A few months ago, I got into an argument with Fulwar Skipworth of Identity Dixie about Southern progressivism which kicked off the Southern History Series. I had written an article that ticked him off called Southerners Used To Be Progressives which tied the Yang campaign to a look back at the rise of Southern populism and progressivism around the turn of the 20th century.
I had in mind things like the rise of Woodrow Wilson as the first Southern president to be elected since Reconstruction, Gov. Braxton Bragg Comer who regulated the railroads here in Alabama and the agrarian radicalism out west in places like that bastion of socialism … Oklahoma:
Populism was gaining traction all over the Deep South in the 1890s, but the movement originally came from the west out of the Southern Plains. Here’s another excerpt about the rise of populism and socialism in Oklahoma from George B. Tindall’s book The Emergence of the New South, 1913-1945:
“In Oklahoma, on the other hand, the Socialists in 1910 had more paid-up members than any other state. By 1913 they had 342 locals, and during 1914 the “red card membership” grew to nearly 10,000. Neglected by the party leaders at the time and historians of the movement since, they represented an indigenous growth, akin to populism,. which was based not upon an industrial proletariat but chiefly upon the submerged tenants in the eastern cotton counties south of the Canadian River, the most “southern” part of the state. “Socialism as we find it in this state,” said the Daily Oklahoman, “is more a protest against tenantry and money sharks than a demand for collectivism … [The struggling tenant farmer] only knows that something is wrong, radically wrong, with a system which condemns him to a life of toil and grinding poverty and he expresses his contempt for the same by affiliating with a party which holds out a vain hope.”
In their 1914 platform Oklahoma’s Socialists set forth the major principles of Debs socialism but featured a “Renters’ and Farmers’ program’ for state aid to tenants and co-operatives, state banks, warehouses, and grain elevators, and other forms of assistance to farmers. Collapse of the cotton market in 1914 added to the discontent, and a full state ticket polled over fifty thousand votes. Two years later, despite Wilson’s appeal to the advanced progressive and peace elements, the Socialists rank up a vote of 42,262 for their Presidential candidate. But soon, in the excitement of World War I, they acquired a stigma of disloyalty they could not cast off. Finally, in Oklahoma as in Texas, the remnants of their strength were drawn off in 1923 by a popular leader, Jack Walton, whose promise proved as illusory as Ferguson’s.” …
Oklahoma in the early 1920’s saw a brief resurgence of Southwestern radicalism. The twin problems of the farmers’ depression and organized labor’s struggle with open shop movements brought their leaders together in September, 1921 at Shawnee to form the Farmer-Labor Reconstruction League of Oklahoma. A year later the league adopted a platform with many elements of agrarian socialism and turned up as its leader the handsome mayor of Oklahoma City, Jack C. Walton – former traveling salesman, hotel clerk, railroader, and army officer, a man of brilliantly erratic temperaments.”
Oklahoma was a stronghold of socialism until World War I.
This was because the poorest tenant farmers in Oklahoma were being bled dry by the banks and the railroad corporations. The low price of cotton, high interest rates, scarce credit, soil erosion, differential railroad rates in “Southern Territory” and “Southwestern Territory,” too little currency in circulation and finally the invasion of the boll weevil was crushing the farmer all over the South in the late 19th and early 20th century. The backlash in Oklahoma went further than it did anywhere else.
The Oklahoma Historical Society has more on this:
“In the first two decades of the twentieth century the Socialist Party of Oklahoma consistently ranked as one of the top three state socialist organizations in America. At the party’s height in the elections of 1914, the Socialist Party candidate for governor, Fred W. Holt, received more than 20 percent of the vote statewide. In Marshall and Roger Mills counties, where the Socialist Party was strongest, Holt captured 41 and 35 percent of the vote, respectively. More than 175 socialists were elected to local and county offices that year, including six to the state legislature. As these statistics make clear, to a greater extent than anywhere else in the nation, the Socialist Party in Oklahoma played an active, potent role in state and local politics.
