Summary: The reform movement that had begun in the 1880s continued until 1920. In Mississippi Senator Vardaman and Governor Bilbo gained control of the state government but their efforts could not reverse the decline of the state's agricultural economy. The Jim Crow system further degraded the life of Mississippi's black citizens while bolstering the white man's sense of superiority. By 1931 almost one-half of the population of Mississippi were poor tenant farmers.
Prior to 1903 the Democratic candidates for state-wide office had been selected by a convention of delegates from each county in Mississippi. The conventions were controlled by power brokers who were allied with the banks and the lumber companies. This meant that only candidates who would protect the interests of the elite were nominated for public office. In response to abuses of the electoral system over the past 30 years, in 1902 Mississippi adopted a primary system. Democratic Party candidates for office were chosen by direct vote of all registered Democrats. In the first election held under the primary law of 1902 James K. Vardaman ran for state governor. Vardaman was a newspaper editor from Greenwood. He had served two terms in the state legislature and had twice attempted to win the Democratic nomination for governor. Both times he had been defeated by the convention bosses. In 1903 he was able to carry his candidacy for the first time to the voters of the state.
Vardaman had long championed the cause of the farmers against the money interests, especially the banks and the railroads. He characterized them both as "locusts, devouring the farmer by their usurious rates and exorbitant tariffs". Vardaman did not leave the Democratic Party with the Populists but he had always advocated the reforms in the Populist platform. The most significant difference between Vardaman and the Populists was his use of racism. In the three decades that Vardaman campaigned for political office in Mississippi, every speech he made in every campaign played upon the same theme: a bitter race hatred. The extreme violence with which Vardaman expressed himself on this issue and the large crowds of whites that he drew caused his opponents to say that "so many blacks would move out of the state that the Delta plantations and the lumber districts of south Mississippi would be left without an adequate labor supply". Many blacks did leave the state and there is no doubt that Vardaman's diatribes increased the level of violence, both physical and verbal, against blacks.
In his campaigns Vardaman questioned why any tax money at all should be spent on educating blacks. He attacked the entire black race, explaining that their nature "resembles a hog's" and that they were "a lazy, lying, lustful animal..." which could never rise higher than the position they already occupied in Mississippi. During this period few white men in public life in Mississippi proposed doing anything to help the Negro and the blacks were powerless to defend themselves. However the effort to disfranchise them had not yet deprived the Negroes of their civil rights. Before 1890 saloons served whites and blacks at the same bar and restaurants served both races but at different tables. Blacks served on juries if they were on the voters list. Churches and public gatherings were not segregated. Before 1888 Negroes shared second-class and sometimes first-class railroad coaches with whites. The discrimination that existed was along economic rather than racial lines.
However in 1883 the US Supreme Court declared the Federal Civil Rights Act unconstitutional and removed the only protection of the Negro's equal rights as citizens. With the Negroes generally disfranchised, in 1888 Mississippi passed a law requiring separate accommodations on trains and railway stations. This was followed in 1904 by the "Jim Crow" law. This law extended segregation to streetcars, schools, courts, libraries, parks, theaters and hotels. Over the years even cemeteries and churches became segregated by race. In 1913 even the federal civil service and the US military were segregated. Perhaps the last institution in the South to adopt segregation, and among the first to abandon it, was the Roman Catholic Church. It was still in the process of separating its black and white congregations in the late 1940s when segregation was about to end.
The segregation, or Jim Crow, system began to evolve at about the same time as the Farmer's Alliance made its presence felt in the state legislature. This happened in Mississippi in 1888. It was the lower class of whites who demanded the Jim Crow laws and the Democrats were happy to oblige. "Increased political democracy for the poorer white men and racial discrimination for the black men were two sides of the same coin". Politically the poor and middle-class whites knew that the black vote had been used against their candidates in the past. Economically they knew that blacks would accept lower wages than would whites and, furthermore, that black field hands worked harder and were more desirable to employers than were white workers. Since most black and white workers earned the same wage, a "Jim Crow mentality" was needed to bolster the white man's sense of superiority. As one man put it, "Much ritual and self-deception was needed to convince a white man earning a Negroe's wage that he was somehow superior". Vardaman knew this and he used this knowledge to win support at election time.
The blacks also understood this and they reacted by giving their remaining political support to the conservatives in the Democratic Party. For this reason the segregation system grew by fits and starts. Nevertheless for the next 50 years the blacks of the South were subjected to the daily humiliation of not being able to get a cool drink of water on a hot day if no water fountains had been designated "colored only". They were not able to try on clothes before the purchase. They were not able to eat inside white-owned restaurants. They were not able to use rest rooms in public facilities and gas stations. All whites, no matter what their situation, were to be addressed as "Sir!". Blacks had to be servile and very careful in all dealings with whites. All blacks, no matter what their education or profession, were called by their first names, or simply, as "boy" by white people. A white child could command black adults and was expected to be obeyed. Blacks were chronically underemployed and were paid less than whites.
