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When Oklahoma Was the Heartland of American Socialism

In 1917, impoverished Oklahoma tenant farmers were the backbone of the US’s flourishing socialist movement. That year, hundreds mobilized — armed — to march on Washington and force an end to the World War I draft.

The Green Corn Rebellion in 1917 is a testament to the success of a regional socialist movement, the strongest the United States had ever seen at that time. (Smithsonian)

In the winter of 1915, the socialist journalist and publisher John Kenneth Turner traveled through southern Oklahoma to report on the conditions of poor tenant farmers. “On this little journey,” he wrote in a dispatch to the socialist weekly Appeal to Reason, “I did not find anybody enjoying the benefits of modern civilization in any degree.”

A man of wealth would not stable his horse in such houses as these people live in; the food that they eat would be spurned by a well-fed dog.

Many of them at this moment are in the actual throes of acute starvation. Many have already been stripped of their poor possessions and turned out in the cold, with no shelter, nowhere to turn, and not a penny in their pockets. And many more will have met the same fate by the time this article reaches the reader. 

Conditions for Oklahoma tenant farmers further deteriorated over the coming years, as World War I precipitated a collapse in cotton prices. When impoverished tenants learned they would be conscripted to fight in that same war, they reached a breaking point.

In the summer of 1917, hundreds of Oklahoma tenant farmers gathered on the property of John “Old Man” Spears in what had not long ago been Indian Territory. Armed with rifles and squirrel guns, they assembled beneath the red flag of socialism. They planned to smash the machinery of conscription at home, fighting off inevitable police and vigilantes who would stand in their way. Then they intended to march east, recruiting other poor war resisters along the way, to the nation’s capital, where they would force a reversal of Woodrow Wilson’s draft orders.

As far as the rebels were concerned, World War I was “a rich man’s war, a poor man’s fight.” In Oklahoma, Turner had seen barefoot little children forgoing education to work in their indebted parents’ cotton fields. He’d seen an old woman from a tenant family begging a store proprietor to pay her in cash for some chickens, “her wasted body shaking with dry sobs” when she was refused. Why should men die far from home on the command of politicians who would neglect them so?

The rebels didn’t make it far. Their insurgency, known as the Green Corn Rebellion, was quickly defeated, and the aftermath was brutal. Hundreds were arrested and imprisoned, and left-wing radicals of all stripes were persecuted and hounded out of public life. These events led to the discrediting of the Socialist Party of Oklahoma, which at the time boasted more members than any state-level socialist party in the nation.

But the story of the Green Corn Rebellion isn’t just a tragic tale of foolhardy agitators who doomed their comrades through ill-conceived action. Placed in social and economic context, it’s the story of a regional socialist movement so uniquely adapted to its specific environment that it had become synonymous with the cultural life of the region’s laboring class, suffusing everything it did.

The rebellion was crushed before it even really began in earnest. Even so, it remains astonishing that hundreds of poor Oklahoma farmers came together beneath the red flag ready to take on the US government and forcibly end the draft. Ultimately, the Green Corn Rebellion is a testament to the success of a regional socialist movement that up to that point was the strongest the United States had ever seen.

Humanity at Its Lowest

Before Turner, another socialist writer and organizer, Oscar Ameringer, had arrived in the state in 1907. He observed that tenants’ “standard of living was so far below that of the sweatshop workers of the New York east side that comparison could not be thought of.” They were “as wretched a set of abject slaves as ever walked the face of the earth, anywhere or any time.” In southeastern Oklahoma one found “humanity at its lowest possible level of degradation.”

According to historian Nigel Anthony Sellars in his introduction to William Cunningham’s novel The Green Corn Rebellion, tenant farming began in Oklahoma’s Indian Territory in the late nineteenth century, as “mixed-heritage and intermarried citizens of the Five Nations (there Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, Creek, and Seminoles) converted tribal land to large-scale agricultural production.” The tenants primarily came from Texas and Arkansas. They were mostly poor and white, though some were black and Native American. All were compelled by landlords to grow cash crops, mainly cotton.

