Although the Knights of Labor was the first labor organization in America that was truly national in scope, its presence in South Carolina was always tenuous at best. Initially organized in 1869, the Knights of Labor remained a secret society until 1882, when it began to gain members across the country due in part to a flexible organizational structure. Members were organized into Local Assemblies that often consisted of members of the same trade in a particular location but could include members with several different occupations. Unlike earlier trade unions, the Knights attempted to organize men and women, skilled craftsmen and unskilled laborers, and members of all racial and ethnic groups (except the Chinese).
The first two Local Assemblies in South Carolina were made up of telegraph operators in Charleston and Columbia. They organized in 1882 and 1883, respectively, as part of an unsuccessful nationwide strike against Western Union. Further organization of the Knights of Labor in South Carolina lagged until 1885, when the Knights made a nationwide challenge to the railroads controlled by the financier Jay Gould and won. Their success drew in new members from across the county. In South Carolina at least twenty-four Local Assemblies formed in 1886 in the new textile mill towns that were springing up across the upstate as well as in the older mill district of the Horse Creek Valley between Aiken and Augusta.
Despite the rapid increase in membership, developments at both the national and local levels worked against the Knights. In the Great Southwest Strike of 1886, the Knights again attempted to challenge the control of railroad owners, but in this case they lost badly. The Haymarket Affair in May 1886, when anarchists in Chicago were alleged to have thrown a bomb that killed a policeman, created a nationwide backlash against the labor movement and radicals of all kinds. In the Horse Creek Valley of South Carolina and neighboring Augusta, Georgia, the Knights of Labor found themselves in a bitter conflict with mill owners over wages. The Knights of Labor headquarters could offer little assistance and did not approve of striking in the first place, preferring to arbitrate labor disputes. The strike collapsed in November 1886, and by the end of 1887 nearly all of the Local Assemblies in textile mill towns in South Carolina had evaporated.
An even greater blow came when the Knights of Labor held their annual General Assembly in Richmond, Virginia, in 1886. There, the organization’s national policies of nondiscrimination came into conflict with southern prejudices and the mores of segregation. The Knights’ insistence on racial equality within their organization soured many whites on organized labor. After 1886 some new Local Assemblies were formed, but rather than representing industrial workers, they were primarily composed of tenant farmers and farm laborers. The farmers who owned the land were more likely to support the farmers’ movement led by Ben Tillman and the Farmers’ Alliance. Although a few Local Assemblies continued to operate in South Carolina, especially in Charleston, they were never a significant factor after the 1886 defeats.
Garlock, Jonathan. Guide to the Local Assemblies of the Knights of Labor. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1982.
McLaurin, Melton Alonzo. The Knights of Labor in the South. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1978.
Ware, Norman. The Labor Movement in the United States, 1860–1895: A Study in Democracy. 1929. Reprint, Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1959.