Southern History Month 2019: The Great Revolt of the Rednecks

Editor’s Note: There won’t be many posts today because we are traveling to the great State of Mississippi which aside from Alabama is my favorite state.

I would like to open this article with a fascinating excerpt from Albert D. Kirwin’s book Revolt of the Rednecks: Mississippi Politics, 1876-1925:

“The one-party system which prevailed in Mississippi after 1876 vested the power of election in the party convention and the control of the convention in the hands of comparatively few men. The dissatisfaction which this one-party system produced was closely linked with economic depression. In the period 1880-1890 conditions were generally bad, but after the latter date they grew worse. In 1878 production of cotton in the South had equalled the mark set in 1860, and thereafter it steadily increased until by 1890 the production of 1860 was doubled. This increase was reflected by a drop in price. At the same time production in other parts of the world was bringing outside competition. Until 1890 the price of cotton hovered around 11 cents. By 1892 the price had dropped to 7 1/2 cents. From there it descended, with occasional small but temporary increases, to 4.9 cents in 1898. Seven-cent cotton was considered below the cost of production, and farms had to be mortgaged to pay the lien merchant. But banks were reluctant to lend money on even good lands, and interest rates were high.

The farmer became convinced he was the “forgotten man.” To him it seemed that an enemy class – “Wall Street speculators who gambled on his crop futures; the railroad owners who evaded taxes, bought legislatures, and overcharged him with discriminate rates; the manufacturers, who taxed him with a high tariff; the trusts, that fleeced him with high prices; the middleman, who stole his profit” – had got control of the Democratic Party – the party which had redeemed him from Negro-Republican Rule. To seek salvation in the Republican Party was as useless materially as it was unthinkable morally, for the farmer it seemed that that party was even more abandoned to the power of the trusts than was his own. The result of all this discontent was the formation of the Populist Party

The farmers believed that their old leaders had abandoned them and were “just as much the tools of plutocratic opinion” as were the Republican leaders. The agricultural interest, they argued, was not regarded at heart by either of the old parties. “What they call ‘vested rights’ and ‘business interests’ will finally control them,” said the Populists. The old parties were “Tools of the money power,” “Cowards when it comes to any real protection of the many against the organized robberies of the few.” These and other phrases were dinned into the ears of Mississippi farmers by the leaders of the new party. Finally the farmers, “Oppressed, depressed, and suppressed,” knowing something was wrong somewhere though they knew not precisely where, “like drowning men, were willing to catch at straws. …

The leader of the Mississippi Populists was Frank Burkitt, former Democratic agrarian leader and editor of the Chickasaw Messenger. Both he and Barksdale had accepted the principles of the Ocala platform in 1891, but both sought at first to effect reforms within the Democratic Party. With the defeat of Barksdale, Burkitt went into open revolt and began organizing the Populists to overthrow what he called the “putrid, putrescent, putrifying political moribund carcass of the bourbon democracy.”

In the 1890s, the Mississippi farmer was caught between a rock and a hard place: the black majority supported the Republican Party while the Democratic Party was controlled by conservative Bourbon Democrats. The Bourbon Democrats supported the hardcore free-market, laissez-faire capitalism that had punished the farmer for the past twenty years. Driven to the end of his rope by 4 cent cotton, the redneck finally revolted against the Bourbon Democratic establishment.

Led by their “Great White Chief” James K. Vardaman, the rednecks triumphed over the Bourbon Democrats in the 1903 gubernatorial election and White populists ruled Mississippi politics for much of the early 20th century. We’ve already seen how Rep. John Rankin of Mississippi gave E. Michael Edelstein a heart attack on the floor of Congress by triggering him with accusations that his fellow Jews were trying to incite a war between the United States and Hitler’s Germany.

Rep. John Rankin, a populist from Mississippi who served sixteen terms in Congress later worked with Sen. George Norris, a progressive from Nebraska, as well as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to create the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Rural Electrification Administration both of which galvanized the economy of the Tennessee Valley in the mid-20th century. While Mississippi is still the poorest state in the Union in the 21st century, it no longer suffers from things like pellagra, hookworms, malaria and yellow fever which were eradicated in the state in those decades, as well as sharecropping which was ended by the mechanization of the cotton crop.

From a historicist perspective, one can make a strong argument that Mississippi’s social and economic development was cut short by the political disaster that was the Civil Rights Movement. It shattered the New Deal coalition and led to a resurgence of “conservatism” in the state – Barry Goldwater carried Mississippi in the 1964 election. While it is true that Mississippi was notorious for lynching in Vardaman’s time, lynching had become almost non-existent by the 1950s. The mainstream media seized on the Emmett Till case, which was really an isolated incident, in order to inflame racial tensions and portray Mississippi and the South in general in an extremely negative light.


Lynching had nearly vanished in the 1950s South.

