never again challenged the Democrats for any statewide office.

Burkitt returned to the Democratic fold in 1900 and voted for Bryan in the presidential election. The Populists entered congressional candidates in two Mississippi districts that year but picked up a total of just eleven hundred votes. A few members of the People’s Party met to choose a slate of electors for the presidential elections in 1904 and 1908, but the Populist movement in Mississippi subsequently ceased to exist.

The Populists never had any real chance for success in Mississippi. The Democrats stole the thunder from the Populists and became the party of free silver, and the agricultural economy improved in the late 1890s. The overriding factor, however, was that most of the state’s voters simply refused to break the ranks of white political solidarity. After passage of the mandatory statewide primary law in 1902, the Democrats had a virtual monopoly in state politics, and the white man’s party did not face another serious political challenge for the next sixty years.

Further Reading

  • Edward L. Ayers, The Promise of the New South: Life after Reconstruction (1992)
  • Bradley G. Bond, Political Culture in the Nineteenth-Century South: Mississippi, 1830–1900 (1995)
  • Thomas N. Boschert, “A Family Affair: Mississippi Politics, 1882–1932” (PhD dissertation, University of Mississippi, 1995)
  • Lilibel Broadway, “Frank Burkitt: The Man in the Wool Hat” (master’s thesis, Mississippi State College, 1948)
  • Stephen Edward Cresswell, Multiparty Politics in Mississippi, 1877–1902 (2005)
  • James Sharbrough Ferguson, “Agrarianism in Mississippi, 1871–1900” (PhD dissertation, University of North Carolina, 1952)
  • Lawrence Goodwyn, Democratic Promise: The Populist Moment in America (1976)
  • William David McCain, “The Populist Party in Mississippi” (master’s thesis, University of Mississippi, 1931)
  • May Spencer Ringold, Journal of Mississippi History (July 1954)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Populist Movement
  • Author
  • Website Name Mississippi Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date July 8, 2020
  • Publisher Center for Study of Southern Culture
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 14, 2018