Monthly Archives: August 2014

Oklahoma’s Ewe Lamb Rebellion

William Henry Davis “Alfalfa Bill” Murray generally wins the prize for Oklahoma’s most colorful and eccentric public figure. Born in Toadsuck, Texas, he became an intermarried citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, was president of the Oklahoma constitutional convention and first speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives. He served in Congress, started an ill-fated agricultural cooperative in Bolivia and hitchhiked his way to victory in the 1930 gubernatorial election.

Gruff, profane, ill-kempt, Murray denounced the Ku Klux Klan, called African Americans “coons” and sent the National Guard to keep Texas from opening a toll bridge across the Red River. He tromped around the governor’s office in his stockinged feet, had the executive mansion’s lawn planted to potatoes and made a delusional run for the presidency in 1932.

So yeah, he was pretty far out there.

But for sheer unadulterated weirdness, Henry S. Johnston runs a close second. A Biblical scholar, he also dabbled in Rosicrucianism, an esoteric and obscure philosophy allegedly based on “ancient truths” passed from Middle Eastern mystics to a medieval German named Christian Rosenkreutz. Johnston attended seances with his wife, consulted astrologers and numerologists, claimed to have been reincarnated at least twice, and counted his secretary’s canaries among his closest advisers.

In the end, it wasn’t the canaries that proved his undoing. It was the secretary.

These were hazardous times for Oklahoma governors. The previous elected chief executive, Jack Walton, last just 10 months before the Legislature removed him from office. Impeachment proceedings were initiated against two more of the state’s early governors, and a third had been indicted on federal fraud charges.

Johnston was elected governor in 1926. A dapper, scholarly man, he had been the first president pro tempore of the Oklahoma Senate, and for a short while it appeared  his term as governor would be a successful one. At his urging, the Legislature increased appropriations for common education and authorized the construction of a crippled children’s hospital.

But lawmakers used to speaking to the chief executive whenever they liked were at first annoyed and then outraged by Johnston’s appointment of an executive secretary, Mayme Hammond, who blocked the door to the governor’s office. More than that, they believed, she exercised undue and possibly even mystical influence over Johnston, and at times acted as the de facto governor. At the end of the 1927 legislative session they demanded Hammonds be fired.

Johnston, in his typically meandering manner, refused.

“If you came to me with a thousand sheep,” he said, “and I had only one ewe lamb and you wanted me to destroy that, do you think I would be so base as to destroy it? I repeat, gentlemen, it would be yellow, it would be unjust to Mrs. Hammonds to sacrifice her and her character on false charges.”

Thus began what became known as the Ewe Lamb Rebellion.

Hammonds’ opponents labeled her a “She-svengali” and initiated a special session for the purpose of driving her and Johnston from office. Hammonds probably didn’t help herself any by explaining her ability to keep track of goings-on all over the state through astral projection. It also didn’t help that her relatives, including her husband Dr. O.O. Hammonds, began showing up  and the state payroll.

The initial attempt to oust Johnston failed, but the continued presence of Hammonds and Johnston’s support of the Al Smith, the Democrats’ Catholic, anti-Prohibition candidate for president in 1928, eventually led to his undoing. In 1929, Johnston was convicted on a single count of incompetence and removed from office.

Thus, Oklahoma became and remains the only state to impeach and remove from office two consecutive elected governors.

Lieutenant Governor William J. Holloway, a level-head former state Senator, replaced Holloway and was able to put through several significant reforms during his short time in office. More importantly, he instilled a sense of order to state government despite the turmoil of the onset of the Great Depression.

But the Oklahoma constitution barred Holloway from seeking election to a full term in his own right, thus opening the way for Alfalfa Bill Murray — an eccentric, to be sure, but an eccentric no one dared impeach.

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Ferguson and the Boston Massacre

Upheavals like the one in Ferguson, Mo., do not happen all of the sudden. They are not about a white police officer shooting a black teenager. They are about everything that happened before that moment. They are about every real and perceived slight and grievance accumulated over months and years.

The riot we call the Boston Massacre was the culmination of  years of hard feelings between colonists and British soldiers. The colonists resisted import duties by boycotting British goods. This, naturally, encouraged smuggling, which the colonial secretary countered by sending a war ship and soldiers. The captain felt perfectly justified impressing Bostonians into service. Bostonians disagreed. The British soldiers, restless on shore and short of money, hired on for casual labor, which took jobs away from colonists; at the end of the day, often as not, they all wound up in the same taverns, drinking rum and trading insults.

In February 1770, an 11-year-old boy was killed when a customs official fired off a shotgun in an attempt to disperse a mob surrounding his house.

In March, a British sentry struck a boy for insulting an officer. A crowd gathered. Reinforcements were sent to rescue. Snowballs, insults and bits of debris were hurled at the soldiers, until one of them was knocked down by a rock. We all know where it went from there.

This is not to equate the goings on in Ferguson with the Boston Massacre. But the Boston Massacre didn’t just happen all at once, or because of one single event, and neither, I’d be willing to bet, did Ferguson.

 

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A farewell to Senator Coburn

A farewell to Senator Coburn.

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Not your grandmother’s feminism

The panel discussion on women’s rights I covered late last week seemed a little like something out of a time capsule. You just don’t see that sort of thing much any more.

During the sixties and seventies, my formative years, feminism went from zero to sixty in a handful of years. In 1963, the year Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, women had no protections against discrimination in the workplace. They could legally be denied contraception and kept off juries. Property rights within a marriage — and when dissolving a marriage — were sketchy, at best.

Most of that changed over the next decade, but the failure of the Equal Rights Amendments remains, to some, a symbol of unfinished business. Women still earn less than men, are more likely to live in poverty than men, and to be physically abused than men. Recent years have seen an erosion of the reproductive rights that were such an important part of the women’s movement.

One can frame the latter as protecting the unborn, but moral arguments aside, limiting a woman’s choices is undeniably a loss of freedom. And, many people believe some of the more extreme laws are more about control than saving lives.

In any event, last week’s discussion was unlike any I had heard in quite some time. Certainly, women do have far more opportunities than they did a half-century ago, and that has no doubt lessened the urgency of the women’s movement. Several of the participants said young women don’t like the term feminism, or to be identified as feminists.

The Tulsa World story I filed on the discussion, though, got a surprising amount of traffic, which makes me wonder if the old arguments are not as settled as we thought.

 

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Politics, race and the Klan

A minor brouhaha on Wednesday about a rural Republican bean dinner featuring Gov. Mary Fallin and and “information you may not know” about the Ku Klux Klan illustrates the power of history’s shorthand and just how clueless many Americans still are about race and racism.

Fallin, who faces re-election in November, quickly distanced herself from the event; her spokesman said she had never confirmed her appearance there, and certainly would not be going now.

The elderly county chairman responsible for the dinner said he had only intended to highlight the Klan’s Southern Democrat origins. He seemed genuinely surprised, bewildered and hurt that anyone would draw more controversial conclusions.

As a tangible force in even regional politics, the Ku Klux Klan has not been a viable organization in many decades. As shorthand for racism, it remains a powerful symbol. The mistake is to think the Klan, in any of its incarnations, fully defines racism. The fact that some Democrats started the Klan in 1865 is useful knowledge but not overly meaningful to the racial politics of 2014. Both parties have had plenty to answer for, right up to the present.

 

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