Vardaman seemed unconcerned about any of this. His populist reform program, his socialist rhetoric, his majestic statue, long black hair and immaculate white suits attracted the farmers to him. His speeches at county fairs and church festivals drew thousands of supporters. He took the country-side by storm and in 1903 he won the election for governor easily. During his term as governor Vardaman faced a hostile legislature but he managed to enact some reforms. He ended the convict lease system that had resulted in a 10% annual mortality rate among state prisoners. He improved prison conditions, decreased the cost of school textbooks, increased teacher's salaries by 30% and tried to regulate corporations such as railroads and banks. He did not put his anti-black promises into practice.
In 1907 Vardaman campaigned for the US Senate on his program of race hate and social reform. He lost the election by a small margin. In 1910 he was involved in a long struggle with the bosses of the Democratic Party in Mississippi. He and Theodore Bilbo, a state senator from Pearl River County in southern Mississippi, formed an alliance that dominated Mississippi politics for ten years. Unlike Vardaman, Bilbo did not resort to the anti-black tirades that characterized Vardaman's political campaigns. Bilbo specialized in exposing the misdeeds of the rich and powerful. Like Vardaman, he appealed to the farmers on a broad program of governmental and social reform. Whereas Vardaman stood for the poor white against the "nigger", Bilbo stood for the working classes against corporate power.
In 1911 Vardaman ran again for the US Senate and Bilbo ran for the office of Lieutenant-governor of the state. Theodore Bilbo grew up and lived in Poplarville, not far from Pike County. He was an extremely popular Baptist preacher and had a habit of wearing a red necktie. During the election campaign, Bilbo and Vardaman's supporters began wearing red neckties and driving ox wagons to rallies. They had been called "red-necks" and "cattle" by the regular Democrats and they adopted the intended slurs as their own. Bilbo and Vardaman campaigned together and the election attracted wide interest among the farmers. When Bilbo spoke in McComb in May 1910 an enthusiastic crowd of 4,000 chanted over and over again, "We are the low-brows, we are the red-necks, rah for Vardaman." Many leading Pike County politicians promised to back Bilbo for governor if he would run. The hostile Democratic press reported that they were thoroughly "Bilboed". In 1911 both Vardaman and Bilbo won by large majorities in the largest vote ever cast in Mississippi. They were the heroes of the common people and especially of those of southern Mississippi.
When the "Great White Chief", as Vardaman was called, went to Washington, D.C. as a US Senator for Mississippi; Bilbo assumed the leadership of the farmers and workers of the state. The Democrats put Bilbo on trial for bribery but he and Vardaman were in complete control of the political machinery of the state. While Bilbo was Lieutenant-Governor he introduced a few bills increasing taxes on large land holdings and lowering interest rates. He increased spending on schools. In 1915 Bilbo won the governor's race with yet another record number of votes. He carried all of southern and eastern Mississippi including Pike County. As governor he began to build a state road system and reduced taxes for most poor farmers. He introduced manual training and farm mechanics into the schools and set up voluntary night schools in which 30,000 white illiterates learned to read. Laws requiring vaccination of hogs for cholera and dipping of cattle for ticks were passed. Public hanging was abolished and trees were planted on cut-over lands. As governor Bilbo worked hard to help the farmers and improve conditions in rural Mississippi.
Meanwhile, in the US Senate Vardaman joined the liberal bloc headed by Robert La Follette of Wisconsin. Vardaman pressed for higher income taxes, abolition of child labor and other proposals of the old Populist program. He antagonized US President Woodrow Wilson by voting against the entry of the US into World War One. He continued by voting against the military draft and other war measures. His anti-war attitude was not appreciated by most Mississippians. In April 1917 the state legislature even made a point of ratifying Wilson's declaration of war on Germany. In 1918 Vardaman lost his bid for re-election primarily because he opposed the war. Also he and Bilbo disagreed on a number of issues and they no longer campaigned together. In 1918 both men lost their bids for election. Both of them were actively identified with the progressive, pro-labor movements that swept the United States between 1880 and 1918. They both suffered when the US government cracked down on the socialists and communists following the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1918.
Both Vardaman and Bilbo continued to run for office in Mississippi but neither of them ever regained the power they held between 1911 and 1918. Bilbo lost his bid for a second term as governor in 1923. He finally won reelection in 1928 and in 1934 he was elected to the US Senate where he remained for some years. Despite the success of Vardaman and Bilbo between 1911 and 1918 and the reforms they initiated, conditions on the farm continued to deteriorate throughout this period. In 1880 60% of the state's farms were owner-operated. In 1920 only 30% were owner-operated.
In 1931 cotton prices collapsed with the beginning of the Great Depression. By then 47% of the population of Mississippi were tenants, five times the national average. In ten of the Delta counties where the population was overwhelmingly black, 94% of the farmers were tenants. In 1900 22% of the tenant farmers were white. In 1930 that figure had risen to 29%. Cotton farming was busted. Neither the voters nor the politicians could do anything to bring back the glory days or to stop further decline. Gradually the people of the South began to find other ways of earning a living.
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