“Poor Whites Have Been Written out of History for a Very Political Reason”

Keri Leigh Merritt

From the antebellum period to today, Southern white elites are terrified of poor whites and black workers joining hands — because they know it's an existential threat to their power.

"North Carolina Emigrants: Poor White Folks" by James Henry Beard, 1845. Cincinnati Art Museum / Wikimedia

Interview by
Robert Greene II

The history of the American South cannot escape the specter of slavery, white supremacy, and severe class divisions. The confluence of these three themes forms the heart of Keri Leigh Merritt’s Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South.

Merritt’s book stands in the tradition of W. E. B. Du Bois, Manning Marable, and numerous others who’ve tied together US history and a keen understanding of political economy. The enslavement of millions of Africans warped the South’s economy, politics, and culture — including in ways that often hurt poor white Southerners. Poor whites were seen as a threat to the ruling planter class in the South, and Merritt makes clear that this relationship — heavily influenced, by the potential unity between enslaved Africans and poor whites — altered the political economy of the region. The lessons Merritt writes about in Masterless Men still hold up today, as left-wing and progressive forces across the South continue to press for a multiracial fight against what Martin Luther King, Jr called the “triple evils” of white supremacy, capitalism, and imperialism.


Early in your introduction, you state that the central goal of Masterless Men is “situating poor white Southerners into America’s broader political economy.” Why is this such an important thread in US history?


Poor and working-class whites have almost always been left out of our country’s narrative because in many ways acknowledging their existence is a denial of the American dream, a festering wound in the heart of American exceptionalism. Poor whites in the South have been written out of history for a very political reason: the idea of a “solid white South,” wherein all classes of whites vote the same way and have the same interests, allows the propagation of the Confederate “Lost Cause” narrative, as well as the incorrect (but persistent) notion that all whites are elevated by racism.

This historical lie allows the extremely high levels of inequality between whites in the region to be minimized and generally ignored. Simultaneously, it psychologically unites white Southerners today over a mythical, romanticized, “shared” past as proud Confederates.

In reality, class dissent among white Southerners has a long and radical history, as does interaction and political cooperation between poorer whites and blacks, whether during antebellum times and early Reconstruction or during Populism or even the Civil Rights Movement.

There are few people in this country who know about poor white Communist factory workers attempting to overtake cotton mills in the 1920s and ’30s in the Carolinas, or the names of white Southern activists from the 1950s and ’60s. This kind of information is written out of history — for a very specific political purpose.


Thinking about the antebellum period, it is important to note that this is the same era when Karl Marx is beginning to seriously tackle ideas about the rise of the proletariat and the problem of capitalist exploitation. Describe how Marxist theory intersects with your archival research in Masterless Men.


It intersects in multiple ways, but the most obvious concerns Marx’s famous line about not being able to liberate white laborers while blacks remain enslaved. This gets to the heart of my argument: although I certainly don’t ever equate what poor whites and blacks endured (“white slavery” is a myth), my research does show that a combination of slavery and surplus laborers meant that poor whites remained un- and under-employed in system where labor was not totally free. Although poor whites were certainly not slaves, they were detrimentally impacted in multiple ways by the institution of slavery and the vast inequality that it produced among whites.

But my thought processes were also shaped much more by black Marxist scholars like W. E. B. Du Bois, who accurately showed the complexities of both race and class. And right now I’m reading a lot of Allison Davis’s work on the Deep South, and it brilliantly situates the region as having interconnected systems of both caste and class — and I think that’s the best way to describe the situation both historically and today.


How did the material conditions of Southern poor whites contribute to the constant potential of upheaval in the South before and during the Civil War?


The material conditions of most poor whites in the Deep South were a major cause of secession, and eventually, war. Many of these people — who I estimate to comprise about one-third of the white population in the cotton South states — lived very hard material lives, enduring cyclical poverty, hunger, and want, primarily because they were surplus workers competing in a labor market with brutalized, unpaid enslaved people. After the forced migration of around eight hundred thousand enslaved laborers from the Upper South to the Deep South in the 1830s and 1840s, job opportunities for poor whites were scarce.

By the 1850s poor white men had either dropped out of the workforce altogether, cobbling together a meager existence by hunting, fishing, and trading with the enslaved in the underground economy, or by trying to work in non-agricultural jobs. These “mechanics,” as they called themselves, began forming labor unions, or “associations,” and by the late 1850s many of them were openly threatening to withdraw their support for slavery if something was not done to protect their jobs and their wages.

I argue that this push from poor and working-class whites essentially created a three-front battle for enslavers: not only were they defending the institution from Northern abolitionists and the enslaved themselves, but also from lower-class Southern whites. Slaveholders had little chance but to secede to preserve slavery.


You have an entire chapter that tackles education and literacy among poor whites in the South. How did this contribute to their political and economic isolation during the antebellum period?


There was no system of universal or public education in the Deep South prior to the Civil War, for two main reasons. First, slave-owners did not want poor whites teaching blacks how to read in the burgeoning underground economy the two groups operated. Secondly, poor white illiteracy was part of a wider campaign of strategic censorship. Masters were literally searching through every piece of mail, though every newspaper and magazine and periodical, in hopes that neither abolitionism nor talk of workers’ rights ever made it to the black and white masses. In the few years prior to the Civil War, simply possessing reading material on those topics was punishable by death in most Deep South states.

Poor whites’ illiteracy also meant that they remained ignorant about nearly everything going on at the national level. This fact, along with frequent political disfranchisement, meant that poor whites were completely distrustful of government in general and politically apathetic. It was an incredibly unequal society at every level, and whether through incentives or threats or outright terrorism, slaveholders controlled every aspect of politics and suffrage.


Many histories written today explicitly consider how the past impacts the present. Masterless Men is no different, with a section in the conclusion reading, “In certain tragic respects, then, the nineteenth-century South offered ominous foreshadowings of twenty-first century America.” Please, say a bit more about this.


I think that nearly every issue we are dealing with today has strong roots in this era, as slavery without reparations and the failures of emancipation play into nearly every modern domestic problem we are facing as a country. From an incredibly racist and class-biased criminal justice system to the staggering racial wealth gap to the use of racist and xenophobic rhetoric to prevent any kind of class solidarity among poor people — these are all methods and policies perfected by elite white Southerners over the last two centuries.

But I don’t want to sound completely pessimistic, because this is actually a perfect way to not only call for modern reparations for the descendants of enslaved people, but also to build momentum toward a Third Reconstruction, which is an absolute necessity if we are ever going to craft our nation into a more equitable society.


What pushed you to explore this topic for a book? And how does your own career in history push you towards activism?


I am from the Deep South. I was brought up in a racist family and in a racist culture. I was taught history written by white supremacists in school. But I observed enough about class and poverty even as a child to know that the South was much more complex than the way it was portrayed in the media or by well-known stereotypes. So I was drawn to history, but I always had the heart of an activist, getting involved in politics at a young age and becoming more progressive the more I read, learned, and traveled.

So despite the fact that leftist scholars are often accused of prior biases (a fact true of all human beings), I actually came from this relatively far-right background. But history — historical truth — awakened me, enlightened me, really, to the deep, systemic inequities in our society. And at this point in time, anything less than radical activism is acquiescence, is submission, is complicity.