On September 25, 1891, a battle broke out in Lee County, Arkansas, in the Mississippi Delta, between members of the Colored Farmers Alliance and others, both black and white, who opposed their organizing for better wages in cotton picking. This led to the death of two black men who did not want to join the strike and the formation of a posse to crush the movement through lynching anyone they could find. This incident demonstrates both the continued organizing for black economic rights in the post-Reconstruction era and the violence whites would use then and for decades after to ensure as near to complete control over black labor as possible.
The Farmers Alliance began in 1877, developing out of a series of white farm movements in the post-Reconstruction South and Great Plains, largely based on the inequalities of the Gilded Age for rural America, particularly the dominance of eastern capital and railroad monopolies over their lives. This was a fraught time for political organizing, as the white elite had just recaptured power in the South and was not accepting of challenges to that. Yet many of these farmer leaders realized they could not advance their cause without recognizing the reality that most African-Americans shared the same problems they did. This caused a variety of responses, but they coalesced around the idea of a limited form of cross-racial organizing. Thus the Colored Farmers Alliance formed in 1886, making the organizations segregated but with similar goals.
But they really weren’t that similar. The Colored Farmers Alliance had special issues to take on, most notably the use of violence against black farmers and the rise of sharecropping. That new form of economic arrangements on farms would eventually capture a lot of white farmers too, but in its early days, it was a sort of compromise between black desires for land after the Civil War and white planter desires to reinstitute slave labor. Sharecropping was incredibly exploitative but did give black farmers a minimal amount of daily independence. The rise of Jim Crow was accompanied by mass violence and that was very much aimed at the continued economic organizing of the ex-slaves and their descendants. Given that employers were more than happy to use violence against white workers in this period, they were sure not going to shy away from using it against black workers.
Moreover, white landowners often conspired to keep black wages down and often outright cheating them of the fruits of their labor. But the Colored Farmers’ Alliance had success organizing the sharecroppers, at least in some areas. Although organizing African-Americans, the Colored Farmers’ Alliance had started on the east Texas farm of a white allianceman named R.M. Humphrey and five years later he still led the organization. He wanted a big strike of black cotton farmers in 1891, even as the two alliances had split the year before, sadly over the issue of race. An 1890 congressional bill to stamp down on voter suppression in the South brought the white Farmers Alliance right back into the arms of the white southern elite in the common cause of whiteness.
The 1891 strike called for a doubling of wages, from 50 cents to $1 per 100 pounds of cotton. Worried about a lack of organizing and a complete inability to protect any black farmer who participated from being murdered, the original strike deadline of September 12 passed without incident. A week later though, a landowner who lived in Memphis and was the absentee owner of land in Lee County publicly said he had nothing against paying $1 a pound if he necessary. This moment of hope led CFA members in Lee County to strike, demanding only 75 cents per 100 pounds. A man named Ben Patterson, an African-American organizer from Memphis, came out to lead the action. Mostly, it was concentrated on only a few farms, even as organizers reached out to others around this majority black county. But with little organization ahead of time and the fear of violence very real, they demurred.
Not surprisingly, the white power structure in Lee County responded with the racist violence so common during these years. Desperate, the black farmers resorted to violence themselves, with the killing of the two farmers who would not join. This was not planned, but a fight broke out and things went from there. The killing of the two farmworkers was just the beginning. On September 28, two strikers killed a farm manager and others burned a cotton gin. In the aftermath of this initial violence, the county sheriff formed a posse to repress the strike. There may have been some black members of the posse, although information is sketchy. The small number of black landowners did not want to pay the higher wages any more than whites did. The posse reacted with maximum force. By the next day, many of the strikers had fled to Cat Island in the Mississippi River. The posse hunted them down there and murdered two strikers. They captured ten others. They were lynched. Patterson nearly escaped but was recognized on a steamboat and killed as well. Probably 15 strikers died and another 6 were captured. There would be no black organizing in Lee County. The murders received national newspaper coverage, but of course nothing happened to the killers.
Ultimately, this was a complete disaster for the black farmworkers of Lee County who tried to make a better life for themselves, but the sheer desperation of the action and the utter bravery of organizing in the face of entirely expected white violence is really remarkable. The 1890s South, rural and urban, was a very scary time and place for any African-American, not to mention people directly challenging the white power structure. Southern elites also used this incident to damn the entire Populist movement, claiming it riled up black workers and undermined the color line in ways unacceptable to a South where Jim Crow was still young and not fully implemented.
The Colored Farmers Alliance died soon after that, grounded on the shoals of white violence and the inability of the white South, even the poor who recognized some common ground with black farmers, to put away racial animus to focus on their common class interests. Good thing there’s nothing similar to this in our nation today.
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