I grew up in Shawnee, Oklahoma, the granddaughter of a Southern Baptist preacher. But I went to college in what my father called “the Godless East.” When I spent a semester in Cold War East Germany, someone asked him if I had ever been to a Communist country before. “Sure,” he replied, “she’s been to Massachusetts.” My father was an Oklahoma Democrat, somewhere to the right of a Massachusetts Republican. These days, of course, Oklahoma is known as one of the most Republican states in the union.
But there is a different story in the DNA of Oklahoma politics. It’s a truly forgotten story in the relatively brief history of this state that people fled the past to create. When the former Indian Territory became Oklahoma in 1907, it had one of the most progressive constitutions in the union, influenced largely by a farmer-labor coalition. Yet small farmers and laborers—75 percent of the population of around two million by 1920—grew less secure and more economically burdened in the early years of statehood, while “New White elites” (bankers, lawyers, merchants and landlords) flourished. These increasingly downtrodden voters gave Socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs 16 percent of the Oklahoma vote in 1912, compared with 6 percent nationally. And for a tumultuous moment a decade later, a semi-Socialist grassroots Oklahoma movement elected a governor. This movement was born in my hometown, with fighting words:
Because the farmers and wage workers of Oklahoma have been repeatedly betrayed by those chosen to represent them in government; because those in charge of government, regardless of party and their professed political faith, have shown themselves, not only friendly to those predatory interests which seek to enslave us, but are in league with them; because in no other way can we secure redress for our grievances and right the wrongs from which we, and all the common people suffer, there was organized at Shawnee on September 17, 1921, the Farmers and Laborers Reconstruction League of Oklahoma.
The League’s declaration of principles included a state bank, compulsory school seven months a year, strengthened workmen’s compensation, and the minimum wage for women. From that first meeting, it styled itself a “movement,” not a third party—a “declaration of independence” which would pursue the good of farmers and wage earners regardless of party affiliation. The League appointed a prominent Socialist editor as publicity director, and created an official organ, the weekly Reconstructionist newspaper.
Next, according to the Daily Oklahoman—edited then and all the way to 1974 by the famously conservative E.K. Gaylord, “[e]very disciple of discontent was hunted out by the shrewd, experienced, sagacious organizers behind the movement.”
When the League held its first convention the following February, again in Shawnee, the Oklahoman sourly observed that “[n]o political child ever fathered in Oklahoma developed from swaddling clothes to long pants as quickly as the organization, which today assembled 752 delegates from the four corners of the state.” The newspaper described “[h]ard-fisted farmers” and “miners with calloused hands and furrowed faces” gathered with impressive labor and farm leaders and city employees. The Reconstructionist declared the presence of black farmers and farm workers an “epoch-making event in the state’s history.” It reported that two stood and thanked the convention, and promised that “every black in the state” would stand behind them.
The endorsement of J.C. “Jack” Walton, the colorful Democratic mayor of Oklahoma City, was the convention’s major accomplishment, though it also endorsed candidates for 29 other statewide offices. In seconding the nomination, a Dr. Hubbard stood and said, “I have been a Socialist for fifteen years and I am glad to endorse Walton for governor.” Walton arrived to cheers and brought hundreds of photo postcards for the delegates to distribute. Warning bells might have rung for the League’s leaders when Walton declared himself so eager to be their candidate that he didn’t know for sure, but “didn’t care a damn” what specific platform the movement had adopted: “I’m for it all the way!”
The Socialist politician, organizer and publisher Oscar Ameringer—who’s been called the Mark Twain of American Socialism—was present at the founding convention of the League and a force in the election of Jack Walton. In his 1940 autobiography, Ameringer described the Farmer-Labor Reconstruction League as a direct outgrowth of Socialism. But he acknowledged that in the underdeveloped economy and social context of the frontier, it more closely resembled a renaissance of populism. “It adopted the phrases and slogans of the younger movement, but at bottom it rested not on a wage earning proletariat but on the same rebelling frontier farmers who had given vitality to the populist movement.”
The League’s literature was filled with phrases like “social revolution” and exhortations such as, “Organize. Organize. Organize at once.” Inspired perhaps by the progressive “Social Gospel” of the early 20th Century, political ideas also mingled with religious imagery: “The battle is the battle of the Cash Register and the Cross, and can come to a successful termination only when the people take up the Cross and follow the Prince of Peace into the Kingdom of Self-respect.”