The first tenants hoped to make enough money to buy farmland of their own. That may have been a pipe dream from the beginning, given the intensity of their exploitation, but in any case two events happened in 1907 that killed all hope of upward social mobility, according to Sellars and historian Jim Bissett in his book Agrarian Socialism in America: Marx, Jefferson, and Jesus in the Oklahoma Countryside, 1904–1920.

First, the Panic of 1907 sent cotton prices plummeting. Landlords usually received roughly one-quarter of the yield produced by tenant farmers, but since this in-kind rent was of reduced value, landowners scrambled to make up for lost revenue with rampant real estate speculation. Thus land prices went through the roof at the precise moment that tenants’ income, provided by cotton sales, declined. The situation left tenants without the means to purchase basic necessities, to say nothing of property.

To make matters worse, the recognition of Oklahoma statehood in 1907 spurred a land grab in Indian Territory. Much of the land which was previously owned in common by tribal governments, and had been off-limits to potential white buyers, was granted to individual Native American families. Those families could be convinced, or if not, defrauded or intimidated, to sell their land to outside interests. Capitalists, many hailing from the East, went on a buying spree. Thus, a few wealthy owners swiftly consolidated land in the former Indian Territory in southeastern Oklahoma.

In this economic climate, not only did existing tenants have no means of improving their station, but non-tenant small farmers in the region were being converted into tenants at a quick clip. As agricultural capital established itself firmly in the region, a cartel of merchants and lenders began squeezing small farmers from all sides, plunging them into debt and divesting them of their farms. In the southeast, the county tenancy rates were as high as 75 to 80 percent by 1910.

Tenants and non-tenants alike endured ruthless manipulation by the agricultural cartel. Poor soil and boll weevil infestations hurt their yield from the outset. Come harvest time, farmers would bring their crops to what they called the electric light towns. There they would be greeted by a handful of crop buyers who would lowball them, which they could get away with since there were so few buyers compared to the number of increasingly desperate sellers. This oligopsony resulted in artificially low prices across the board.

With their pitiful earnings, farmers would then go to a merchant selling farm goods — merchants who often employed the same buyers who’d just stiffed them. The merchants would charge outrageously high prices for necessary seed or equipment, taking the farmers for all they were worth. In order to keep their farms going for another year, farmers would have to take out loans from banks which, recognizing their desperation, charged usurious rates.

“The result is that not one is able to make ends meet, year in and year out, and not one in one hundred has made ends meet this year,” wrote Turner in 1915. “With hardly any exception, they are in debt and are never able to get out of debt. In my trip . . . I did not meet nor even hear of but ONE working farmer who was not in debt.”

This was the context for the Green Corn Rebellion. But destitution and immiseration are not enough to push people into open rebellion — there must be another element in the mix. And in southeastern Oklahoma, that element was socialism.

The Right Man in Front, the Farmer

In the final decade of the nineteenth century, tenant farming was not the only upward trend in Oklahoma. Populism, too, was on the rise.

The short-lived People’s Party gained widespread support by demanding measures that would check the power of agricultural capital and protect poor farmers from predation. In 1890, Oklahoma territory’s first house of representatives was 15 percent Populist. The Oklahoma Populist candidate for Congress outperformed the Democratic Party’s candidate in 1894.

In 1896 the Democratic Party successfully neutralized the Populist electoral insurgency by nominating William Jennings Bryan, who spoke eloquently to populist concerns, as its presidential candidate, causing a schism in the party. Coupled with violent repression, the schism proved disastrous. But many Oklahomans’ perspectives had been forever altered by their political experiences with Populism, and they remained in search of a new political current that gave expression to their frustrations.

