Kenneth and John B. Rayner and the Limits of Southern Dissent

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University of Illinois Press, 1993 - History - 361 pages
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In this fascinating story of two nineteenth-century southern political mavericks, Gregg Cantrell details their fate as dissenters, telling a human story at once heroic and shameful, hopeful and tragic. The two mavericks were the slaveholding congressman and planter Kenneth Rayner of North Carolina and his illegitimate mulatto son, John B. Rayner of Texas.
Born in 1808, Kenneth served in the North Carolina legislature for twenty years and in Congress for six as a Whig. In 1854 he became a major leader of the American (Know-Nothing) party. His staunch Unionism and a willingness to cooperate with Republicans incurred the wrath of his fellow southerners. After supporting secession, working for a peace settlement during the war, writing a biography of Andrew Johnson, and going broke in a grandiose cotton-planting venture, he joined the Republican parry and held federal offices in the Grant, Hayes, Garfield, and Arthur administrations.
Kenneth Rayner's son, John, was born in 1850. His mother was a slave. The elder Rayner acknowledged his paternity and provided a college education. John held local offices in North Carolina during Reconstruction, then led a migration of black farmworkers to Texas in 1880. There he preached, taught school, and took part in his adopted state's prohibition battles. A master orator, he joined the Populist party in 1892 and soon became its preeminent black leader. After the turn of the century blacks were disfranchised and Rayner, like his father before him, found his political career in ruins. He spent the rest of his days working for black education and trying to preserve some voice for blacks in southern politics.
Both men were out of step with the rapidly changing politics of their time. Each eventually compromised his principles and personal dignity in futile efforts to salvage a way of life that earlier actions had jeopardized. Both were devoted to traditional republican principles, which estranged them from the South's major political parties. In the end, however, their political careers - Kenneth's in North Carolina and John's in Texas - were destroyed by their adherence to unacceptably liberal positions on the issue of race, a topic that indeed constituted the limit of southern dissent.

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