Having just completed “Revolt of the Rednecks: Mississippi Politics 1876 to 1925” by Albert D. Kirwan, I turned to “The White Chief: James Kimble Vardaman” by William F. Holmes to get a better view of the days of Theodore Bilbo, Vardaman and others as they pushed and shoved their ways to power.
While reading the Holmes book, the name J.L. Gillespie popped up as having served in the Mississippi Legislature and edited a Tupelo paper. The named seemed familiar, so we at the Oren Dunn City Museum began to research.
Sure enough, Gillespie represented Lee County in the Legislature and at that time stood as the youngest member elected to the House of Representatives at the age of 23 in 1888. He also owned – with James Ballard – the Tupelo Ledger, a weekly newspaper.
This time in history coincides with the formation of the National Farmers Alliance and the Southern Farmers Alliance. In 1890, the Southern Farmers Alliance joined with the national organization. The sub-treasury plan became the principal thrust of the Alliance that same year. Gillespie, as editor of the Tupelo Ledger, joined the bandwagon.
The sub-treasury plan, if it had succeeded, would have established government warehouses so farmers of non-perishable crops, like cotton, could be stored at a minimal price until prices rose. In addition, the plan would provide for government loans at less interest than provided for by banks – a lifesaver to many farmers.
Here’s why: Cotton prices dove after the Civil War chiefly because European markets found cheaper cotton to purchase. Farmers had to sell at the best price they could receive for cotton. Often, to make the year, farmers would purchase food, seed and other household items on credit from the merchants. Often, merchants sold the farmers these goods at a higher price and would tack on interest at the end of the crop year. Many times, the farmers could not pay the debt because of low cotton prices. The debt would carry over.
Democrats who ran the state believed they had the Alliance in hand. Black farmers formed their separate Colored Farmers Alliance but walked in step with their white counterparts. This raised the eyebrows of the Redeemer Democrats, who were afraid the two farmers organizations would join political forces and weaken their power.
Although Gillespie proved a staunch segregationist, he did advocate the sub-treasury, farmer cooperatives and other priorities of both alliances. He fought “Private” John Allen, who held a seat in Congress on this venture. Allen, a darling of Lee County and most of Northeast Mississippi, fought back.
The Democrats of this region of Mississippi banded together and, through some election hokey-pokey, maintained power, despite Gillespie’s virulent editorials against them in the Tupelo Ledger. Gillespie had to leave town.
The result? Gillespie wound up in 1892 in Greenwood Mississippi, owning half of the “Greenwood Enterprise” with Vardaman. Later, the newspaper became known as The Greenwood Commonwealth.
Gillespie continued to work and edit the newspaper as he served as a member of the Greenwood City Council, Mississippi Land Commissioner under the Edmund Favor Noel gubernatorial administration and a member of the levee board. Additionally, he served as president of the Mississippi Press Association and sat on its executive board for many years.
In May 1923, Gillespie suffered from appendicitis. Physicians waited two days to perform surgery. He died of complications from the surgery. He is buried in Odd Fellows’ Cemetery in Greenwood.