Alfalfa Bill

More than a century has passed since William Henry David Murray exerted his will on Oklahoma’s constitutional convention. He left public office 80 years ago this month, dismissed as a crank and an anachronism even then, and died penniless, trying to peddle his rambling political tracts in downtown Oklahoma City in 1956.

But as Bill Murray bent the twig, so is Oklahoma still inclined. It is impossible, even now, to understand the state’s political culture without some knowledge of Alfalfa Bill.

Grasping, opportunistic, racist, anti-Semitic, uncouth and maybe even a little crazy, Murray could also be generous and insightful and wonderfully fearless. He was a dreamer and an idealist and never understood why the rest of the world didn’t see things his way. The constitution whose writing he supervised and greatly influenced was widely regarded as a model of progressive thought and included significant safeguards for working people. Murray wasn’t personally responsible for all of the reforms, but as president of the constitutional convention he had great influence on what was and was not in the final product.

Murray hated railroads and corporations and cities. He proclaimed himself a friend of African Americans as long as they remembered their place. He disdained universities, except for the agricultural college at Stillwater, and saw to it that the constitution authorized six “agricultural high schools” scattered across the state. Five of the six still exist in some form, four of them as college campuses. Civilization, he maintained, “begins and ends with the plow.”

Bill Murray was born at Toadsuck, Texas, a long-dead settlement southwest of Sherman in the Red River Valley. Murray ran away from home at 12, worked as a farm hand and went to various public schools, failed at newspaper publishing in Corsicana and at law in Fort Worth before moving to the Chickasaw Nation around 1897.

There Murray found his fortune, or at least his future, the way countless other ambitious white men of his generation did in the Indian Nations — by marrying into the tribe. In Murray’s case, his bride was the niece of Chickasaw Gov. Doulgas Henry Johnston. Murray became active in Chickasaw politics and was prominent in the 1905 Sequoyah Convention, which tried to bring Indian Territory into the union as a state separate from Oklahoma.

The Sequoyah movement went nowhere, but its leaders took control of the constitutional convention and then the new state government. Murray was the first speaker of the House and then served in Congress. Defeated for re-election in 1916 because of his support of American preparations to enter the Great War, he eventually drifted to South America and started an agricultural commune in Bolivia. Broke and starved out, he returned to Oklahoma just in time to get himself elected governor in 1930.

With no money for a campaign, Murray literally hitchhiked from town to town. An entertaining if not always sensical orator, Murray held forth on street corners and park benches and claimed to live off  crackers and cheese.

As governor, Murray sent the National Guard to keep Texas from collecting tolls on a bridge over the Red River and to shut down oil wells that had glutted the market and driven prices down to 10 cents a barrel. He allowed poor people to plant potatoes on the lawn of the governor’s mansion but resisted Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, chained his office chairs to the radiator to keep people from getting too close and met visitors in his stockinged feed. He ran for president in 1932 but succeeded only in embarrassing himself and further alienating Roosevelt.

Several of the ideas incorporated into the Murray constitution have been negated or wired around. The state’s current regime is intent on weakening the legislative branch in favor of the chief executive, something diametrically opposed to the state’s founding principals. And yet Alfalfa Bill’s spirit lives, often not in a good way, in our idiosyncrasies, in our simultaneous sensitivity and indifference to the the opinions and criticisms of others, and in our romanticized notions of rugged independence.

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