Lawrence Goodwyn, 85, populism historian

Mr. Goodwyn wrote a book that became a standard text in colleges and something of a blueprint for activists.
Christina Simmons/Duke University/file 1981
Mr. Goodwyn wrote a book that became a standard text in colleges and something of a blueprint for activists.

NEW YORK — Lawrence Goodwyn, whose experience building cross-racial political coalitions in the 1960s led him to write an authoritative history of the rise of American populism in the 19th century, died last Sunday at his home in Durham, N.C. He was 85.

The cause was emphysema, said his son, Wade.

Mr. Goodwyn’s 1976 book, “Democratic Promise: The Populist Moment in America,” became a standard text in colleges and something of a blueprint for activists hoping to harness grass-roots support to force political change.


Yet Mr. Goodwyn, who helped build political coalitions of blacks, Mexican immigrants, liberal whites, and labor unions in Texas before shifting to academics, made it clear that a truly effective populist movement, conceived and mobilized at the ground level, was difficult to create and sustain.

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“Democratic Promise,” a finalist for the National Book Award in 1977, described how farmers, particularly in the South and Southwest, began forming alliances after currency changes in the 1870s caused severe reductions in crop prices. Left to the mercy of banks and their lending policies, they formed cooperatives to buy seed and equipment and then sell their crops.

“To describe the origins of Populism in one sentence,” Mr. Goodwyn wrote, “the cooperative movement recruited American farmers, and their subsequent experience within the cooperatives radically altered their political consciousness. The agrarian revolt cannot be understood outside the framework of the economic crusade that not only was its source but also created the culture of the movement itself.”

By the late 1880s, the alliance had given rise to a new political party, the People’s Party, and in 1892 it helped elect candidates to state legislatures, Congress and the governorship of Colorado. Its presidential candidate, James B. Weaver, a former Iowa congressman, received more than a million popular votes and 22 electoral votes. In 1896, he and the People’s Party supported the Democratic candidate, William Jennings Bryan.

That was the peak. The People’s Party soon lost cohesion, and the farmers’ cooperatives never achieved the financial independence the organizers had hoped for. But the effort influenced later policies, including the New Deal, and Mr. Goodwyn showed that the alliance fostered more cooperation between blacks and whites than earlier histories had recorded.


Mr. Goodwyn was drawn into political and civil rights activism in the early 1960s while working as a reporter and editor for The Texas Observer, a liberal news magazine. He helped galvanize support for liberal Democrats, including Ralph W. Yarborough, who ran for governor several times in the 1950s and eventually became a US senator, and for Don Yarborough (no relation), who narrowly lost the 1962 Democratic primary for governor to John B. Connally Jr.

In 1963, Mr. Goodwyn helped create the Democratic Coalition, a formalized version of the multiracial grass-roots groups that had come together for Don Yarborough’s 1962 campaign. As he traveled the state and the South, as both an activist and a freelance journalist, he found that the lore of the populist moment had endured.

“He was starting to hear whispers of this earlier coalition,” said Max Krochmal, a historian at Texas Christian University. “Some of those memories were still alive, and that’s what drove him to want to dig.”

Lawrence Corbett Goodwyn was born in Fort Huachuca, Ariz. After graduating from Texas A&M University, he joined the Army.

He began his doctoral work more than a decade later at the University of Texas.


He became a professor at Duke University in 1971 and remained there 32 years.