GREENSBORO, N.C. — The collapse of Reconstruction was not the end of African-American political activism in the South during the late 19th century as it is often portrayed – far from it, argues Dr. Omar Ali in his new book, “In the Lion’s Mouth: Black Populism in the New South, 1886-1900.”
Black populism, an independent political movement of African-American farmers, sharecroppers and agrarian workers distinct from the white populist movement of the same period, was the largest black movement in the South until the rise of the modern civil rights movement, says the historian and associate professor in the UNCG African American Studies Program.
“After Reconstruction ended in 1877, African-Americans in the South regrouped,” says Ali. “Black populists formed alliances with white populists and challenged the Democratic Party, a party of wealthy interests and white supremacy. They failed, but many of their demands would be enacted within a generation by the New Deal – so in some ways they were laying the groundwork for changes that came to pass.”
In North Carolina, black and white populists formed an alliance that won control of the state legislature in 1894 and the governor’s office in 1896. The bloody Wilmington Riot of 1898 was a response by the Democratic Party to retake state control. The incident would signal the demise of black populism in North Carolina, and soon across the region.
A frequent commentator in the national media, with political analysis offered on CNN and NPR, among other networks, Ali sees similarities between the Democratic Party’s virtual monopoly in the South during the late 19th century and the dominance of the Democratic and Republican parties in the nation today. In both cases, entrenched parties have blocked important reforms, he says.
“It’s been the outsiders, the independents, who have been at the forefront of critical changes in American history, from the abolition of slavery to labor rights, from women’s right to vote to civil rights. All of these things came from outside forces, independents and third parties, until they were co-opted by the parties in power.
“What independents, black and white, are doing now is challenging the political control of the two major parties on the electoral process. In that way, they share a history with the populists of a century ago.”
Ali, a former Fulbright scholar with research awards from Harvard University and the University of South Carolina, previously taught in the History Department at Towson University in Maryland and has served as a visiting professor at Vanderbilt University. A graduate of the London School of Economics and Political Science, he received his Ph.D. in history from Columbia University, where he wrote his dissertation on black populism under the supervision of Dr. Eric Foner.
Ali is also the author of “In the Balance of Power: Independent Black Politics and Third Party Movements in the United States” (Ohio University Press, 2008), which was described as a “landmark work” by The National Political Science Review.
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro By Dan Nonte, University Relations University Relations Location: 500 Forest Street Mailing Address: PO Box 26170, Greensboro, NC 27402-6170 Telephone:336.334.3783 Fax:336.334.4602