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110 years ago, a violent split in North Carolina

In the 1890s, North Carolina underwent a pitchfork rebellion unlike anything ever seen in Southern politics.

Believing that the small farmer was being cheated by big business and its allies in Raleigh, Populists won control of state government from the conservative, pro-business Democrats.

Populists sought to weaken the power of the railroads, improve education, make North Carolina's elections fair and make it easier for African-Americans to participate in politics.

But the pitchfork rebellion was crushed at the turn of the century, after the Democratic establishment used all of its power to break its back including piles of money from big business, cheating at the ballot box, violent vigilantes and propaganda from the major newspapers, most notably The News & Observer.

James M. Beeby, an assistant professor of history at Indiana University Southeast, has written a first-rate scholarly work about that fascinating period, called "Revolt of the Tar Heels, The North Carolina Populist Movement, 1890-1901."

It is, Beeby said, the first systematic study of "one of the most successful political insurgencies in the South prior to the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s."

In the 1890s, North Carolina was dominated by poor farmers. When farm prices dramatically dropped, many blamed the railroads and Wall Street and their political toadies.

"There is something radically wrong in our industrial system," said Leonidas Polk, the state's first agriculture commissioner and a national Populist leader. "There is a screw loose. The wheels have dropped out of balance. The railroads have never been so prosperous, and yet agriculture languishes. The banks have never done a better or more profitable business, and yet agriculture languishes."

The Populists, mainly white farmers in Eastern North Carolina, joined forces with the Republican Party, which was dominated by African-Americans in the east and by ex-Unionists in the mountains and foothills.

In 1894, the coalition -- often called fusionists -- won majorities in the state legislature and captured seven of the state's nine congressional seats. The new legislature chose a Populist senator, Marion Butler, and in 1896, the state elected a Republican governor with coalition backing.

The legislature moved to reduce railroad rates, end free railroad passes, enforce the state's antitrust laws, make elections more transparent and fair, improve public education and restore local government control to communities.

But coalition governments are often wobbly.

"Populists and Republicans needed one another to win power," Beeby writes. "However, each party had different policies and conflicting personalities."

Although squabbling weakened the coalition, it was race that killed it.

Furnifold Simmons, a New Bern attorney and the Democrats' chief strategist, organized white supremacy campaigns in 1898 and 1900 that split the coalition. Playing on the racial fears of white farmers, the Democrats took control of the legislature in 1898 and in 1900 pushed through a constitutional amendment creating a literacy test that would be used to wipe most black voters off the books, thereby devastating the Republican Party.

As Beeby notes, the Democrats used beatings, murder and vote stealing to win the white supremacy campaigns.

Future Gov. Robert Glenn, a conservative Democrat, urged crowds to "shoot to kill -- not to shoot the poor ignorant negro but shoot the white man, their leaders."

Republican Gov. Daniel Russell was nearly lynched after he voted in Wilmington in 1898. When Populist Sen. Marion Butler came into a town to give a speech, he was sometimes thrown off the platform and back into his train car. Democratic vigilantes, called Redshirts, spread terror everywhere.

The elections were a fraud. If the vote returns were to be believed, Beeby notes, 73 percent of African-Americans in Halifax County voted to disfranchise themselves in 1900.

The white supremacy campaigns worked. Many white farmers abandoned populism and returned to the Democratic Party. The Republicans lost most of their black voters.

"As the twentieth century opened, the Populist Party in North Carolina weakened and died," Beeby wrote. "The disfranchisement campaign killed off the floundering party once and for all.

"North Carolina entered the new century with the forces of racism, conservatism and Democrats in the ascendancy."

Even as the Populist Party faded, a streak of populism remained in North Carolina, particularly in Eastern North Carolina. It resurfaced periodically with the election of Sen. Robert Reynolds in 1932, the near election of Ralph McDonald as governor in 1936, the election of Kerr Scott as governor in 1948, the nomination of Senate candidate John Ingram in 1978 and the political career of former Sen. John Edwards, who ran the most populist campaign of any major presidential candidate since Harry Truman in 1948.

Even this year, there were shades of populism as Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue ran a radio ad featuring "Bill and Henry," two good ol' boys who said Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, the GOP candidate for governor, must believe the people of Eastern North Carolina have no indoor plumbing. In the lieutenant governor's race, Democrat Walter Dalton emphasized that his Republican opponent was "a Charlotte millionaire."

The pitchforks are gone. But remnants of the populist streak remain.

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