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Racism and class solidarity in history of the US South

This article is over 16 years, 10 months old
On the 50th anniversary of the campaign against school segregation in Little Rock, Ken Olende looks at how racism and class solidarity have always pulled the South in different directions
Issue 2069
Black troops in the Union army during the civil war - Company E, 4th US Coloured Infantry
Black troops in the Union army during the civil war – Company E, 4th US Coloured Infantry

Histories of the US civil rights movement tend to present Southern whites as a solid mass of unchanging reaction. The reality was more complex than this.

Since the introduction of the racist “Jim Crow” laws after 1896, schools and other services in the South had been theoretically provided on a “separate but equal” basis.

In reality this meant lack of resources for black people while the money went to white areas.

But the racist division did not affect all whites equally – underfunded services and overcrowded schools were also a feature of life for poor whites.

Arguments about the position of black people had raged since the US was founded with some states being allowed to maintain slavery.

In the 1860s the newly formed Republican Party, led by Abraham Lincoln, wanted new states being established in the west to use wage labour rather than slave labour.

It saw the Southern plantation economy, which was dominated by the Democratic Party and run on slave labour, as a block on further economic development.

The issue led to civil war. Though it started out concerning more efficient ways to make profit, as it progressed the aims of the Northern Union forces were forced to change. To undermine the South the liberation of the slaves became a necessity – just stopping slavery spreading to new states was not enough.

The North’s victory in 1865 was in no small measure due to the active support of slaves and former slaves.

There was a social crisis across the devastated southern states after the war. Its whole social system had collapsed and there was no clear plan for what would replace it.

The Northern elite looked to the defeated Southern rulers to reconstruct the South’s devastated economy. It turned a blind eye to the formation of the Ku Klux Klan and a campaign of terror against the radicalised ex-slaves.

Acquiescence to the old rulers caused problems for the Republicans. It blocked the expansion of Northern capital into the South and helped revive the electoral fortunes of the Democrats.

After two years, the radical wing of the Republican Party gained control and a different vision of the South emerged.

Black people voting during Radical Reconstruction. An illustration from Harpers Weekly

Black people voting during Radical Reconstruction. An illustration from Harpers Weekly

In the years of Radical Reconstruction from about 1868-76 the vote was extended to black people and the Republican Party extended its support from blacks to poor whites by appealing to them on a class basis.

One statement said: ‘Let the slave holding aristocracy no longer rule you. Vote for a constitution which educates your children free of charge, relieves the poor debtor from his rich creditor… and more than all places you on a level with those who used to boast that for every slave they were entitled to three fifths of a vote in congressional representation.’

Social change spread across the South. For instance, Mississippi’s 1868 constitution created a racially mixed public school system, and hundreds of schools were built.


Fourteen black congressmen and two black senators were elected. Over 800 public legislators were black. All were from the South.

However in what was still a rural economy, most of the land was still owned by the former slave owners. Now the war was over northern capitalists had no taste for the confiscation of property to give the former slaves or the poor whites somewhere to farm, whatever may have been promised in the heat of battle. The majority of both had little choice but to work as sharecroppers on large plantations.

Most of the Northern rich felt more comfortable dealing with the former slave owners than the radicals in their own party.

By the end of the 1870s the old Southern elite had been allowed to re-establish its rule through a campaign of electoral fraud and savage Klan violence.

This was a catastrophe for the ex-slaves and a historic defeat for poor whites. A Mississippi poll tax aimed at excluding blacks from the vote also reduced the white electorate from 130,000 to 68,000.

The mass Populist movement in the 1890s once again fought to take the South in a different direction.

Tom Watson in the 1890s

Tom Watson in the 1890s

Populist leader Tom Watson said of the typical Southern white and black man, “You are kept apart that you may be separately fleeced of your earnings. You are made to hate each other because upon that hatred is rested the keystone of the arch of financial despotism that enslaves you both.”

When black Populist Reverend RS Doyle was threatened with lynching, 2,000 whites came to defend him. Black people also had positions in the leadership of the movement.

The South’s rulers saw this as a return to Reconstruction and dealt with it in the same way.

A combination of repression and an ill-advised deal with the Democrats – who had adopted some of the movement’s rhetoric – finished the Populists.

Their vote reached 1.5 million in 1894, but totally collapsed in 1896.

This disintegration brought despair to those who had looked for a multi-racial, class based solution in the South. Tragically, their own leader Tom Watson would re-emerge as a vicious racist.

This was when the Jim Crow laws were established. Between 1882 and 1903, 2,060 black people were lynched.

Once again, though the degree was different, poor whites suffered too. In Louisiana the black electorate fell by 90 percent and the white by 60 percent.

Through the early 20th century the South changed as fewer people worked as sharecroppers isolated on the land and more were workers in towns and cities where direct Klan intimidation was harder. More and more blacks also moved north.

Continuing segregation held back white workers’ ability to resist. Those demanding wage increases or better working conditions could be threatened with replacement by cheaper black labour.

Occasionally aspects of the populist tradition revived.

In the 1930s Huey P Long became governor of Louisiana. His slogan was ‘Every man a king – share our wealth’. Though he avoided discussing race, his redistributive policies made him popular among blacks as well as whites.

In the same period the Communist Party was able to make considerable inroads, both in the cities and among miners and rural sharecroppers.


After the Second World War there was a widespread growth in progressive, trade union and anti-racist resistance.

The establishment hit back with Senator Joe McCarthy’s anti-Communist hearings. This assault froze US radicalism. The NAACP purged itself of leaders associated with the left.

It was not just among southern whites that the most conservative values predominated in the early 1950s.

The whites who jeered at the Little Rock Nine saw their fortunes attached to segregation and the ex-plantation owning white establishment of the South.

In fact they were wrong about this in two ways. Firstly that class was no longer dominant. By the 1950s the most powerful money in the South was coming from industrialists not plantation owners. The wealth of these new rulers was not based on Jim Crow and they tended to oppose overt segregation as bad for business.

But secondly allying with white rulers against the black poor only went to maintain the low status of poor whites in the South.

The increasingly radical civil rights and then black power movements that grew out of the Montgomery bus boycott and the Little Rock Nine would lead to the growth of a new left that would seriously challenge the whole US system – and ended Jim Crow.

The civil rights movement made a major step forward for black people in the US by removing the official acceptance of their second-class status. However, as residents of the Northern ghettos already knew, there was more to US racism than Jim Crow.

The recent confrontation at a school in Jena, Louisiana, over black pupils requesting the right to sit under a tree that was traditionally reserved for whites and its bitter fall out shows how racism continues to fester.

Statistics from across the US show that this is not a particularly Southern problem. In fact the five most segregated cities are all in the North, as are the ten states with the greatest discrepancy between black and white rates of imprisonment.

The civil rights period has been called the second reconstruction.

As in the first, powerful struggles led to enormous changes in the lives of black people, but failed to dislodge racism’s root causes.

This problem will not be overcome without taking on the ability of the US’s rulers to divide and rule the poor, both black and white.

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