In the Lion's Mouth
Black Populism in the New South, 1886-1900
A history of the alliance between black farmers, sharecroppers, and the People's Party
Following the collapse of Reconstruction in 1877, African Americans organized a movement—distinct from the white Populist movement—in the South and parts of the Midwest for economic and political reform: Black Populism. Between 1886 and 1898, tens of thousands of black farmers, sharecroppers, and agrarian workers created their own organizations and tactics primarily under black leadership.
As Black Populism grew as a regional force, it met fierce resistance from the Southern Democrats and constituent white planters and local merchants. African Americans carried out a wide range of activities in this hostile environment. They established farming exchanges and cooperatives; raised money for schools; published newspapers; lobbied for better agrarian legislation; mounted boycotts against agricultural trusts and business monopolies; carried out strikes for better wages; protested the convict lease system, segregated coach boxes, and lynching; demanded black jurors in cases involving black defendants; promoted local political reforms and federal supervision of elections; and ran independent and fusion campaigns.
Growing out of the networks established by black churches and fraternal organizations, Black Populism found further expression in the Colored Agricultural Wheels, the southern branch of the Knights of Labor, the Cooperative Workers of America, the Farmers Union, and the Colored Farmers Alliance. In the early 1890s African Americans, together with their white counterparts, launched the People's Party and ran fusion campaigns with the Republican Party. By the turn of the century, Black Populism had been crushed by relentless attack, hostile propaganda, and targeted assassinations of leaders and foot soldiers of the movement. The movement's legacy remains, though, as the largest independent black political movement until the rise of the modern civil rights movement.
Ali therefore is able—through a combination of original research and synthesis of previous studies—to reframe very effectively our understanding of the genesis, expansion, and historical significance of black Populism. In particular, he reveals the central role that black Populism played in providing impetus and force to the Populist movement in the South. His book stands as an important contribution to the literature in the field.- American Historical Review
In the Lion's Mouth breaks new ground by locating a distinctive politics of culture deeply rooted in the black radical tradition, agrarian culture, with groundings in African culture and the experience of slavery. Ali correctly resists the common tendency to either see black populists as an offshoot of white populist movement, or a failed effort at interracial organizing. Rather, he paints a compelling portrait of an independent movement. But understand that by independent, he does not mean separatist. It is an important distinction, for if we follow Ali's arguments and the evidence he marshals seriously, we can only conclude that the white Populist movement, more than any, exhibited separatist tendencies. Ali flips the script, if you will, and compels us to rethink the entire history of late 19th century Southern politics. Moreover, he insists that the real story of these different movements is not a simple matter of two separate strands of populism operating side-by-side, but conflicting ideals about fairness, equity, the construction of a democratic, caring political economy.- Robin D. G. Kelley, author of Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression
In this insightful survey of a generation of African American political activism, Omar Ali lays to rest the common misconception that black politics in the South ended with the death of Reconstruction. He shows how, during the 1880s and 1890s, two Populist movements, black and white, mainly separate and unequal, challenged the political status quo. Anyone interested in the innovative and often bold political action undertaken by black southerners in these trying times will benefit from reading In the Lion's Mouth.- Charles Postel, author of The Populist Vision