The Socialist Party of Oklahoma was founded in 1901, but wouldn’t ascend to prominence for several more years. The first real beneficiary of the remaining post-Populist energy was the Indiahoma Farmers’ Union, founded in 1904. “Now, let’s wake up,” said one of the organization’s officials, “and get the right man in front, that is, the farmer, not the man that owns hundreds of acres of land and never works a foot of it himself. His interest is not our interest, for he is keeping the poor man oppressed to death.”

The Indiahoma Farmers’ Union reached a peak of nearly seventy-five thousand members in 1906. By the end of 1907, only three thousand remained. The organization had collapsed after it failed to respond effectively to the Panic of 1907 — and as, yet again, overtures from the Democratic Party were welcomed by some and rejected by others.

But for many, the encounter was radicalizing rather than demoralizing. Through their experience in the Farmers’ Union, Oklahoma farmers “achieved a rare sophistication in their understanding of how agrarian capitalism worked,” writes Bissett, “and deepened their sense of entitlement to the promise of democracy.”

The energy of the collapsed Farmers’ Union spilled over into the Socialist Party of Oklahoma (SPO), which was linked to a national party apparatus whose star was rising due in no small part to the decline of Populism and the oratory skill of movement leaders like Eugene Debs and Kate Richards O’Hare.

Some in the SPO were frustrated by what they viewed as the weak progressivism of the new recruits. One officer said that the “alleged Socialists” entering the party were “nothing but populistic reformers who are possessed of the ‘good man’ hallucination, the belief that honest and moral men can relieve the working class and at the same time maintain the system that is exploiting them.” Committed socialists were also wary of organizing tenant farmers, as it cut against Marxist orthodoxy, which placed a special emphasis on the industrial working class and generally understood small farmers to be a reactionary social force.

But by 1908, some Oklahoma socialists had begun to argue it was politically negligent to ignore the combination of Oklahoma tenant farmers’ deep immiseration and passionate populist leanings. Swayed by this perspective, the SPO wrote “land planks” into its platform addressed to the needs of tenant farmers and indebted smallholders, and then proceeded to set up an organization, the Oklahoma Renters’ Union, to organize them.

By 1910, observes historian Jim Green in his book Grass-Roots Socialism: Radical Movements in the Southwest 1895–1943, the SPO’s “farm program” had become a contentious issue for socialists nationally, who reasoned that farmers were insufficiently proletarian to organize into a revolutionary bloc, and that the land planks were more agrarian-populist than socialist. But in Oklahoma, it was taken for granted that poor farmers were both exploited and militant, and should be expressly organized, against Marxist convention.

An appealing program and institutional infrastructure alone wouldn’t accomplish that organization, however, and so the SPO also sought to develop a corresponding culture that would appeal to tenant farmers. Thus, a highly syncretic form of regional socialism emerged, combining evangelical customs and Christian scripture with socialist organizing and messaging. Over the next several years, the Socialist Party hosted well-attended “encampments” all across the countryside. The meetings intentionally resembled tent revivals.

These encampments, which took place each summer, gave socialist organizers “an unusual collective forum through which they could appeal to a generally captive audience of largely isolated farmers and workers,” writes Green. Their programming consisted of rousing speeches from well-known radicals like Eugene Debs and Mother Jones, sermons from socialist preachers, open meetings where farmers could air their grievances, and festivities at which campers often sang Christian hymns adapted with socialist lyrics. Ameringer recalled:

After the night meetings, discussions around the glowing campfire continued on into the small hours. For these people radicalism was not an intellectual plaything. Pressure was upon them. Many of their homesteads were already under mortgage. Some had already been lost by foreclosure. They were looking for delivery from the eastern monster whose lair they saw in Wall Street. They took to their socialism like a new religion. And they fought and sacrificed for the spreading of the new faith like the martyrs of other faiths.

