Beginning in 1892, many of Mississippi’s white small farmers rushed to join a new political party. Known as the People’s Party or Populist Party, it was part of a nationwide movement that proved strongest among farmers in the southern and western states. In Mississippi, as in many parts of the nation, the Populist Party grew out of the Farmers’ Alliance. The party increased in strength as the nation slid into a deep economic depression. Mississippi and other cotton states were particularly hard hit as cotton prices hit near-record lows.
Most of Mississippi’s Populist politicians were farmers, with some teachers, physicians, and agrarian editors among the party leaders. The party was strongest in white-majority counties with declining soils where corn was nearly as important as cotton. Many of these counties—Choctaw, Webster, Chickasaw, Winston, and Pontotoc—were located in northeastern Mississippi. In the southwestern corner of the state, Franklin, Amite, and Lawrence Counties also boasted relatively strong support for the Populists.
Economically strapped farmers applauded the Populist platform, which included inflation of the money supply by free coinage of silver, government ownership of railroads, low tariffs, and low taxes. Many Populist leaders also favored prohibition of alcoholic beverages. One favorite proposal of the Populists was the subtreasury system, under which the US government would build warehouses in which farmers could store their crops and wait for a better time to sell. In addition, the government would provide loans to farmers using the stored commodities as collateral.
In January 1894 Mississippi was rocked by the news that twenty-two members of the state legislature had deserted the Democratic Party to form a Populist Party caucus. Yet the Populists proved unable to follow up on this mass defection by winning important elections. Although some 130 Populists were elected to office in Mississippi, most occupied minor positions such as justice of the peace or member of the county board of supervisors. The party’s strength in the state peaked with the 1894 election and declined steadily thereafter. Agrarian editor Frank Burkitt garnered only 28 percent of the vote as the People’s Party 1895 gubernatorial nominee. Nevertheless, the Populist Party is important for offering a challenge to the Democratic Party in a state where the Democrats typically held all political power.
- Stephen Cresswell, Multiparty Politics in Mississippi, 1877–1902 (1995)
- Albert D. Kirwan, Revolt of the Rednecks, 1876–1925 (1951)
- Robert C. McMath Jr., American Populism: A Social History (1993)