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Georgia at the end of the 19th century


Thomas Watson of Georgia
Thomas Watson of Georgia

As elsewhere in the nation, small farmers suffered as wealth created by commerce and manufacturing was concentrated in the hands of a few business barons. Among the causes of unrest were the declining prices of farm products, the growing indebtedness of farmers to merchants and banks, and discriminatory freight rates imposed on farmers by the railroads. In the 1870s and 1880s American farmers in the Midwest formed self-help groups such as the Grange and Farmers’ Alliance. The movement spread nationwide and was called populism. When these organizations decided that agricultural grievances had to be addressed with political action, they formed an important third political party, the People’s Party.

A leading spokesperson for both the Alliance and the People’s Party was Congressman Thomas Watson of Georgia. His radical views, his willingness to appeal to black farmers, and his outspoken attacks on the two major parties made the 1892 election in his Tenth District a focus of national attention. The dominance of the state Democratic Party, which stood for white power, was seriously threatened, and they stole the election using a variety of methods. Watson’s opponent, Major James Black, publicly warned of the specter of black “domination.” Newspapers inveighed against “anarchy and communism.” Ballot box stuffing, intimidation, and bribery were used flagrantly. In one county the election judges accepted a total vote, overwhelmingly for Black, that was far beyond the number of registered voters in the county. Watson fought through several bitter losing campaigns for the People’s Party, running for vice president and president, among other offices, before the party faded in 1908.

Ironically, in his embittered old age, when he had turned into an anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic white supremacist, he was finally elected a Democratic U.S. senator from Georgia in 1920. He died in office in 1922. The populists’ coalition of black and white farmers had fallen apart after 1896 as a result of intimidation and white susceptibility to racist Democratic appeals. Segregation of the races, through separate public facilities for whites and blacks, became a basic rule in Georgia and all Southern society in the last two decades of the 19th century. Blacks had to live in different parts of towns, go to separate schools, eat at separate restaurants, and use different laundries, restrooms, and even drinking fountains. The facilities provided for blacks were never as good as those provided for whites. The poll tax and other devices were instituted to prevent most blacks from voting. Encarta "Georgia" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia

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