The earliest formations of the Oklahoma Socialist Party occurred during the territorial period in Grant and Kay counties near the Kansas border. By 1902 there were some twenty-three locals affiliated with the socialist organization in Oklahoma Territory. Soon the center of socialist activism shifted southward to the Indian Territory, and by 1907 the geographic shape of the Socialist Party of Oklahoma had become clear: socialists were concentrated in the old Indian Territory (especially in Marshall, Johnston, Pontotoc, Seminole, Jefferson, Stephens, Garvin, Love, and McCurtain counties), and in Roger Mills, Beckham, Dewey, and Kiowa counties in the west.
From the outset, Oklahoma socialism had a decidedly agrarian focus. Building on the expertise its members inherited from past agrarian movements (principally the Farmers’ Alliance and the Farmers’ Union), Oklahoma socialists directly challenged the inequities of early-twentieth-century commercial agriculture. Unlike their counterparts in the national Socialist Party, who thought of farmers as members of the petite bourgeoisie and therefore ineligible for party membership, Oklahoma socialists argued forcefully that farmers who worked the land were legitimate members of the working class. Indeed, Sooner socialists developed a pathbreaking “Farmers’ Programme” that called for restoring land to working farmers. In addition, Socialist Party speakers relentlessly attacked tenancy, the crop lien system, and usury, the principal components of the agricultural crisis for small farmers. …
Socialists in the Sooner State held that their ideals were completely in keeping with the teachings of Jesus Christ, especially as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount. Building on this idea, some Oklahoma socialists argued that capitalism was an inherently unchristian system, but socialism allowed citizens to live according to the Biblical concept of cooperation. To them, socialism was a more moral, Christian alternative than the current economic system. As a result, the message of socialist organizers and candidates was often couched in religious terms. Many party members saw Jesus as the first socialist, and they considered it natural to make their case in fundamentalist, Christian churches. In these ways, the Socialist Party of Oklahoma managed to present the message of socialism, not as an alien doctrine, but as an alternative well within the boundaries of accepted American political discourse. Such a feat was unmatched elsewhere in the United States, and it helps explain the remarkable success of Oklahoma socialism. “
Jacobin has an article on Red Oklahoma:
“Mass struggle has a remarkable way of puncturing political myths. Liberals for many years have condescendingly portrayed working people in “red states” like West Virginia and Oklahoma as brainwashed dupes of the Republicans. But the eruption of teachers’ rebellions across so-called Trump country has revealed the superficiality of these accounts.
By ignoring social class and class struggle, the “red state” myth misread the present — and distorted the past. All regions of this country have rich, and relevant, traditions of labor resistance. Educators in West Virginia reclaimed this history when they surged into struggle, obliging mainstream accounts of the strike to highlight precedent-setting historical struggles like the Mine Wars. But it’s significant that the liberal media has so far studiously ignored Oklahoma’s deep history of militancy.Part of the reason for this discrepancy is that there is more working-class political continuity in West Virginia than in the Sooner State. But there’s an additional reason: Oklahoma’s radical roots are explicitly socialist. It’s a little-known fact that Oklahoma had the strongest Socialist Party in the country a century ago. Angered by their material hardships and inspired by a vision of economic and political democracy, tens of thousands turned to socialism. …
The starting point for the emergence and popularity of Oklahoma socialism was the dire economic situation of working people across the state. Small-holding and tenant farmers were subjected to intense profit-squeezing by large landowners and credit-lenders. Failing to make ends meet, many ended up deeply in debt, obliging them to work land that they didn’t own.
Brutal poverty, the concentration of land ownership in the hands of a small elite, and the exploitative credit-lending power of the banks were an explosive mix. By consistently championing the basic material demands of Oklahomans for land and economic justice, and by treating poor farmers as part of a broadly conceived working class, socialists from 1902 onward began building up a popular base in the Sooner State. …”
The communist Woody Guthrie of “This Machine Kills Fascists” fame was from Red Oklahoma. Guthrie is currently in the news for not being woke enough for progressives in 2019 because his song “This Land Is Your Land” which condemns private property from a socialist perspective is offensive to Native Americans who really own the land and perpetuates Native invisibility!