Path Home Shows 2015 Show Archive August 2015 Show 1533 Oklahoma Socialism

Oklahoma Socialism

Oklahoma Republicans call the state the reddest in the nation, but Oklahoma’s history includes the country’s strongest socialist movement.
Oklahoma Socialism

Oklahoma Socialism

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Show Details

Show 1533: Oklahoma Socialism
Air Date: August 16, 2015



Rob McClendon: Well, it comes as something of a surprise for most Oklahomans that the state with a history of the strongest socialist movement was not on either coast, but in rural Oklahoma. It was here in the first two decades of the 20th century a unique movement emerged that successfully elected Socialists to a myriad of state and local offices. And for a brief and singular moment in our state’s history, political leaders in Oklahoma confronted the prospect of sharing power with the Socialist Party. With its stone facade in downtown Oklahoma City, American Farmers and Ranchers looks like a pillar of capitalism. So this is the museum.

Paul Jackson: Yes.

Rob: But inside this insurance company, you find quite a different story; Paul Jackson is the company’s historian.

Jackson: We have a lot of the objects here that have occurred over the, the 100 years of our history.

Rob: Started before statehood, this company was first a political movement that began in an effort to help early Oklahoma farmers. Is it fair to say that these hardscrabble farmers probably didn’t feel very much in control of their lives?

Jackson: Absolutely. They did not feel in control of their lives. It was very difficult times, drought, low crop prices, monopolistic practices, all those things contributed to a very dismal outlook for producers.

Rob: So beginning in Texas and then spreading into Oklahoma, farmers began to band together to establish a farmers union, a movement that began to grow across the nation.

Jackson: People in the South, and farmers and tenants were charged higher interest rates than everyone else. And so they were really just being hit from all angles, not only from the private sector, if you will, by charging all these really huge prices, but also they were hit by drought and couldn’t produce the crops. So it was kind of a little bit of everything. And then they wanted to be in control of, of their commodities that they produced; they wanted to be able to sell them at a higher price. And so that’s when this whole cooperative movement began to form. You began to see just a really rapid increase of membership, almost like a prairie fire.

Rob: And the organized labor movement that swept across the industrialized east began to move westward, Oklahoma History Center’s Bob Blackburn.

Bob Blackburn: Well, out here in the West we have a similar reaction, but here it’s agrarian-based. So many things can go wrong with agriculture. And as the cost of planting and producing and marketing your crops goes up because of mechanization of the cost transportation by rail, the fact that the market for the agricultural products are a long way off, which means it’s gonna cost a lot of money to get it there. Well, it’s squeezing small farmers by the turn of the century. And as the small farmers are losing their land, being squeezed, and their quality of life is going down, they react politically when they start electing officials who will do what they say they need. They want protection from bankers. They want protection from the railroads. They want to bring control back to the local community. And, they want to take the big land holders and break up the land and make sure it’s available to these families. On top of that, they want to do some, what they consider the Christian thing, let’s work together, let’s follow the teachings of Jesus and let’s, let’s do what’s good for everybody, let’s be good neighbors, let’s share, let’s not exploit, let’s not make winners and losers out of the system, which is the basis of the free-enterprise system. Let’s take that out of the scenario of our economy, and let’s base it on this Christian concept of cooperation, socialism.

Rob: And by the time of statehood, socialism became a major force in Oklahoma politics. Well, it certainly sounds like there was a fair amount of idealism going on. What happened from there?

Blackburn: Well, the idealism turned into real action in Oklahoma, probably one of the top three states in the entire union. Here we’re the 46th state, and we’re one of the top three in turning socialist policy into action. Because the constitutional convention in 1906 and 1907 happened just as the socialist movement was really gaining some traction, this very conservative, Christian-based populism, you see it in the eight-hour work day, at the constitutional convention, prohibition of child labor, creating a Department of Cherokees and Corrections to help people. You get a very strong Corporation Commission to limit the power of big business, a very anti-corporate atmosphere within the state. You have an Oklahoma bank guarantee law protecting small depositors and banks from bankers who’ll come in and take depositors and go bankrupt and then leave town, and so you have these guarantee laws. You see very much this agrarian conservative populism showing up in our form of government.

Rob: So today our government works very different than this. What happened?

Blackburn: Well, what happened is that the actions peaked in 1914. In 1914, 20 percent of the statewide vote went for the Socialist candidate for governor. There are 175 local government positions filled by members of the Socialist Party. They are promoting suffrage for women. They are fighting the Jim Crow laws that are trying to disenfranchise African Americans in the state. They are proposing that we stay out of World War I because they see that as this fight of these imperialist probusiness interests trying to control the world and so it’s, they stay out of the war. Well, we eventually enter the war in 1917, and there’s a backlash of patriotism, the councils of defense.

Rob: Which ultimately led to the American Socialism Party’s demise. As America entered into World War I in 1917, those that opposed it were trampled by the rush to arms.

Blackburn: These vigilante groups go out, and anybody they deem not patriotic enough, they might whip, they might drive out of town, and in a couple of cases, they lynch people.

Rob: And while the Socialist Party died in Oklahoma, many of their ideals did not.

Blackburn: The people who would have supported the Socialists become more agrarian, Democrats, during the 1930s. Alfalfa Bill Murray, who would have been an agrarian populist, an idealist who wanted to go back to the ways of Thomas Jefferson, becomes governor. And he is leading the state back towards let’s support small farmers, let’s limit government, let’s keep the federal government out of the state. He opposes the New Deal; he says let’s not bring the New Deal because we don’t want those guys in Washington, D.C., telling us how to live our lives out here on these farms.

Rob: Progressive groups like the Farmers Union began to diversify their focus, and membership continued to grow.

Jackson: The 20s and 30s became involved in all kinds of initiatives, starting rural electrification, soil conservation programs. The very first soil survey project was done within 40 miles of Tishomingo, Oklahoma, as a result of the farmers union asking for that.

Rob: And just like most things political, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Jackson: If you look today how much similarities there might be between the two-party movement and the populist movement, uh, sometimes history, it’s, it’s you look back over a hundred and something years, it’s amazing how players switch positions on, on issues. And so I think, you know, you might think populists is very far from a two-party person, but in many respects they might be very closely aligned today.

Blackburn: Even today you see parts of this, this belief. We are still a state built on this agrarian conservative rural populism. You see it in the tea party today, a fear of centralized government, a fear of big business, an attempt to get control back to the local level. You see a very strong Christian theme running through it. And so, Alfalfa Bill Murray would have been very popular among the tea party of modern day Oklahoma. And just as that’s changed its form over the last 100 years, it will continue to change, but it’s my belief that agrarian conservative populism is a part of Oklahoma’s DNA and will be part of that forever.

Rob: So why was the Sooner State, of all places, more hospitable to Marxian socialism than any other state in America? Well, economic reasons are an indisputable factor, but the movement was also rooted in the state’s strong traditions of the American revolution and in Christianity. And while today socialism is often used in the same context by some as being unAmerican, early Oklahomans felt much differently, and their beliefs still resonate today, in everything from the cooperatives that now dot our state to the laws that govern us in our constitution.