After the Civil War, Southern white men returned to their devastated farms which required them to perform the duties that were formerly handled by now freed slaves. The majority of black farm workers left the areas and the Confederate veterans had to do their own plowing, haying, and picking of cotton and other commodities.
The slaves who toiled in the hot Georgia sun had worn cool, wide brim straw field hats. The white farmers refused to wear those hats and instead wore sweaty, narrow-brim hats. As they bent over to work the sun would turn their necks red which led to the creation of the term “redneck.”
The “wool hat boys” was the term used to refer to the broad-based populist movement that was critical to the political careers of politicians in the South in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The term was intended to distinguish white lower and middle class working people from the wealthy, “silk coat” plutocrats.
In Georgia the wool hat boys were originally a highly organized and effective political force. Governor Eugene Talmadge and after him, Marvin Griffin, were later beneficiaries of the movement in the 1950’s-1960’s. Talmadge rose to political power at its crest and Griffin caught it at the tail end of the era as rural dominance in state legislatures were ending in the South as the result of the various decisions of the United States Supreme Court in civil rights that made blacks a new political force and the one man-one vote in 1962 that shifted power from the county to the city.
Due to the similarity of the wool hat boys movement and the Democratic Party in Georgia, the former proved to be a short-term phenomenon that became subservient to the progressive movements domination of the Democrats. Due to internal conflicts in the party in the 1880’s in Georgia, there were three separate and distinct factions among the farmers group. Due to conflicts among the factions, one group proceeded to organize the Populist Party. Genuine interest in populism rose in 1893 when the United States plunged into a devastating Depression.
However, the efforts of the Populist Party leader in the 1894 and 1896 elections to overthrow the Democratic Party in Georgia were unsuccessful. After 1896 the influence of the Populist Party substantially declined until the party remnants gradually disappeared.
The history of the Populist movement and the “Wool Hat Boys” in Georgia is covered extensively in Barton C. Shaw's publication The Wool Hat Boys: Georgia’s Populist Party. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press (1984). Numerous news and used copies are available on Amazon.com.
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Jerry Summers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org