By: Derek Dyson
Four more years have come and gone, and once again Oklahoma has shown to be one of the most Conservative states in the nation. While many progressives will shake their heads in disgust, this result isn’t surprising to most of us. It’s simply the way it’s always been. Oklahomans have given their electoral votes to the Republican Party in every post WWII Presidential election with the single exception of re-electing Johnson in the wake of the Kennedy assassination. In 2008 we were the only state in the nation who failed to deliver even a single county to Barack Obama, despite the fact that he notoriously turned red counties blue all across the nation. On the state level our House and Senate are arguably the most radically conservative in the Republic, recently passing or attempting to pass laws suppressing minority voting, limiting womens reproductive rights, further relaxing gun control in public places and limiting access to subsidized food and housing to our poorest citizens. On the surface it looks as if conservative values run deep in Oklahoma’s past. Some say so deep that it has even turned our soil red, but I’d like to argue that if this is the case, our soil is red for a much different reason.
The realist in me knows that our red dirt is the product of it’s high iron content, but the romantic in me is looking for a more symbolic explanation. It could be that our soil is dyed red by the blood of this continent’s indigenous population, who were forced here in an attempt to ensure a more unified nation outside of it’s borders. And sure, you could say it’s red because of the current political map we’ve all been staring at on CNN, but that would be overlooking the rest of this lands rich history. It would be overlooking thousands of years of Native communal living that predates current political philosophies, but holds a strong resemblance to the primitive agrarian socioeconomic movements in Europe that lead to the rise of Communism across the globe in the late 19th and early 20th century. More aptly, it would be overlooking this states very founding, a time when it was a much different shade of red; the Red of Marx, the Red of Lenin, the bright red canvas of Socialism had once swept across our plains in a furious rage, overshadowing even the most progressive of states in this country. As astonishing as it may sound, at it’s founding, Oklahoma had the most influential Socialist Party in America.
In 1911, four years after statehood, Oklahomans adopted their first flag. Flying above our State Capitol was a bright red plane emblazoned with a single, centered, white star, emblematic of leftist flags flown first in 18th century France and contemporary to those of Russia and China during the Communist Revolution. Much like these flags, the new Oklahoman flag was flown for the disenfranchised, for the weak and for those who were forced onto it’s land by poverty or by broken treaty. Essentially, this flag was flown for the people. But, to fully understand this we need to look a little deeper into the past of the Oklahoma Territory and the events that turned it into a Populist stronghold.
This land was originally native territory, home to tribes like the Osage and the Plains Apache. In 1830 The Indian Removal Act brutally forced the Eastern Native American tribes such as the Cherokee, Creek and Seminole westward via the Trail of Tears ending in what would eventually become known as the Oklahoma Territory. Although these native tribes had been living a communal existence for more than a millennia, it would be naive to suggest that this played a large role in the eventuality of a largely Socialist Oklahoma. No, modern Socialism was a Western idea and it took the influx of the white man onto Oklahoman soil for it to take hold.
In 19th Century America, Manifest Destiny expanded the United States westward at a rapid pace. With this came the idea of an egalitarian frontier full of opportunity for those not fortunate enough to have struck it rich on the land of the original colonies. By the end of the 1800’s most of the land had been hastily settled (read exploited), which wreaked havoc on it’s fertile soil and the families that were sustained by it. In a last ditch effort to ease the pain of American settlers the Federal Government decided to open up the only remaining patch of arable, virgin farmland to settlement by it’s woeful citizens.
On April 22, 1889 some fifty thousand settlers lined up for the Oklahoma Land Run, where a two million acre plot of “unassigned land” had been set aside for non-Indian settlement in Central Oklahoma. The cities of Guthrie and Oklahoma City were both established almost instantaneously with populations that numbered in the tens of thousands. A rapid influx of merchants, farmers, speculators and the like, had been anticipated but not to a necessary degree, and what came to follow was nothing short of chaos. Gun fights and general lawlessness was of course a problem, but the bigger issue was the land. What little was available had been ravaged by drought and much of it wouldn’t be habitable for many years to come. This proved to be particularly problematic for the common farmer and their families who had raced to Oklahoma with little more than the shirt on their back.
The majority of the unassigned lands were quickly claimed by rich land speculators and railroad men who had faster means of transportation, the ability to hire men to stake their claims and the capital needed to speed up the complicated legal processes. These important luxuries were not afforded to the vast majority of settlers, leaving them with either the least desirable land or in most cases, no land at all. (1) Once the original plots were swallowed up, borders were ignored and settlers eventually encroached upon the sanctioned Indian Territory for development. By 1907 most of this land was already under non-Indian control when the Federal Government decided to seal the deal by dissolving the Five Civilized Tribes, forcing them to assimilate with the western white settlers of the region and effectively making the Oklahoma Territory the 46th state in the Union.
