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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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The fragile right to vote

The U.S. Constitution, as originally written, did not include the right to vote. Neither did the first 10 amendments, adopted immediately as the Bill of Rights. The common practice among the various states was to grant the franchise to white males property owners 21 years of age and older, but there were variations. New Jersey allowed some women to vote. Four states allowed free blacks who met the property requirement to vote. Some states barred Jews from casting ballots.

Various philosophical reasons were advanced for limiting access to the ballot box, and some individuals were — and are — no doubt more qualified than others to vote, but the underlying issue was simple and timeless: control. Benjamin Franklin, for one, thought property requiresments made no sense. He wrote:

“Today a man owns a jackass worth 50 dollars and he is entitled to  vote; but before the next election the jackass dies. The man in the mean time has become more experienced, his knowledge of the principles of government, and his acquaintance with mankind, are more extensive, and he is therefore better qualified to make a proper selection of rulers—but the jackass is dead and the man cannot vote. Now gentlemen, pray inform me, in whom is the right of suffrage? In the man or in the jackass?”

Voting rights have evolved through our nation’s history and have been a frequent source of conflict between the states and the national government. It could be said that the Civil War was fought in part over voting rights, for it was not until the post-war amendments of 1865-70 that voting rights were formerly incorporated into the Constitution. Some historians believe Lincoln’s suggestion that some blacks should be allowed to vote may have pushed John Wilkes Booth over the edge, turning from presidential kidnapper into presidential assassin.

States continued to evade the intent of the Reconstruction amendments with voting laws explicitly designed to disenfranchise certain classes, especially blacks and poor whites. And, of course, women of all classes.

In 1910, Oklahoma passed a state constitutional amendment subjecting African Americans and only African Americans to a literacy test. The measure included a “grandfather clause” that excluded anyone descended from someone eligible to vote in 1865, or who had immigrated to the country since then. Voting against the amendment required marking through it on the ballot. Unmarked ballots counted as “yes” votes.

The grandfather clause was declared unconstitutional in 1915, in the first case involving the newly formed NAACP. By that time, state leadership was alarmed at least as much by the rise of the state Socialist Party, which had given voice to poor, rural whites, as it was concerned about blacks. So it passed a new voting law that limited voter registration to two 10-day periods a year; in those days, there were no permanent locations for registering, such as county election board offices. Rather, registering involved tracking down a precinct registrar, who might then effectively refuse the applicant by claiming not to have the proper forms available.

Well within the memory of people living today, the right to vote in America has been denied through legislative malpractice, intimidation and violence, so it is not surprising that some object to surrendering it in any way.

What is surprising is that so many surrender it voluntarily, by default, by failing to exercise it.

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A shameless plug

If you liked my last post, you may be interested in a longer piece loosely based on the Green Corn Rebellion and set in rural Oklahoma during World War I.



It’s a short novel (We all have at least one, don’t we?) called The War to End all Wars. The first chapter is available at the tab of the same name on this blog’s home page; comments are encouraged.

If you’re really interested, an e-book edition of the entire book is available at here.

Again, comments encouraged. And thanks for reading.

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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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