History of a Red State: Oklahoma, Hotbed of U.S. Socialism

In recent years, Oklahoma has taken right-wing politics and turned it up to 11.

In 2008, it defied national trends and thoroughly endorsed John McCain for the presidency, with every county going for the Grand Old Party. Dan Boren, the sole Democrat among the state’s seven congressional representatives, owes his unique status partly to a large “Dixiecrat” contingent in southeastern Oklahoma as well as his shilling for the oil and gas industry, a lucrative prostitution that has seen his income jump significantly over the last six years. In the Senate, Sooners claim two notable Republican personae. There’s Jim Inhofe, who invented the “God, Guns and Gays” campaign strategy and famously went to an international climate conference in 2010 to insist global warming was a hoax (only to be called “ridiculous” by one of the handful of reporters who listened to him). Then there’s Tom Coburn, the unlikely best pal of President Obama and a fiscal conservative so principled and adept at blocking legislation (including benefits for veterans) that he could give Ron Paul a run for the title of “Dr. No.” Recently, the state legislature has made headlines for such unusual conservative campaigns as banning sharia law in legal decisions and aborted fetuses in food.

Yet it was not always this way. Oklahoma, now the reddest of red states, used to be “red” in a much different way. While the state will undoubtedly go for Mitt Romney in November this year, one hundred years ago Oklahoma voters gave 16% of their vote to Eugene V. Debs – the Socialist candidate in the 1912 presidential election. By 1914, the Socialist Party of Oklahoma possessed 984 chapters with a sum of 12,000 registered members – the most in any state.

Why did socialism flourish in Oklahoma of all places? Following statehood in 1907, most Oklahomans worked the land, usually as tenants. Poor farmers leased land from landowners, aping the ancient feudal hierarchy in which serfs toiled under the wealthy nobility. In addition to this exploitation, farmers also had to contend with the crop-lien system – in which farmers borrowed money against the value of their projected harvests, often ending up in debt when crop yields or crop prices fell below expectations. Reeling from these injustices, working farmers found motivation to reform the system to be more equitable. In order to do that, however, they needed to organize.

In the early 20th century, early agrarian movements like Farmers’ Union and the Farmers’ Alliance mobilized for the interests of the average farmer and provided much-needed experience in organization and advocacy to their regular members. When these groups came under the influence of landowners who sought to transform them into special interest groups rather than activist coalitions, many farmers left en masse. Disenchanted with the mainstream Democratic and Republican parties who also served elite concerns, they flocked to the Socialist Party, which was taking shape with the help of organizers moving from the Midwest to the Southwest. In attacking the concentration of power and riches in the hands of a narrow few, Oklahoman socialists carefully chose narratives that fit with and appealed to the consciousness of their future comrades.

Rather than embracing “true” communism and its abolition of private property, Oklahoman socialists advocated land redistribution so that farmers could conceivably own their own property instead of paying someone else rent, regardless of how their farms performed each year. They borrowed from Thomas Jefferson, lionizing the “yeoman farmer” in opposition to bankers, lawyers and other privileged classes. In such terms, socialism sounded less like a foreign ideology borne from a German political economist and more like the continuation of the United States’ own Founding Fathers. Additionally, Oklahoman socialists invoked Jesus Christ and the Bible, giving their strain of the socialist movement a “Christian socialist” character. With Jesus’ identification with the poor, sick and oppressed, it has never been a hard case to make in any Christian society that Jesus was on the side of the plebeians against the patricians, and the Oklahoman socialists made that case well. Although God is often cited in today’s political rhetoric against extending civil rights to homosexuals or giving women the right to choose, in the past God often featured heavily in the speeches and pamphlets of left-wing radicals who utilized the compassion and charity in the Christian tradition rather than its intolerance and hatred. It seems doubtful that socialism would have bloomed bright red in Oklahoma had it not changed to fit the local political and cultural language. In many other places, socialism tried to change that language to suit its own needs, and often died on the vine as a result.