At the time of it’s founding, the land within the State of Oklahoma’s borders had been fully accounted for, largely by wealthy land syndicates and their cronies, leaving the hundreds of thousands of Natives and White settlers that had originally fled the busts of surrounding states like Kansas and Texas in much of the same devastating conditions they had seeked refuge from. With no available land for settlement poor farmers became mere tenants, forced into sharecropping land owned by wealthy elites or face the risk of homelessness, starvation or worse. (2) This lead to great indebtedness and rampant inequality in regards to wealth distribution across the state and served as a catalyst for what was to come.
With a large Populist movement already sweeping across the nation and a long history of farmers collectives and labor unions already established in the state, it wasn’t much of a stretch to get poor farmers and indebted citizens to fall in line with a Marxian-Socialist ideology. In less than a decade, more than ⅓ of Oklahomans, many of whom had already held radical Agrarian ideals about land ownership and social equality (due largely to the vicious Social Darwinism of the Gilded Age), had aligned themselves with the Socialist Party. Instantly they began to rail against the bankers, railroad men and economic elites who they saw as willfully oppressing the fellow underprivileged of the state. To the average citizen, these were no more than well dressed thieves, taking land and resources for themselves and forcing everyone else into servitude. These unique characteristics of early Oklahoman settlers culminated in the first decade of the 20th Century and gave birth to the strongest Socialist movement in America.(2)
By this time the majority of already left-leaning newspapers in the region had already began creeping closer and closer to a Socialist viewpoint and rallying the people behind those ideals. The Oklahoma War Chief and The American Noncomformist were particularly vocal in this effort after editors gave free reign for their journalists to speak out against national banks, government bonds, railroads, tariffs and most importantly greedy land syndicates. In a passionate Independence Day address calling for all men to stand together against a monopoly of wealth, editor and former leader of the Southern Farmers Alliance Benjamin Clover famously cried out “Farmers and Laborers are all that stand between the monarchy of wealth on the one hand and the anarchy of poverty on the other.” This rally cry and many like them fueled the flames of reactionary politics and social upheaval in the region and gave a voice to the thousands of Oklahomans who were left behind in the aftermath of the land run.
By the 1912 Presidential election the foundations of the Socialist movement had been firmly planted in Oklahoma, giving 16% of its votes to the Socialist party candidate Eugene Debs, almost tripling the national average. By the 1916 election many rural counties in Oklahoma were voting more than 50% Socialist, with an impressive 22 counties voting above 20% and once again held the Socialist majority in the National Presidential election.
Before it’s decline the Oklahoma Socialist party and it’s Populist predecessors had successfully filled hundreds of seats in state and local legislatures and implemented some of the most progressive land reform measures in the country. They had efficiently mobilized a vast array of fellow citizens in the region by combining the idea of Jefferson’s Yeoman farmer with the Christian doctrine of the meek inheriting the earth, effectively creating a new breed of Marxism, or more aptly, creating Oklahoman Agrarian Socialism. In it they would find a vehicle for social change that to this day is unparallelled in Oklahoma political history.
Eventually the “Red Scare” swept across the nation and Socialist ideals fell out of favor, or were often forced out of favor, almost instantly. In 1924 the State legislature voted to remove our red flag and it’s apparent “Communist symbolism” and replaced it with a flag similar to the blue one we see today. By the end of WWII Oklahoma had become a socially conservative state with little to no resemblance of it’s progressive past, as it remains to this day.
Researching this subject has given me a new found understanding of the state in which I was born and gladly call home. It has shed some light on a history that goes largely unnoticed and finally lends some credence to those select few, who like myself, hope for a more tolerant, a more socially responsible and most importantly a more progressive Oklahoma. Before this, I had no explanation as to why a state with the official motto “labor conquers all” could also be one of the first “right to work” states in the nation. Or why such a notoriously conservative “small government” state could overwhelmingly support tax subsidies for farmers and at the same time cry foul when their tax dollars are sent to poor families in urban areas. Suddenly, these apparent hypocrisies start to paint a vivid picture of today’s Oklahoma. Now I clearly see our roots, and having a newfound appreciation for the red dirt they were planted in, can concede that Oklahoma has been and will probably always be a Red state…even if it’s currently the wrong shade, and for all the wrong reasons.
1. Oklahoma Populism: a history of the People’s Party in the Oklahoma Territory. By Worth Robert Miller. (University of Oklahoma Press. 1943.)
2.Agrarian Socialism In America: Marx, Jefferson, and Jesus in the Oklahoma Countryside, 1904-1920. By Jim Bissett (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999.)