The underlying cause of this was that the South had grown richer and subsequently more tolerant. As the Southern economy improved under FDR, lynching gradually disappeared although the issue was still argued about in Congress. Recently, Sen. Cory Booker and Sen. Kamala Harris took a bold stand against the non-existent problem of lynching in the 21st century, and passed a federal anti-lynching bill which never passed Congress in the 20th century because lynching had become a moot issue.

It is interesting to read about how in Vardaman’s time redneck identity had become a source of pride. White populists in Mississippi embraced their redneck identity. His supporters showed up to Vardaman rallies wearing red neckerchiefs, which strangely enough, is a custom that our opponents in the “Redneck Revolt” group revived at Pikeville. As for Vardaman, he was only one of 6 US senators (along with Sen. George Norris) who had the guts to vote against America’s entry into World War I, a conflict which devastated Europe and cost the lives of 117,000 American soldiers.

While his vote against President Woodrow Wilson’s war against Imperial Germany to make “the world safe for democracy” cost him his seat in Congress, we ought to look back more charitably on James K. Vardaman’s tenure in the US Senate as his vote against that tragic conflict was certainly more important and more humanitarian than whatever might be thrown at him on account of his racism.

Gov. Theodore Bilbo and later Sen. Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi was another famous racist populist from Mississippi. “Bilbo the Builder” was simultaneously a populist, a progressive and a segregationist. He supported the New Deal and federal investment in the Mississippi of the 1930s. We shall take a closer look at his life in another one of the articles in this series. It’s kind of fascinating because economic development would later take the harsh edge off the “racism” of Mississippi

Note: If I was a “Democratic strategist” and I really wanted to knock off US Sen. Cindy Hyde Smith in her “Safe R” seat in Mississippi, then I would run a candidate like, well, someone like me who is a White populist who values social cohesion and economic fairness.

Populists outnumber True Conservatives

Back in 2016, I knew that Blompf was going to destroy his rivals in Alabama and Mississippi because as a historicist I knew this region, which used to be known as the Old Southwest, is the populist heartland. The White voters in these states are still disaffected populists in the 21st century.

joking/not joking Lyin’ Ted and Little Marco didn’t have a chance

joking/not joking Could a modern day George Wallace win Alabama in 2019? Look how easily Blompf won here in 2016

You wouldn’t even have to run someone as edgy as Vardaman, Rankin, Bilbo or Wallace to win over Gen Xers, Millennials and Zoomers who are White populists in 2019.

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  1. Interesting piece. But let’s get real about the new Lynching bill, they are going to bludgeon any whites over the head with this law if any whites defend themselves against black people! It’s not just an arcane dispute they wanted the last say over. It’s an actionable law they want to wage lawfare with!

  2. Brad, you are doing a very good job of showing a different political angle of post Civil war Southern history. We are very Regan(GOP/Supply side) centric in our thoughts but it appears that wasn’t always the case. You are making a very thought provoking analogy for what Yang is proposing and what we benefited from early in the 20th century.

    I still am of the opinion the current Democrat party is the wrong party to be entrusted with this change due to their moral corruption. I believe Yang won’t win a general election, but you get credit for having the political savvy and understanding to see the next political/economic phase we are entering.

    • @Mark Saint

      “I still am of the opinion the current Democrat party is the wrong party”

      I thoroughly agree.

      “I believe Yang won’t win a general election”

      I don’t think he’ll even make it to the primaries. It’s going to come down to Biden and the other three or four “normie” White men. The party is still, after all, rooted in the late 20th Century.

  3. I have had arguments with people over the idea that the South aren’t populists and rather are just conservatives who only care about social issues. Donald Trump proved this isn’t true. The South when given an actual choice will choose a populist over a conservative.

    Donald Trump only gave some lip service to social conservatism but ran mostly as a new deal Democrat. Ted Cruz literally focused and ran as a social conservative so why didn’t he win Mississippi? Donald Trump pulled off a clean sweep of Southern states as a crude New Yorker and former Democrat – that wasn’t suppose to happen. Ted Cruz only thrived out west. He did nothing in the South. Trump’s populist economic focus was the key to him winning over Southerners. They were satisfied with Trump being a milquetoast social conservative in exchange for an economic populist.

  4. If I was a “Democratic strategist”

    You’d only care about Yankeedom and Mexifornia. Not “America®.”

    The votes of the South, and the West outside of Mexifornia, don’t.matter.

    There needs to be a Southern Nationalist Party. Populist in nature and dedicated to socioeconomic improvement and political independence for Dixie.

    The Democratic and Republican parties represent the interests of those who are fundamentally alien and hostile to the South. It’s past time that we got rid of them.

  5. I’m recommending Quaker Oats Instant “Butter” Grits. Just mix in some berries, and your breakfast will be delicious.

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