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  • The Knights of Labor and the Third-Party Movement in Texas, 1886–1896
  • Matthew Hild (bio)

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Terence V. Powderly, the man depicted in the central portrait, led the Knights of Labor from 1879 to 1893 and proclaimed in 1880 that the labor organization was “above politics,” yet he served as the mayor of Scranton, Pennsylvania, from 1878 to 1884. The Knights remained a significant force in Texas politics until well after their influence started to decline in other parts of the United States. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

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During American labor’s “great upheaval” of the mid-1880s, the Knights of Labor became the largest labor organization in United States history to that point. Formed as a secret organization in Philadelphia in 1869 as the “Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor,” the Knights eliminated both their secrecy and the medieval-sounding “Noble and Holy” from their title in 1882, and in 1886 the organization claimed more than 700,000 members. The Knights’ actual membership that year may have exceeded one million men and women of all races (except Chinese) and skill levels, organized into lodges called “local assemblies.” Some of these local assemblies were trade assemblies (organized by occupation or industry), but many were “mixed” assemblies consisting of practitioners of various trades—only lawyers, stockbrokers, professional gamblers, bankers, liquor dealers, and, for a time, doctors were prohibited from joining. Many local assemblies in rural communities consisted of farmers, such as at least two of the three local assemblies that existed in Delta County, Texas, in the 1890s. As well as can be determined, 238 local assemblies existed in Texas in 1886, which was the Knights’ peak year in the state as well as nationally.1 [End Page 25]

American labor historians have delved deeply into the political activities of the Knights during the 1880s and 1890s since what one scholar has termed“[t]he revolution in Knights’ scholarship that began in the 1970s.”2 As Leon Fink has explained, the Knights’ entry into politics represented an attempt to inject “workingmen’s democracy” into a national political landscape that was becoming increasingly dominated by the newly emerging “robber barons” of the corporate world. Along with the growing political power of big business came increased corruption and fraud in American elections and growing concern among the working classes that “republican institutions are not safe under such conditions.”3 According to Fink, Knights of Labor political activity evolved through three phases: a national lobbying effort, which peaked between 1884 and 1886 with, among other accomplishments, the passage of a national anti-contract labor law and the establishment of the U.S. Bureau of Labor, “a grassroots entry into local politics” by the Knights in some two hundred cities and towns across the nation from 1885 to 1888, and the Knights’ involvement in the farmer-led Populist movement from 1890 to 1894. Of these three phases, Fink identified the second as the “most significant,” arguing that the unprecedented wave of independent labor tickets that the Knights sponsored in the mid-to-late 1880s “may still stand as the American worker’s single greatest push for political power,” an assertion that certainly rings as true today as when Fink made it three decades ago.4

The Knights of Labor engaged in all three of these phases of political activity in Texas. The most significant aspect of the Knights’ political activity in Texas, however, and the one that most clearly distinguished that activity from the national model presented by Fink, was the Knights’ role in building and supporting the third-party movement of the period from [End Page 26] 1886 to 1896, which peaked with the birth and heyday of the Texas People’s (or Populist) Party. Not only did the Texas Knights play a significant role in that movement from its inception in 1886, several years before the national Knights of Labor organization became involved in Populism, but the Knights remained strong and viable enough in Texas through the mid-1890s to continue to be an important element in the Populist movement, even as the...


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