BLACK FARMERS ORGANIZE SOUTHERN ALLIANCES
The Knights of Labor had never really served the economic interests of agrarians who, by the 1880s, were suffering from a long list of economic maladies. The most significant organization created by Southern farmers to express their grievances in the 1880s was the Farmers’ Alliance, the forerunner of the Populist, or People’s Party. While the Populists created a third party movement, the Alliances preferred to remain within the Democratic Party.47
Founded in Lampasas County, Texas, in 1874 or 1875, as a cooperative for purchasing farm supplies, the organization expanded, quickly spreading eastward and merging with similar groups. By 1887 the National Farmers’ Alliance, usually known as the Southern Alliance, had become a major agrarian force in the South.
The Southern Alliance did not admit blacks, but with three-quarters of the Negro population engaged in agriculture, it was imperative that a parallel black organization be created. Thus, the Colored Alliance was founded December 11, 1886, in Houston County, Texas. It had a magnetic attraction for poverty-stricken black farmers. In 1888 movement leaders decided, for legal purposes, to regard the Colored Alliance as a trade union, and the Colored Farmers’ National Alliance and Cooperative Union officially was born (Doc. 1, 14–15). The Colored Alliance recognized that while whites refused to admit them into the same organization, blacks themselves had little desire to integrate at this time. In fact, one of the key reasons for the separate Colored Alliance was the increasing emphasis of blacks upon self-help as an uplift strategy. Separate racial organization was a short-term tactic to attain wealth and power which, it was believed, would earn the respect of whites and eventually lead to equality. The two Alliances worked together closely, however, especially in the recruitment and organization of Negro farmers. Nevertheless, social imperatives in the South required that whites control a subordinate black population, and this significantly hampered the development of Negro self-sufficiency. The conditions of life and labor, and the major concerns of the Colored Alliance are partially demonstrated in Documents 2–5, 17–19, 25. The cooperation and strains in race relations between the black and white Alliances are shown in Documents 16, 20–21, 24–32.
The downfall of the Colored Alliance resulted from a combination of factors, but disunity constituted a major problem. As late as 1889 there were two Colored Alliances until a compromise was finally achieved in 1890. Moreover, after dedicating itself to economic uplift, the organization had to produce some tangible results in the fight to arrest the economic erosion of poverty-ridden black farmers. Therefore, in 1891 the Colored Alliance unwisely became involved in an abortive strike which led to the eventual demise of the union. In the fall of that year, numerous merchants and planters, especially in Tennessee and South Carolina, formed an organization to cut the already demoralizingly low wages of cotton pickers (Doc. 33–35). Even though the Alliance had no chance to win a strike against the powerful planter-merchant coalition, pressures from the membership forced the union to become involved. Plans were initiated for a general strike on a scale unprecedented in the history of black labor. Strike plans were maintained in a shroud of secrecy; not even the white Alliance was informed. In the end, however, the massive work stoppage never materialized, primarily because of poor organization, disunity, and inadequate finances. Small sporadic strikes actually occurred only in Arkansas and South Carolina, and there they were viciously suppressed (Doc. 50–65). After the 1891 strike most of the approximately one million black members became disillusioned with the Colored Alliance and drifted away to be absorbed into the Populist protest.