Keeping Poor Whites & Blacks Apart: a Southern Tradition

By Keri Leigh Merritt

Tom Watson

Tom Watson

“You are kept apart that you may be separately fleeced of your earnings,” the famous Georgia populist leader Tom Watson told a crowd of black and white laborers in 1892. “You are made to hate each other because upon that hatred is rested the keystone of the arch of financial despotism which enslaves you both.” Elites established and perpetuated segregation, he argued, benefitting in multiple ways. From the era of slavery to the struggles of working-class people today, many of the problems plaguing the South – and indeed, the nation – are a direct result of racism.  

Many vestiges of that past have re-emerged in Trump’s America. As we impetuously tumble toward an uncertain future, we must always remember the oligarchs of this country have fortunes to protect, and white supremacy has always helped assure their place at the apex of society. As Watson rightfully crowed to his interracial audience 126 years ago, “You are deceived and blinded that you may not see how this race antagonism perpetuates a monetary system which beggars both.”

Whether pitting laborers of different races against each other, stoking racial fears through a sensationalistic and profit-driven media, or politically scapegoating entire ethnic groups, America’s white elite have successfully modernized age-old strategies of using racism to prevent the formation of a broad coalition of people along class lines — and across racial lines. Certainly, there is no apology for the racism of less affluent whites, nor any excuse; but we should still seek to understand the ways in which white supremacy and power remain entirely intertwined.

By connecting the past struggles of Southerners to the present-day issues of the American working-class, the long history of the wealthiest whites using racism for their own advantage and economic gain becomes evident quickly.

In Wetumpka, Alabama, just one year before the outbreak of the Civil War, an illiterate poor white named Franklin Veitch “was dragged down to the margin of the river, laid across a log, and whipped by a throng of blackguards.” Not content with using their slaves to humiliate and punish the impoverished white, the local vigilance committee – led by the most affluent slaveholders in town – ordered Veitch then be stripped naked, and ridden on a rail.

“From the lintel of his own door he was repeatedly hanged until he was black in the face,” a source reported, making nearly unbelievable the fact Veitch survived the ordeal. While the local master class had once charged the poor man with “being a negro, and, afterwards, with associating with Negroes,” his particular offense this time was one of the most common charges throughout the Deep South. The owners of flesh ordered and executed the torturous violence, the vicious beating, and the savage lynching, all due to the unfounded allegation that Veitch “sold liquor to Negroes.”

As the possibility of secession loomed, cases like Veitch’s became increasingly common throughout the slave societies of the plantation South, as the master class obsessively sought to establish segregation between poor whites and blacks. While the enslaved, free blacks and poor whites had long interacted socially, trading and often laboring together, planters’ fears over a biracial coalition of disgruntled Southerners grew to a fever-pitch by the 1850s.

Between Northern abolitionists and Republicans, the enslaved themselves, and poor white Southerners – slaveholders faced a potential three-front assault on slavery. Attempting to protect their primary source of both wealth and income, masters controlled the plantation South much like a police state, censoring ideas and information, and brutalizing and murdering anyone who dared defy their carefully crafted hierarchy.

Poor whites, who owned neither land nor slaves, comprised about a third of the Deep South’s white population by the Civil War era. Following the economic Panic of 1837, in which thousands of small landholders became landless, slaveholders from the Upper South began selling their slaves South to cotton planters. By the 1850s, slave traders had moved over 800,000 enslaved laborers to the Deep South, flooding the labor market and displacing unskilled and semi-skilled white laborers.

Shut out from much of the region’s agricultural work, many poor white laborers spent the late-antebellum period experiencing long bouts of unemployment or underemployment. Though impoverished whites were never subjected to the daily violence and degrading humiliations of racial slavery, they did suffer tangible socio-economic consequences from living in a slave society.

Poor whites had no real stake in maintaining slavery; instead, they witnessed daily how slavery drove down their wages and effectively nullified their bargaining power as laborers. Furthermore, poor whites and African Americans not only drank, socialized, and slept together, but because both groups were shut out of the formal economy, they also created an entire underground economy – a black market – in which they traded liquor, food, and services.

Due to these professional and personal ties between poor whites and blacks, and as evidenced in Franklin Veitch’s case, segregation became more and more difficult for the master class to maintain. Southern laws placed increasingly strict behavioral regulations on sex, drinking, gambling, and other social interactions, further monitoring poor whites and blacks in an attempt to keep them separated. Poor whites and free blacks were often targeted for vagrancy, the criminal act of quite literally “doing nothing.”

Yet incarceration alone could not keep one of the world’s largest slave systems running efficiently. Instead, the master class needed a total system – of policing, spying on, and torturing poor people.

Always working in tandem with local criminal justice systems, the Deep South’s vigilante groups were populated by the same men who ran local and state governments, comprised the slave patrols, and lorded over and brutalized the enslaved privately. Vigilance committees had existed in the Deep South as early as the mid-1830s and began rapidly springing up throughout the region in the 1850s. They essentially monitored the behaviors and beliefs of both blacks and less affluent whites. Precursors to the Ku Klux Klan, these terrorists used violence and the threats of it to preserve the institution of slavery and keep poor whites under control. While historians will never know precisely how many people endured the horrors of pro-slavery Southern mobs and vigilantes, it is clear the bloodshed intensified in the decade before the Civil War. There were at least 300 reported lynchings each year in what would become the Confederacy.

While many Americans have long wondered why there were not more instances of slave rebellions, or of biracial revolts among the lower classes, the reality is different. There were hundreds, if not thousands of uprisings planned by poor whites and blacks in the decades leading to secession. But the all-powerful slaveholders either crushed these rebellions in their infancy or stopped them before they even began.

The old trope of docility among the Southern underclasses, therefore, is just incorrect. There was, in fact, a burning desire for freedom and change, but the master class had devised a system so complete and so vicious that the enslaved, free blacks and poor whites were essentially rendered powerless in the face of oppression. This total system – predicated on brute violence – was so compelling the master class would employ it once again in the aftermath of the Civil War, to keep freedmen and women in a state of bondage.  

And while today the violence carried out on behalf of the white elite is less frequent and much more discreet, grave concerns remain in our region’s future. Even given the herculean efforts of recent social-justice movements, from Moral Mondays to Black Lives Matter to the Poor People’s Campaign, little of substance has changed for working-class Southerners.

Falling incomes, rising poverty, harsh labor laws, inadequate social safety nets, and mass incarceration system have brought the country, and particularly the South, to a seemingly depressed and crippled state. By allowing and even perpetuating the spread of civic ignorance, by propagating historical lies and political untruths, and by engendering an insidious form of racism, upper-class whites continue to maintain their position atop society – amassing ungodly fortunes at the expense of rest of us, black and white alike.