Chances are you are already familiar with several Deep South populists.
We’ve introduced the “Great White Chief” James K. Vardaman, Theodore “The Man” Bilbo and James Rankin of Mississippi who came to power in the wake of the Great Revolt of the Rednecks. You’re likely familiar with Huey “The Kingfish” Long of Louisiana and George Wallace of Alabama.
So far, we haven’t gotten around to “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman, Coleman Livingston Blease and “Cotton Ed” Smith of South Carolina, Tom Watson and Eugene Talmadge of Georgia (dubbed the “Wild Man from Sugar Creek”) or Robert Love Taylor of Tennessee.
Gov. Jeff Davis of Arkansas was a product of the same times in the South and stands in the same tradition of Deep South populism. Rupert B. Vance, a famous and influential early 20th century sociologist at the University of North Carolina, labeled him “Karl Marx for Hill Billies.”
“Jeff Davis was a populist governor who railed against corporations and often resorted to race baiting in his campaigns. His tenure in office proved extremely divisive, creating for him many enemies. However, Davis dominated Democratic politics in the state in the early years of the twentieth century, being elected to the office of governor three times and going on to become a U.S. senator. …
According to Davis, the Rector Act prohibited any trust from doing business in Arkansas, regardless of where it had been organized. In March 1899, he sued every fire insurance company doing business in the state, demanding that they withdraw from industrywide pricing agreements. The companies threatened to cancel policies by the hundreds, and outraged businessmen held protest meetings. Davis, supported by the state legislature, refused to back down, but the state Supreme Court overruled his interpretation.
In June 1900, he announced his candidacy for governor and embarked on a year-long campaign, visiting nearly every county. “The war is on,” he declared, “knife to knife, hilt to hilt, foot to foot…between the corporations…and the people.” Although the state press ridiculed him, and his four opponents branded him a demagogue, he won the most resounding political victory in state history, carrying seventy-four of seventy-five counties in the primary. …”
Davis won the largest landslide in Arkansas political history.
He was born in Little River County in southwest Arkansas in 1862 and was named by his father after Confederate president Jefferson Davis. Southwest Arkansas was staunchly pro-Confederate and remained so long after the war. Many of the people in Arkansas later believed he was related to Jefferson Davis when he dominated state politics at the beginning of the 20th century.
The following excerpt on Gov. Jeff Davis who identified with the common man of Arkansas is from C. Vann Woodward’s book Origins of the New South, 1877-1913:
“Southern progressivism had a fringe that was less lunatic than comic, less radical than burlesque. It is best typified by Jeff Davis of Arkansas. In the dialectics of this “Karl Marx for Hill Billies,” the class struggle was waged between the “rednecks” and their mortal enemies, the “high-collared roosters” of the city. In that struggle, so he assured the dispossessed, the “one-gallus” proletariat had nothing to lose but their plowlines – whereas the trusts had plenty. Jeff Davis tilted with the corporation monster at every crossroad in Arkansas and made trainbusting his favorite sport of the rustic barbecue. If his battles were largely bloodless and the results intangible, the same was often true of more celebrated combats in far-off Washington, and Jeff’s were more exciting. There was a compensatory satisfaction in watching the enemy being bullied and slain in pantomime, especially when one had fought in vain for years without so much as coming to grip with the foe.
Jeff Davis loved his trade and practiced it with gusto and without shame. He abjured all elegancies save his habitual Prince Albert suit of Confederate gray, and he would demolish an opponent by calling him a gentleman. “If you rednecks or hillbillies ever come to Little Rock,” he would say, “be sure and come to see me … If I am not there tell my wife who you are, that you are my friend and belong to the sunburned sons of toil. Tell her to give you some hog jowl and turnip greens. She may be busy making soap, but that will be all right.” And they loved him with a devotion unshaken by his defiance of both Baptists and prohibitionists and elected him governor and then to the Senate, where he died unbeaten and unbeatable.”
Huey Long who was from northern Louisiana learned his populist style from Jeff Davis who was from southwest Arkansas. It was Jeff Davis’s generation that enacted Jim Crow:
The following excerpt comes Grif Stokley’s book Ruled by Race: Black/White Relations in Arkansas From Slavery to the Present:
“Vincent Vinikas, writing in the Journal of Southern History, observes that in Arkansas,
“by 1904 lynchings were essentially state-sponsored events. Campaigning as governor for reelection during the new political primary which brought him into contact with thousands of Arkansans, Davis promised that “nigger” dominion will never prevail in this beautiful Southland of ours, as long as shotguns and rifles lie around loose, and we are able to pull the trigger.”
The following excerpt comes from Rebecca Edwards book Angels in the Machinery: Gender in American Party Politics from the Civil War To The Progressive Era:
“Speaking to a Missouri audience in 1900, Arkansas Democrat Jeff Davis also emphasized sexual themes, claiming “I would rather tear, screaming from her mother’s arms, my little daughter and bury her alive than to see her arm in arm with the best nigger on earth.” He reserved his most extreme comments for Roosevelt’s visit to Arkansas in 1904: “Mr. President,” he stated, after praising white women, “when the husband or the brother, the father or the sweetheart of one of these angels of earth, comes home in the evening and finds her in the throes of death; when he sees the cruel clutch-mark on her snow white throat, and watches the pulse beat grow fainter and fainter as the end draws near, there is not a law on the statute books of Arkansas to prevent him from avenging that crime.”
Needless to say, interracial rape wasn’t tolerated under Gov. Jeff Davis in Arkansas like it blithely is today under conservative leadership. As was the case all across the Deep South, it all began in the populist revolt against Bourbon conservatives that had been brewing in the 1880s and 1890s.
The following excerpt comes from Guy Lancaster’s book Racial Cleansing in Arkansas, 1883–1924: Politics, Land, Labor, and Criminality:
“Lower class whites in the post-Reconstruction period experienced a practical alienation from the members of their racial in-group who held the keys to power, even as they acknowledged in many instances a situational identification with African-Americans who possessed a class status equivalent to their own …”
Gov. Jeff Davis in Arkansas, Gov. James K. Vardaman in Mississippi, Gov. Huey Long in Louisiana, Gov. George Wallace in Alabama, Gov. Eugene Talmadge in Georgia and Gov. “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman in South Carolina were all Deep South populists and authoritarian social conservatives. None of them gave a shit about the “eternal principles” of True Conservatism or “classical liberalism.” While Sen. Jeff Davis of Arkansas did not succeed in busting the trusts in his lifetime, the 16th Amendment which created the federal income tax was ratified by Congress the month after he died.