The Democrats, called Bourbons, who took over in 1874 inherited a large state debt, much of it fraudulent, that the Reconstruction government had incurred to finance expansion of railroads, industry, and public education. To cut back on the debt, they adopted a program of low taxes and limited spending. Education was underfunded, and school terms were little more than three months in rural areas. Black men continued to cast election ballots (no women of any race were allowed to vote) although the black vote was usually manipulated by whites through intimidation or economic pressure. With slavery abolished, blacks and whites had to adjust to wage labor. Most blacks and many poor whites had no land of their own. They had to work for large landowners, who had little cash to pay them. Under these conditions, a system of sharecropping and tenant farming evolved. A sharecropper raised part of the landlord’s crop and was paid a share of the profit after deductions for living expenses and the cost of tools and supplies.
A tenant farmer sold what he raised and paid rent to the landlord out of the profit. If the profit was low, the landlord got his share first. The sharecropper or tenant took what was left or, if none was left, got an advance to keep going for another year.
The lenders who advanced credit usually demanded that the debtor farmers plant cotton, the South’s most dependable cash crop. Unfortunately, the price of cotton fell soon after the Civil War and stayed down for decades. Thus the tenant farmers and sharecroppers fell into an endless cycle of debt.
Cotton became even more dominant, and Alabama’s agriculture and economic activity failed to diversify. Laws were passed limiting the freedom of sharecroppers and tenant farmers and restricting their economic opportunities. For instance, they forfeited any share in crops they abandoned, and their personal property could be seized by the landlord for unpaid debts. Not until World War II (1939-1945), when widespread mechanization of cotton production made sharecropping and tenant farming unprofitable for the landlords, did the system begin to disappear.
The agricultural slump was not limited to cotton. As elsewhere in the nation, small farmers suffered as wealth created by commerce and manufacturing was concentrated in the hands of a few business leaders. Among the causes of unrest were the declining prices of farm products, the growing indebtedness of farmers to merchants and banks, and the discriminatory freight rates imposed on farmers by the railroads. In the 1870s and 1880s American farmers under midwestern leadership formed self-help groups such as the Grange and Farmers’ Alliance. When these organizations decided that agricultural grievances had to be addressed with political action, the dominance of the Bourbons in Alabama was threatened. This threat was complicated by the fact that the Bourbons stood for white power, while the farmers’ groups were willing to attract black farmers to their cause. The movement nationwide was called populism. Alabama populists tried first to gain control of the Democratic Party, and, when that failed, formed a splinter group, the Jeffersonian Democrats.
The coalition of black and white farmers fell 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 Southern society in the last two decades of the 19th century. A black educator, Booker T. Washington of Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama, reacted to this erosion of black rights by advocating a policy of racial accommodation. He urged blacks not to emphasize the goals of social integration and political rights but instead to acquire the occupational skills that would lead to economic advancement. Other black leaders disagreed, but Washington’s prestige and white support of his position caused him to be accepted as the blacks’ chief spokesperson. "USA" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia
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