The SPO’s tripartite strategy of targeted platform demands, devoted organizing infrastructure, and cultural programming paid off, as the next several years saw massive growth and electoral success. In 1914, the party had twelve thousand dues-paying members — more than the state of New York at the time — and a robust press ecosystem with dozens of weekly newspapers. Also in 1914, the party elected 175 candidates to office statewide, including six to the state legislature. And southeast Oklahoma, with the highest concentration of tenant farmers, was the party’s stronghold.

But while the SPO was making electoral advances, it lacked a sufficient majority to practically reverse the fortunes of poor farmers. The Renters’ Union could do little about the decline in cotton prices caused by World War I market closures. Additionally, a campaign of repression against the SPO, spearheaded by capitalists and their allies in the Democratic Party, intensified in 1916. Landlords and creditors received lists of registered socialists from Democratic Party registrars and began blacklisting them, driving them to destitution or forcing them to migrate elsewhere.

In 1917, news of the nation’s entry into World War I and rumors of a coming draft began to spread throughout the countryside. The Socialist Party was vocally opposed to World War I draft measures and continued to reiterate its intention to build enough power to improve conditions for tenant farmers. But the party’s opposition to conscription was not enough to secure the loyalty and discipline of distressed farmers who were terrified of the draft and had little to lose.

Instead of planning their next move through the Socialist Party of Oklahoma, a cohort of desperate and militant tenant farmers in the state’s southeast took matters into their own hands.

The Green Corn Rebellion

Alongside the ascendant Socialist Party of Oklahoma arose another organization, the Working Class Union. The WCU was formed in 1914, and before long the Kansas-based Appeal to Reason observed that it was “growing with the marvellous rapidity that characterised the formation of the revolutionary clubs that battered down the Bastille in Paris and overthrew the feudal lords of France.”

Unlike the SPO, the WCU operated in secret and engaged in direct-action tactics, vowing to abolish rent and prevent foreclosures “by any means necessary.” The group was influenced by and had much in common with the Wobblies, though its members were denied entry into the International Workers of the World on account of the contention that farmers were not wage workers.

Wobblies were in theory committed to nonviolent direct action. In this regard, the WCU was another species altogether. The WCU’s leadership was unafraid not only to destroy property but also to threaten, hurt, or even kill landlords, creditors, agricultural merchants, scabs, and collaborators. Already by 1915, the group had shown a fondness for dynamite.

Many SPO leaders were privately supportive of the WCU’s militancy, but the party declined to make a formal endorsement for fear of inviting state repression. Still, SPO members began to join the WCU in “night riding” missions to threaten predatory landowners, creditors, and merchants. As the SPO’s Renters’ Union floundered, the clandestine WCU absorbed many of its members, growing to twenty thousand by 1917 with a stronghold in southeastern Oklahoma.

On the brink of starvation, tenant farmers began to rob banks. This had happened before in Oklahoma, bank robberies coming in waves as tenants’ desperation peaked, but the difference now was that the activity was politicized by the WCU as an expression of political radicalism. Despite disagreeing on tactics, established socialists in the region mostly withheld criticism, with the Appeal reasoning that the banks were “in the robbery business too.”

Through their exposure to the organized socialist movement, poor farmers in southeast Oklahoma had adopted a posture of wholesale opposition to US involvement in World War I, which they usually articulated in class terms. Their sentiment mirrored that of Eugene Debs, who wrote in the Appeal in 1915, “I will refuse to obey any order to fight for the ruling class, but I will not wait for a command to fight for the working class.”

This rural class of laboring farmers, made more conscious by the SPO and more combative by the WCU, was now poised for rebellion. When the draft order came down from President Wilson, it came due.

The hundreds-strong group that assembled at “Old Man” Spears’s property in August of 1917 was connected to and influenced by the WCU, but was self-organized and bound together by deeper, older affiliations. Many belonged to a secret radical group called the Jones Family, immigrants from Missouri whose ancestors had violently resisted the Confederate draft. “In 1917,” notes Green, “they were simply carrying on a long tradition of self-defense.”

