Pitchforks and politics in early Oklahoma

Five years ago, I wrote a column for the Tulsa World about one of the most poignant and largely ignored events in Oklahoma history. It happened in August 1917, and was called the Green Corn Rebellion.

The rebellion, such as it was, stemmed from rural Oklahoma’s long-simmering discontent with the social, political and economic conditions of a young state founded on the promise of opportunity. Socialist Party organizer Oscar Ameringer said Oklahoma’s sharecroppers, tenant farmers and small land-holders lived in greater poverty than the immigrants of New York’s Lower East Side.

Ameringer found a receptive audience. Mostly from default, many rural Oklahomans called themselves socialists, although the capital-S Socialists weren’t so sure they agreed. Oklahoma Socialists didn’t want to collectivize the farms, they wanted to own them. They wanted banks and railroads and landlords that didn’t cheat them, real schools for their kids, seed and equipment at fair prices, and to be paid enough for their grain and cotton to turn a decent profit.

Fred Holt, the Socialist candidate for governor in 1914, got almost 53,000 votes — 21 percent of the total — in an election decided by less than 5,000. Six rural Socialists were elected to the Legislature, and more than 170 won local and county offices.

A discriminatory (and unconstitutional) literary test targeting African Americans had been enacted a few years earlier. Now the Democrat-dominated Legislature went after poor whites by limiting access to voter registration. The move guaranteed political control but only intensified frustration in the hinterlands. Masked riders terrorized small-town bankers and local authorities. Rural radicals, shut out of the Industrial Workers of the World, formed a rag-tag organization called the Working Class Union.

U.S. entry into the Great War, and especially the draft that went with it, did not go over well in rural Oklahoma. Farmers saw no reason to fight for Wall Street and European royalty; a shadowy organization known as the “Jones Family” actively encouraged and assisted in avoidance of the draft.

Matters came to a head in early August 1917 when several hundred men converged on a remote farm about eighty miles southeast of Oklahoma City. The idea was to march on Washington, cutting telephone and telegraph lines and burning bridges along the way, picking up strength and living off “green corn” scavenged from fields on their route.

Misguided, delusional, ill-planned, ill-led, the rebellion disintegrated almost immediately, put down by local posses even before the National Guard arrived. Authorities used the uprising as a pretext to crack down on all dissidents, whether they had anything to do with the rebellion or not. Some four hundred men were arrested and 150 were sent to prison.

Radical politics in Oklahoma essentially ended with the Green Corn Rebellion. But the radical’s ideas did not. The Working Class Union’s outrageous demands had included an eight-hour work day, child labor laws, a workers’ compensation system, protection from predatory banking practices, and decent schools.

Some might say that the fight goes on.

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