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The Louisiana Populist Movement, 1881-1900

The Louisiana Populist Movement, 1881-1900

Populist movement book coverThe Populist movement of the late nineteenth century represents one of the largest third-party challenges in American history. Throughout the South widespread drops in crop prices led to agrarian revolt, which contributed to the movement's popularity. Yet, in the largely rural state of Louisiana, despite the political group's focus on empowering distressed farmers, this challenge proved far less successful. In Donna A. Barnes's The Louisiana Populist Movement the question of ineffectuality makes an intriguing political case study of the Pelican State and Populism.

Emerging in the 1890s as the political wing of the Southern Farmers' Alliance, the Populists, or People's Party, garnered the support of millions of rural southerners. But the affiliated Louisiana party struggled to spread beyond a limited number of parishes in the northern and central part of the state. According to Barnes, the movement's relatively poor mobilization record provides an excellent opportunity to explore factors that impede social growth. Most scholars, she contends, often focus on the emergence and rise of successful political organizations and overlook the valuable observations to be found within less successful movements, such as Louisiana Populism.

In her evaluation, Barnes points to racial division as the factor that undermined the Populist cause in Louisiana. The Democratic Party saw the agenda of the Populist movement as a threat to white supremacy and thus, when paired with the 1898 state constitution that disfranchised poor rural whites and most blacks, predestined the People's Party to poor public reception.

Based on an array of archival research, Barnes's study offers the definitive source for the history of the Louisiana Populist Movement as well as a multidimensional theoretical analysis of the factors behind the movement's failure.

Donna Barnes grew up in southern Louisiana. She was born in New Orleans, lived in Lafayette from pre-kindergarten through sixth grade, and then relocated with her family back to New Orleans. She earned her Bachelor’s degree from Louisiana State University where she majored in Sociology. However, two of her favorite courses at LSU were taught by historians T. Harry Williams and Mark Carleton. It was Professor Carleton’s Louisiana History course that most captivated her interest, and one of her favorite books in that course, Bourbonism and Agrarian Protest: Louisiana Politics 1877-1900, remained part of her book collection long after she graduated from LSU in 1975 and would eventually inspire the research that resulted in her book, The Louisiana Populist Movement, 1881-1900, which was published by Louisiana State University Press in 2011. Since completing her PhD at the University of Texas-Austin, she has held faculty positions at the University of Southern Mississippi, Southern Methodist University, Colorado State University, and the University of Wyoming where she has been Chair of the Department of Sociology for almost ten years.