Joseph Columbus Manning (1870-1930) was a Populist activist and journalist in early 1890s Alabama. He was an arch Republican supporter in his later life and campaigned for civil rights for disfranchised African Americans personally and through his reportorial work.
Born in Lineville, Clay County, on May 21, 1870, Joseph Manning was one of five children born to Henry Allen Manning, a general supply merchant, and Martha B. Manning. As an adolescent, Manning witnessed the hardship caused by declining cotton prices, which resulted in many of his father’s customers losing their land and becoming tenant farmers or sharecroppers. Early on, Manning supported populist agrarian movements, such as the Farmer’s Alliance. After completing his education in 1888 at the Florence Normal School (now the University of North Alabama), Manning travelled to Texas, where he worked as a book salesman.
In 1891, he moved to Atlanta, where he was influenced by the radical agricultural and political reformer Thomas E. Watson. By 1892, Manning was a supporter of the People’s Party, or Populists, and the party hierarchy in Atlanta sent him back to Alabama as an “evangel,” or political organizer, whose job it was to create enthusiasm for the movement and recruit members. In 1894 he married Zoe Duncan, whom he had met on a trip to Texas and with whom he would have three sons and two daughters.
Manning was an effective organizer, but his efforts were blunted by the popularity of Reuben F. Kolb, former commissioner of the Alabama Department of Agriculture, who ran for governor in 1892 and 1894 as a quasi-Populist “Jeffersonian Democrat.” Although Manning doubted Kolb’s commitment to agricultural and political reform, he was forced to support Kolb as a candidate because he was so popular among white farmers; Kolb’s popularity also made it difficult for Manning to promote a true Populist candidate. Instead of campaigning for the Populists’ Omaha Platform, which sought to unite farmers and factory workers, regulate railroads and other industries, and inflate the nation’s currency, Manning was forced to emphasize fair and clean elections and to continue cooperating with Jeffersonian Democrats and Republicans. In both elections, Kolb lost as a result of extensive voter fraud in Black Belt counties.
Elected to the state House of Representatives from Clay County, Manning engineered a November 1894 convention that merged the Jeffersonian Democrats and the People’s Party. Manning then founded the short-lived Southern Ballots Rights League, by which he hoped to bring about a U.S. Senate investigation of Alabama politics. Speaking in northern cities, Manning embarrassed the Bourbon Democrats by exposing their fraudulent election practices. Still, no congressional action resulted, and any reformist unity existing in Alabama was shattered in the 1896 elections when thousands of farmers voted for William Jennings Bryan, candidate of the Free Silver wing of the Democratic Party. Recognizing that the Populist movement was essentially dead in Alabama, Manning became a Republican.
In 1901, Bourbon Democrats helped pass the Constitution that disfranchised African Americans and most poor whites, again apparently through voter fraud in Black Belt counties. Manning opposed the constitutional convention movement, but he was not an effective campaigner against the constitution itself. After becoming a Republican, Manning had difficulty finding a paying job. For two years (1899-1900), he worked as political correspondent for the New Orleans Daily Item, an independent Republican journal, but the Item’s pay was not enough to support his family, and Manning was reduced to poverty.
Manning sought and secured an appointment as postmaster of Alexander City from Pres. William McKinley’s administration, but Alabama senator John Tyler Morgan, a bitter Democratic foe of the Populists, held up his confirmation. Eventually, Morgan relented, and Manning’s appointment went through in December 1900. Some evidence suggests that Manning was pressured into remaining silent about the new constitution to get the position. After ratification, however, he began to criticize the disfranchisement efforts and to assist in registering black voters. He also supported Booker T. Washington’s successful effort to undercut (through Washington’s influence with President Theodore Roosevelt) the power of Alabama’s overtly racist Republican faction, known as the “Lily Whites.”
Between 1900 and 1909, Manning completed his evolution from agrarian radical to public servant and voting rights advocate. He coordinated relief efforts in 1902 after a fire destroyed more than thirty buildings in Alexander City; in addition, he sponsored and organized public entertainments and other civic projects. In his administrative capacity at the post office, he ensured that black patrons were treated with respect. As a Republican advocate, he was optimistic and self-assertive, still the “evangel” of a cause. However, the cautious Booker T. Washington soon found him too brash and unpredictable, too difficult to control. Deprived of Washington’s backing, Manning left the postal service after William Howard Taft was elected president in 1908; Taft’s administration had no place for former radicals.
Manning would spend the remaining years of his life as a lobbyist for civil rights, a journalist for African American newspapers such as the Washington Bee, a correspondent of early leaders of the NAACP, notably Walter White, and commentator on the racial politics of Alabama and the south. Late in his life, Manning had moved permanently to New York. He died there at the House of Calvary Infirmary, in the Bronx, of cancer on May 19, 1930.
Works by Joseph C. Manning
Politics of Alabama (1893)
Letting South Alone (1903)
Rise and Reign of the Bourbon Oligarchy (1904)
Sectionalism: The Rise and Reign of the Southern Oligarchy (1916)
The Fadeout of Populism: Presenting, in Connection, the Political Combat Between the Pot and the Kettle (1928)
From Five to Twenty-Five: His Earlier Life As Recalled by Joseph Columbus Manning (1929)
Pruitt, Paul M., Jr. “Joseph C. Manning, Alabama Populist: A Rebel Against the Solid South.” Ph.D. diss., College of William and Mary, 1980.
———. Taming Alabama: Lawyers and Reformers, 1804-1929. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2010.
Rogers, William Warren. The One-Gallused Rebellion: Agrarianism in Alabama, 1865-1896. Baton Rouse: Louisiana State University Press, 1970.
Shofner, Jerrell H. and William Warren Rogers. “Joseph C. Manning: Militant Agrarian, Enduring Populist.” Alabama Historical Quarterly 29 (Spring and Summer 1967): 7-37.
Webb, Samuel L. Two-Party Politics in the One-Party South: Alabama’s Hill Country, 1874-1920. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1997.