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Populism in Alabama

In the 1890s a political movement swept through Alabama that challenged the dominant Democratic party and gave hope that Alabama's poorest people, white and black, might gain the power they needed to achieve a better life. Initially a farmers' movement, its goal was to insure farmers their independence from elites who controlled the nation's economic and political system, but it was more than just an agrarian uprising.

Between 1885 and 1890 farmers in southern and western states joined the national Farmers' Alliance, which pledged to help them recover from an agricultural depression that had settled over rural America. Alliance leaders, who garnered 125,000 Alabama members, argued that farmers needed help from government programs designed to raise farm prices and make credit more readily available in rural areas. To achieve its aims the Alliance had to elect politicians favorable to its cause, and, in Alabama, they needed the blessing of the Democratic party.

Republicans were hated in the South because of their actions during Reconstruction. Thus, every Alabama state official elected between 1874 and 1892 was a Democrat, and it was practically impossible for other parties to win. When Alliance leader Reuben F. Kolb sought the 1890 Democratic nomination for governor, the wealthy Black Belt planters and urban industrialists who controlled the state Democratic convention used unfair tactics to defeat him. These events led Alliance sympathizers to create the Jeffersonian Democratic party in 1892, and they nominated Kolb to run for governor against Democratic nominee Thomas Goode Jones.

A national organization, formally named the People's party, but widely known as the Populist party, had already been formed by Alliance leaders from other states. Many Alabamians joined it. People's Party members and Jeffersonian Democrats who united to support Kolb and other candidates for state and local offices were referred to simply as "Populists." Republicans, who wanted to defeat Democrats, endorsed this upstart coalition.

Populist support for radical economic remedies and greater democracy in the political system appealed not only to farmers, but to north Alabama coal miners, and to blacks. When Populists broke with tradition and publicly asked for black support they created the gravest threat to the Democrats' power since Reconstruction. Democrats told whites that if Populists won blacks would take over the state, but they made sure that votes cast by blacks went to their party. Historians believe Kolb actually got more votes, but Black Belt Democrats stuffed ballot boxes and stole the votes of blacks to insure a Democratic victory. Jones was declared the winner, and when Populists tried again in 1894, Democrats employed the same tactics with success. Populists protested the voter fraud, but Democratic election officials ignored the protests. Alabama's Populists nominated another ticket in 1896, but a split in their national party impaired their efforts, and they lost again. It was their last serious challenge to Democratic party power in Alabama.

Despite their defeats, Alabama's Populists were not a total failure. They elected more than a third of the state legislature, two U.S. congressmen, and many county officials. Thousands of Alabamians were brought into the political process because of this exciting political uprising. In north Alabama, candidates still ran successfully for local office as Populists between 1900 and 1910. The movement also raised the possibility that blacks and whites might form a biracial coalition that could have had positive effects on future race relations in the state.