Agrarian Populist Movements

This movement is an important part of food politics, uniting multiple races and started long before the Civil War began.

| September 2018

  • protest
    Agrarian populism proved mass movements can challenge the consolidation of land and the financial and legal infrastructure used to maintain elite capitalist power.
    Photo by GettyImages/ericcrama
  • food-justice
    “Food Justice Now” takes readers on a journey integrating food activism and social justice activism.
    Courtesy of University of Minnesota Press

  • protest
  • food-justice

Food Justice Now (University of Minnesota Press, 2018) by Joshua Sbicca focuses on three California based movements including the carceral, labor, and the immigration crisis. Sbicca argues that the food people consume and have access to defines their economic status.  Find out more about the consumers and the effects of the food system in chapter 1, “Inequality and Resistance: The Legacy of Food and Justice Movements.

The historical significance of agrarian populist movements in the United States rests in their symbolic value as pinnacles of grassroots democratic struggle. As such, they offer foundational lessons for the evolution of domestic food politics. The end of the Civil War left millions of black and white Americans, mostly farmers, marginalized economically and socially. Despite heroic efforts, many poor white Southerners were unable to pull themselves out of a crop lien system where merchants never paid for a year’s cotton crop in excess of the debt accrued by the farmer for that season. During the 1870s, millions of white farming families migrated westward in hopes of finding cheap land and new opportunities (often at the expense of indigenous people). However, the economic reality was grim for those who settled out west and became increasingly worse throughout most rural communities.

Landless tenant farmers increased, small land- holders accrued larger debts, and peonage became widespread. For many blacks who stayed in the South, there was similar populist outrage. While they directed some of this at building economic power through initiatives like farmers’ cooperatives and exchanges, and boycotts of agricultural trusts, they also fought the rise of racist Jim Crow laws, and worked to increase political participation. In turn, rumblings of revolt grew into the largest democratic mass movement in history, consisting of both blacks and whites and landed and landless people.

One of the main collective economic responses to the consolidation of land ownership, monopolization of the railroads, and tightening of financing was to create cooperative warehouses, grain elevators, and community run exchanges.  Foremost among these endeavors was the National Farmers Alliance and Industrial Union, which set the organizational foundation for cooperative economic power and education on how the corporate state quashes participatory forms of democracy.   

The populists also set up alternative social institutions such as newspapers and local schools, all the while making sure to increase rural scientific literacy and create agriculturally relevant programs within universities. At around the same time, there was the formation of the largest black agrarian organization in the country, the Colored Farmers’ National Alliance and Co-Operative Union. This black populism devised similar mutual aid strategies, albeit under distinct conditions. Given widespread racial inequities, blacks also demanded an end to racially disparate practices such as the convict-lease system, which white planters used to prey on black men convicted of petty crimes by purchasing and exploiting this cheap labor pool. Although the populist revolt eventually withered because white Southern Democrats used violence, race-baiting, and fraud to cripple the movement, there are a few important legacies for contemporary food politics. First, cross-racial alliances developed both among farmers and between industrial workers and farmers.  

Class solidarity was able to bring blacks and whites together even in the aftermath of the Civil War. This is not to suggest that white supremacists were absent from the movement, or that blacks, Chinese, and Jews faced no discrimination.  Race was a fatal wedge used to weaken agrarian populist movements in the face of left-wing populist factions agitating for more socialist and anti big business policies. Second, women’s political participation in populist organizations was important for mobilizing a fuller cross section of society, which provided a base of support for the passage of women’s suffrage. Third, in those places where the urban and rural poor built strong  ties, the movement was successful, for example, electing their representatives in the People’s Party or the Union Labor Party. Fourth, agrarian populism proved mass movements can challenge the consolidation of land and the financial and legal infrastructure used to maintain elite capitalist power.

Such movements, though, face stiff opposition and must find ways to leverage their resources and political opportunities. Nevertheless, using newfound influence to control the levers of political and economic power from below can reproduce such systems and all their flaws or require colluding with elites within these institutions to receive marginal personal gains or reforms while sacrificing structural transformations. In brief, the mix of political organizing, empowering subordinated groups, and building bridges across social boundaries was central to one of the first historical examples of collective food politics in the United States.



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Reprinted with Permission from Food Justice Now and Published by University of Minnesota Press.