During the later years of the 1800’s, poor black and white farmers and farm workers faced a similar plight. They were little more than de facto indentured servants to obscenely rich landowners and commodity brokers. They worked long and hard with little financial reward or gain, and more often than not, found themselves living under the most wretched of conditions and inextricably locked in a cycle of abject, crushing poverty.
Furthermore, in the South, the population was socially separated practically as much by class as by race. Poor southern whites, like their black counterparts, were almost wholly shut out of the political process as well as some public spheres and institutions.
The two organizations representing the disparate groups, The Colored Farmers’ National Alliance and Cooperative Union (CFNACU) on the one hand and The National Farmers’ Alliance (NFA) on the other, sensed the affinity of the two groups and recognized that the two groups were being deliberately kept apart to their own financial detriment and to the gain of the rich landowners and commodity brokers. And soon the two groups began to work together as political allies bound one to the other by economic ties and a common destiny.
Allow me to take the time so that I might give a more in-depth explanation of the significance of this moment. For a brief moment in this nation’s history, poor blacks and poor whites recognized in one another a common circumstance and destiny and pulled together in a spirit of solidarity to improve their lot in life. And for a brief moment, the movement began to gain momentum. For a brief moment, the voiceless and the powerless began to gain a voice and began to exert a new found measure of power.
But then the rich landowners and commodity brokers pulled the leaders of the white group, the NFA, aside. They promised them that if they would just stop the foolishness, the coalition with the black farmers through cooperating with the CFNACU, not only would they pay them a few extra cents, they would also—and this was the deal clincher—recognize them as white people. If I remember correctly, the exact phrase used was “the full exercise of the white man’s prerogative.”
Whiteness was used as a commodity to be traded. And the farmers were only too eager to cash in despite it being against their best interest.
So, the coalition was irretrievably broken, and things returned to normal. Hope for progress was all but lost. And most importantly, the whites returned to the cycle of perpetual, abject, crushing poverty. Their lives did not improve not one bit. But at least they now got to participate in whiteness with all the prerogatives thereof.
Good white people participating in the mobs protesting healthcare reform—this is how they played you then. This is how they are playing you now. Wake up!
Photo credit: www.annewhistonspirn.com
For further reading:
Franklin, John Hope and Alfred A. Moss, Jr. From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans. 7th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc, 1994.
Roediger, David R. The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class. London, UK: Verso, 2000.