Behind all the rhetoric, though, the members of the Farmer-Labor Reconstruction League were concerned with bread and butter issues. One typical plea in the Reconstructionist read:
To make his work remunerative, to enable him to secure the advantages of modem civilization in his farm life, to educate his children, to cease being the patient provider of all food products, without assurance of receiving in return the ease and comforts an enlightened age makes possible – to get all these – he must go into politics.
When the political viability of Walton and the Reconstruction League became clear as the gubernatorial election approached, E.K. Gaylord ran a massive front page editorial: “The RECONSTRUCTION means the abolition of our present form of government in the state and the substitution of a Socialist form of government.” The Reconstructionist countered: “The proposed change may truly be described as Socialistic, but if everything Socialistic is bad, then our schools, our roads, our post office, our water system, all stand Condemned.” In another editorial, a Reconstructionist writer challenged the logic of the Oklahoman editor: “He thinks he can scare people into rejecting the League by howling ‘Socialism’… In fact, he doesn’t know what Socialism is, and he probably knows as little what Jeffersonian Democracy is.”
Walton won by 50,000 votes. “We had “triumphantly elected Our Jack,” the Socialist wrote, “destined to become the Andrew Jackson of the 1920s.”
In Jacksonesque style, Governor-elect Walton forsook the traditional invitation-only inaugural ball and threw a gigantic party for the people – the largest barbeque in Oklahoma history. A mile long barbeque pit roasted 289 “beeves,” 30 sheep, 3 bears, 110 turkeys, 3,540 rabbits, 134 opossum, 2,000 pounds of buffalo, 1,500 pounds of reindeer, and 1,427 chickens. Bread, onions, and pickles abounded. Four giant, custom-made percolators brewed 40,000 gallons of coffee. Reporters from all over the country came to see the Indians, cowboys, dirt farmers, and workers celebrating, singing, and delighting in the feast.
But Walton’s glory peaked there and collapsed just as spectacularly. He modified his commitment to the Shawnee platform almost immediately after election, and distanced himself from the farmers, labor, and Socialist leaders who had put him in power. Having campaigned on refusing money from “blood sucking bankers, monopolists, or oil corporations,” one of his advisors admitted to securing thousands of dollars from an oil fraternity. Walton, it seems, took bribes for legislation, and put his private chauffeur on the payroll of the Health Department. And after declaring “war” on the increasingly powerful Ku Klux Klan, he declared martial law in three counties. When the Oklahoma legislature called a date to discuss impeachment proceedings, Walton sent the state militia to stop it from meeting.
“Our Jack” Walton spent a mere ten months in office. He took the Farmers and Laborers Reconstruction League down with him.
“It remains significant,” a writer of the Federal Writer’s Project concluded in 1939, “that the people of the state elected a governor pledged to a definite reform program at a time when the nation as a whole was committed to conservatism.” Just ten years later, the New Deal, which funded that writer, would bring the government decisively to the aid of famers and laborers. But that would take a national depression, one which not only destroyed laborers and dirt farmers but bankers and stockbrokers as well.
This slice of radical American history is overshadowed by more enduring and better-chronicled counterparts in North Dakota, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. In Oklahoma textbooks, the end-point of the corruption of J.C. Walton is most likely to receive mention. I never heard or learned about this growing up. I stumbled upon it in a footnote while studying at my college in the Godless East, and spent one fascinated Christmas break home exploring its original voices in microfiche archives.
Still, I wonder if some internalized memory of this event informs Oklahomans’ contemporary mistrust of politicians – and a particular mistrust, perhaps, of politicians who sound progressive but might reveal themselves otherwise. The indictment and imprisonment of a Democratic governor of my childhood, David Hall, was a kindred morality tale of principle and promise derailed by ego and appalling judgment. There is real tragedy here in the betrayal of voter intent, but even more so in the way these failures of individual character have erased the honesty and principled engagement of thousands of ordinary citizens from history.
There are echoes of those farmers and laborers in today’s tea partiers and Wall Street occupiers, but also in Democrats and Republicans who long to recover their faith in politics. A faith in politics, and a determination to make politics work anew for common people, finds impassioned and often eloquent expression in the forgotten pages of the Reconstructionist. Its voices, and its lessons, deserve remembering.
Krista Tippett is the host of public radio’s On Being, a weekly program and podcast about the big questions at the center of human life. She is the author of Speaking of Faith and Einstein’s God.