BSR Magazine Show
Green Corn Rebellion Centennial Part 1
(BSR Episode #203)
August 4, 2017
Learn more about the Green Corn Rebellion at: GreenCorn.org
The following is a working script/outline, but it may have some differences from the final version that was used on the air…
Welcome to the BSR Oklahoma Magazine show, with James Branum. This is BSR Episode # 203 first broadcast on August4, 2017 on Community Talk Radio KTLR 890 AM and 103.7 FM in Oklahoma City and online at BroadSpectrumRadio.com.
In this episode…
- We will be airing Part One of a series of special programs that commemorate the Centennial of one of the most important events of Oklahoma history — The Green Corn Rebellion— this episode will be a bit of a drama in three acts. It will by its length be greatly abbreviated version of the events in question.
So let’s get started.
ACT One – The Early years of Oklahoma statehood
The early days of Oklahoma statehood were hard for a lot of people — American Indians most of all, who had not only lost the majority of their land through the Dawes allotment process in previous years, but were now seeing their land taken from them by every trick in the book, most often by wealthy folks who had themselves appointed as the guardians of the Indian orphan children.
But it was a bad time for Black folks and poor white folks too. Poor folks from across the United States came to homestead land (which had been taken by the US federal government through the allotment process), but within one generation, the majority of those homesteaders no longer owned their own land. The reasons for this are complex, but in short the banks, politicians and corporations had created an economic system that made it impossible for the majority of small-scale farm families to make it on their own. And so more and more people were plunging deeper into poverty and looking for relief, at first through cooperative action to change the way that agricultural commodities were sold, but later through the ballot box, through the growing Oklahoma Socialist Party.
As discussed in Jim Bisset’s book, Agrarian Socialism in America: Marx, Jefferson and Jesus in the Oklahoma Countryside, Oklahoma Socialists weren’t always following the dictates of national party officials, but instead sought to craft a sophisticated synthesis of three political traditions — the Marxist perspective on the working class, the Jeffersononian perspective on an educated and independent citizenry, and the Christian tradition of sharing and cooperation. These concepts were at times in tension, but were also appearing to be birthing something new — the strongest state Socialist party and movement in the United States.
But the fight was fierce, especially when the Socialists took the mostly solitary stand of fighting against Jim Crow election laws, with both Democrats and Republicans doing their best to keep black people from voting.
And then came an even bigger challenge — a World War.
US President Woodrow Wilson, who had only recently been sworn into a second term of office after running behind the slogan “He kept us out of the war” asked Congress to declare war against the German Empire, on April 6, 1917. And Congress readily agreed by a vote of 373-50 in the US House and 82-6 in the US Senate.
At the same time, in APril 1917, the SOcialist Party of America had a vote of its own, in which it declared its “unalterable opposition” to the war and urged that workers around the world should “refuse support to the governments in their wars.”
But even stronger sentiments had previously been made by Oklahoma Socialists at their state party convention in December of 1914, where a resolution stated, “Resolved; that if war is declared, the Socialists of Oklahoma shall refuse to enlist; but if forced to enter the military service to murder fellow workers, we shall chose to die fighting the enemies of humanity within our own ranks rather than to perish fighting our fellow workers. We further pledge ourselves to use our influence to the end that all toilers shall refuse to work for the master class during such a war.”
And so a conflict was inevitable, and initially it wasn’t clear which side of this debate the American people were going to be on, since recruitment numbers were relatively low. — Of course Uncle Sam had an answer to that problem.
Because on May 18, 1917, a draft law was enacted, calling for all young men nationwide to register on a single day – June 5, 1917. While there were some sparks of conflict at registration centers around the country, the process went by in a mostly peaceful and orderly fashion, but Oklahoma’s cooperativeness with the draft was on the low side — with almost half of men required to register, actually failing to show up and register, and of those who did register, 72% sought to be exempted from being called up.
Nonetheless, on July 20th of 1917, a blindfolded Newton D. Baker, Secretary of War under Wilson, drew the numbers of those who would be called to sacrifice themselves to the American war machine, which set the gears in motion for the Green Corn Rebellion.
Before we go onto the next act, I want to play a song by David Rovics, entitled Oklahoma, 1917
MUSIC – David Rovics
Act Three – An Okie response to a World War
During the summer of 1917, the war and the draft was on everyone’s minds in Oklahoma. The authorities were worried that this new state, less than 10 years old, might not be seen as sufficiently loyal to the nation, but for most folks, especially the poor, their worries were much more personal than pride in one’s state.
Life was hard at this time in Oklahoma, and it wasn’t an exaggeration to say that for many Okies the Depression started several decades before the 1930’s, and poverty was a big part of their way of seeing the world. Many of those opposed to war simply didn’t want to die in a far-off land for a cause they didn’t believe in, but they had had the fears of what would happen in their absence to their wives, their kids, their own Ma and Pa. And what tragedy would fall on their loved ones if they were mown down in a trench in France? The reality was that, life in this era in Oklahoma was often a life and death struggle. Every hand was needed to make ends meet in rural Oklahoma, so the idea of losing family patriarchs and adult sons to the draft was the last straw. Something had to be done!
But it was unclear what the best response would be. Some who were opposed to the war and the draft, such as the Socialist Party, took the approach of seeking change through lobbying, politicking and persuasion. But others said that words weren’t enough, and that more active resistance was what was needed.
Lots of meetings were held, secret meetings in rural locations. The groups that met went by many names: the Jones family, the Working Class Union, and sometimes no names at all — but in all of these meetings, the fears of war were voiced, but also the dreams of a different world, in which poor people no longer had to die for the cause of the capitalist class.
We only have snippets of these conversations in the historical record, often recounted in later trials of the Green Corn Rebels, often was testimony was coerced as a way to avoid decades of prison time, but what we do know is that these poor folks, a mix of white and black tenant farmers and Seminole and Muskogee Creek Indians, were at their wit’s end.
And so plans, began to be hatched, the exact details lost to history, in most cases. Some only planned to hide draft age men in the woods and hills of the area, but others talked of revolution and a march to Washington, D.C.
The first shots of the Rebellion were fired on August 2, 1917 when a group of Black farmers and members of the Working Class Union engaged Seminole County sheriff Frank Grall and his deputy in a gun battle. From there it was on…
I will read a few paragraphs here from page 151 of Jim Bisset’s Agrarian Socialism in America book, as he gives a good summation of what happened next…
And that’s where we are going to end this part of the story for this episode.
In closing for this episode… this week is the 100th anniversary of these weeks, but many folks across Oklahoma will be continuing this conversation for some time to come. Please join the conversation yourself by visiting the website for the Green Corn Rebellion Centennial — GreenCorn.org. Against that is G R E E N C O R N dot ORG.
And of course be sure to tune in to our future Green Corn episodes in the coming months, appearing as regular segements on the BSR Magazine show from BroadSpectrumRadio.com.