The Oklahoman socialists did not focus on economic justice to the exclusion of other issues. In 1910, the state disenfranchised African-Americans, denying them access to the ballot through use of a “grandfather clause” that introduced literacy and property restrictions on voting save for those whose “grandfathers” had the right to vote before the Civil War – in other words, poor whites. The Socialist Party of Oklahoma stands as the only Southern socialist party to have spoken up for the civil rights of African-Americans during the origin of Jim Crow. Prior to statehood, the socialists had supported extending the right to vote to women, although this effort was defeated by an array of reactionary forces, including anti-suffrage governors and right-wing propaganda in the Daily Oklahoman, then owned by the conservative E.K. Gaylord and now owned by the equally conservative (and anti-gay) Philip Anschutz.

So, what happened? The answer lies with an event often not mentioned in Oklahoma classrooms. In 1917, a group of radical tenant farmers called the Working Class Union (WCU) launched an insurgency against the state and federal government based on anger over military conscription. The country had just entered World War I, and not only did most Americans not identify with the Allies (the British had just brutally crushed Ireland in the Easter Rebellion), but few saw any benefit in sending their young men to die in a “rich man’s war.” Despite no actual records documenting what was planned, historians have nevertheless guessed that WCU agitators encouraged farmers to take up arms and march on Washington, D.C. living off the land and eating roasted “green corn” – leading to the revolt being called the “Green Corn Rebellion.” Betrayed by an informer, the rebels gave up when confronted by a posse on the banks of the South Canadian River. Hundreds were arrested, with over a hundred sentenced to prison terms.

Although it had played no part in fomenting or carrying out the failed insurrection, the incident was used to stir up public opinion against the Socialist Party of Oklahoma. According to the memoirs of Oscar Ameringer, a German-born socialist active in early Oklahoma politics:

“Though not a single official of the Party was connected with the Green Corn Rebellion, thousands of our members were arrested. Jails were so overcrowded that four hundred prisoners were shipped to the state penitentiary for safekeeping. Thousands sought safety in the Winding Stairs Mountains, in adjoining Colorado, Texas, and Arkansas.

Of the Green Corn rebels convicted, some thirty-odd went to Leavenworth, the federal prison, from which the last of them were released after Kate Richards O’Hare had marched their wives and children to Washington, where they picketed the White House. …

Shortly after the trial of the Green Corn rebels an emergency convention of the mortally wounded Party was held in Oklahoma City. It was at that convention that Patrick S. Nagle, one of the leading attorneys of the rebels, sponsored and succeeded in passing a resolution disbanding the Socialist Party of Oklahoma.”

In short, the Socialist Party of Oklahoma succumbed to repression and intimidation, fearful that it would be stamped out of existence if it did not choose to disband voluntarily. Granted, it is not the most heroic climax for any group in history, but it is certainly a logical one. Given the illegal searches, seizures and naked violence that accompanied the Palmer Raids during the first Red Scare of 1919 to 1920, the Oklahoman socialists may have taken the less painful (if less courageous) choice in committing suicide rather than having a jackboot placed upon their collective neck.

(As an interesting side note, Oklahoma used to have a different flag than what it has now. The old flag – red with a white star on its background – was abandoned in the 1920s because it appeared too “communist.”)

In 2009, the Oklahoma House voted down a measure to name “Do You Realize??” by The Flaming Lips as the state rock song (The Lips are from Norman, Oklahoma) partly because one of the band members had worn a t-shirt with a hammer and sickle on it to the state capitol. In a strange way, The Flaming Lips may have been more in touch with the history of Oklahoma politics on that day than the actual elected representatives. Given the news stories that come out of Oklahoma City these days, there is little debate that the aging space rockers are more in touch with reality.


5 thoughts on “History of a Red State: Oklahoma, Hotbed of U.S. Socialism

  1. Pingback: Oklahoma: A State of Confusion | Marmalade

    • Great to see this presentation of a little-known chapter in Oklahoma history! Only recently I wrote an uncannily similar social media post. I was unaware of the party’s final death spiral and am grateful to know about its unraveling. I had often asked myself “What happened?” as I considered “What might have been?”

  2. Pingback: % of the vote for Socialist candidate Eugene V. Debs, by US State, 1912 – Nick Conway

  3. Great to see this presentation of a little-known chapter in Oklahoma history! Only recently I wrote an uncannily similar social media post. I was unaware of the party’s final death spiral and am grateful to know about its unraveling. I had often asked myself “What happened?” as I considered “What might have been?”

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