“Some members of the Family were Socialists,” Green writes, “others were Democrats angry at Wilson’s breach of faith. And others were illiterate, nonpartisan tenants who simply thought the draft violated their rights. They were determined to resist being taken away from their families and sent far away to fight a bloody war they neither knew nor cared anything about.”

On August 2, word of simmering unrest reached the Seminole County sheriff, who set out to investigate. Along the way, he and his deputies were ambushed by five black members of the Jones Family, and beat a hasty retreat. That night a WCU member called a secret meeting, and by morning WCU members, SPO members, and Jones Family rebels — there being a great deal of overlap between the three — had convened at Spears’s farm.

Together they devised a plan. They would not fight in Wilson’s war. They would use every tool at their disposal to sabotage the local infrastructure and machinery necessary to conscript them into service, and then they would march on Washington, DC, recruiting other war resisters along the way, to force the end of the draft. They planned to live on ripe corn in the fields as they marched east, giving the uprising its name. They were explicitly socialist in their aims, cursing warmongers and capitalists in the same breath and talking of full-on revolution.

The socialist writer William Cunningham fictionalized this meeting in his novel The Green Corn Rebellion, describing the coming insurrection:

A line of men marching through the fields, cutting fences and turning cattle loose, burning bridges and cutting telephone lines. Taking over towns and dragging bankers out of their chairs and printing the truth in newspapers, and telling the poor to come in and be issued what they needed from the local stores, and marching on and meeting the enemy, fighting at crossroads and bridges and in the timber.

That was the vision, and they wasted no time realizing it. Night raiders traversed Seminole County, burning railroad bridges and cutting telephone and telegraph wires. Without these, they reasoned, officials would not be able to coordinate their conscription. They also sent parties to recruit rebels from the neighboring counties, putting up posters which read:

Now is the time to rebel against this war with Germany boys. Get together boys and don’t go. Rich mans war. Poor mans fight. If you dont go J.P. Morgan Co. is lost. Speculation is the only cause of the war. Rebel now.

The next day recruits came from neighboring counties, including a group of Native Americans led by socialist and WCU organizer John Harjo, a relative of the Creek fighter Crazy Snake who had led the last anti-settler rebellion in Indian Territory only eight years prior. More black sharecroppers, members of the WCU, were also among the activated rebels. At Spears’s farm, they stood shoulder to shoulder with poor whites, prepared to violently confront the US government.

But unbeknownst to them, a mob of seventy townspeople had assembled to stop them in their tracks. When the posse arrived at Spears’s farm, it overpowered the rebels easily. The scene was anticlimactic; nobody was even killed in the fighting. One rebel explained why their army collapsed so quickly:

The papers said we were cowards but we weren’t. Some of the men in the posse were neighbors of ours and we couldn’t shoot ’em down in cold blood. That’s the way we felt ’bout the Germans too. . . . We didn’t have no quarrel with them at all.

Over the coming week, law enforcement and volunteers rounded up every suspected participant in the Green Corn Rebellion, arresting 450 people. Thus the great march east ended before it began. The subsequent repression was severe, with far-reaching and devastating consequences for socialists in Oklahoma.

The Aftermath

The SPO had been explicit in its formal opposition to armed rebellion against the draft, but such distinctions were irrelevant to capitalists and their allies in the press and the ruling Democratic Party. Several SPO members were discovered among the rebel arrestees, including former SPO gubernatorial candidate Tad Cumbie, presenting a perfect pretext for a smear campaign and subsequent crackdown.

Powerful figures portrayed the majority of the Green Corn rebels as a group of ignorant peasants tricked into treason by devious socialist agitators. To underscore their point, Cumbie and a handful of WCU leaders were given much harsher sentences than the others, as punishment for “misleading” what the press portrayed as a naive band of hillbillies, uneducated and congenitally inclined to criminality.

Despite the heavy political influence of organized socialism, it was not true that the Green Corn Rebellion had been led by the SPO, or even by the WCU. Rather, the rebels had come together of their own accord, just as the Jones Family had resisted the Confederate draft half a century earlier. Bissett and Sellars place the rebellion in a long tradition of agricultural insurgency stretching back to Bacon’s Rebellion in colonial Virginia in 1676. The fact that it had a socialist character in this instance was a testament to the pervasiveness of socialist ideas and strength of the movement in Oklahoma, but the rebels were not following orders from party leaders or carrying out party strategy.

It was true, as the press repeatedly stressed, that the rebels were by and large unschooled. But Oscar Ameringer of the SPO had another interpretation. He wrote:

There was a great deal of native intelligence among these people. Their state of illiteracy protected them, partially at least, against the flood of lying propaganda with which their “betters” of press, pulpit and rostrum deluged the country, while their native common sense allowed them to see through the pretension of the warmongers better than could many a PhD.

For refusing to wholly denounce the Green Corn Rebellion — and probably even if they had — the SPO was mercilessly attacked and undermined by every institution of power in the state. Politicians and newspapers whipped middle-class citizens into a frenzy, and then “used the wave of reaction that broke after the rebellion as an opportunity to destroy a political party that could not be weakened without adopting thoroughgoing forms of repression,” writes Green.

By 1919 the socialist movement in Oklahoma, including the SPO, “had been virtually destroyed,” Green writes. “Its most militant newspapers had been suppressed, its party locals disbanded, its boldest leaders imprisoned. More important, Socialist rank and filers had been intimidated and demoralized by the possibility as well as the reality of government or vigilante repression.” The WCU, too, was torn asunder. Even the Industrial Workers of the World was subject to raids and arrests.

Radicals across the country came under heavy fire for their opposition to World War I. Eugene Debs himself was arrested and imprisoned following an antiwar speech in Canton, Ohio, the following year. But the Oklahoma “red scare” was perhaps the most tragic example, taking what was arguably the strongest socialist movement in the country at that time and breaking it beyond all hope of repair.

Though the topic remains understudied, a handful historians have debated the meaning of the Green Corn Rebellion and the current of “Southwestern” (as the region was then known) socialism that shot through it. On the more critical end of the spectrum, Dissent founder Irving Howe wrote:

To many people, including some who don’t identify as socialists, Southwestern socialism may still seem admirable as an expression of downtrodden people asserting their humanity — a response that is surely right. But it must also be said that Southwestern socialism didn’t really offer much in the way of analyzing American society or grasping the distinctive traits of American politics. The fundamentalist cast of mind, in politics as elsewhere, can rarely accommodate the problematic or complex.

Indeed, the Green Corn rebels had no analysis to support their belief that they could march to the nation’s capital and stop the draft, only rage and faith. Their prediction that they would be able to traverse the nation destroying property, exchanging fire with law enforcement, and multiplying their ranks to a size Wilson couldn’t ignore was so wildly off base that they never made it out of their corner of southeastern Oklahoma.

Even so, Howe’s assessment of the movement’s strengths was perhaps too harsh. In reality, the Oklahoma socialist movement was an unexpectedly (if only temporarily) successful experiment which would doubtless have come under extreme pressure during the nationwide Red Scare regardless. The Green Corn Rebellion made the repression easier to accomplish. The rebellion was also a testament to what was admirable in Southwestern socialism, particularly in Oklahoma: its mass character and deep rootedness in the culture and lives of ordinary people.

When poor farmers in Oklahoma chose to fight back against a government that would send them to die abroad after neglecting them at home, they may not have done so strategically. But they did so under the red flag of socialism. They did so with a near-religious belief in the possibility of a better life, and a conviction, instilled by the organized socialist movement, that it could only be achieved through collective, politicized struggle. That is a victory no less stunning for being overshadowed by the reality of brutal defeat.