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Dreams of Revolution: Oklahoma, 1917

John Womack, Jr. was born and grew up in Norman, Oklahoma, writing his 1959 undergraduate thesis on the Green Corn Rebellion. He is author of Zapata and the Mexican Revolution (1969) and Posición estratégica y fuerza obrera (2007). Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz (http://reddirtsite.com) was born and grew up in rural Oklahoma. She is author of Roots of Resistance, and other works on the history of indigenous peoples, along with three books of historical memoir, including Red Dirt: Growing Up Okie. This article was inspired by the republication of William Cunningham’s The Green Corn Rebellion (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2010), in a new edition with an introduction by Nigel Sellars.

To the memory of Rev. Jack Campbell, Konawa, Oklahoma

In August 1917, tenant farmers and sharecroppers in several eastern and southern Oklahoma counties took up arms to overthrow the United States government, to stop military conscription and U.S. entry into the war in Europe. Renegade Socialists, organized in their own “Working Class Union” (WCU), white, black, and Indian, they believed that millions of armed working people across the country would march with them to take Washington.

The rebellion attracted immediate national attention, but did not last long. Posses of local patriots put it down in a few days, killing one “draft resister” in action and an innocent roadblock-runner along the way. Of 458 “resisters” eventually arrested, 146 were convicted on state and federal charges; twenty-eight did time under maximum security at the Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary, the last there pardoned by President Harding in 1923.1 By then, the WCU’s insurrection had vanished from the nation’s mind. Locally, in Oklahoma, it stuck in memory as only a scandal, the “Green Corn Rebellion.” This was a seasonal, folkloric designation, not the “revolution” the rebels had called it, but a polite mockery and evasion of their politics. For Oklahoma’s Babbitry, the rebellion remained a shame on the state, to be overcome by ever louder patriotism, or explained away as pitiful. For the defeated and their families, it remained a private misery.

Not until 1935, when Vanguard Press published William Cunningham’s first novel, The Green Corn Rebellion, did a public narrative show empathy with the rebels. Cunningham had a good local take on them. Born 1901 and raised in Oklahoma, he had learned Debsian Socialism from his father, fascination with “regionalism” and popular culture from Ben Botkin, his English professor at the University of Oklahoma, and much about the WCU’s uprising from teaching seven years at the Commonwealth Labor College in Mena, Arkansas, where he had talked long with veterans of Oklahoma’s class struggles. He told a remarkable story, not only of small-town and rural Oklahoma during the Great War—class, family, lust, jealousies, anger, racism, religion, injustice—but of how the rural poor then learned socialism. He made vivid their judgment of “yellow” and “red” socialists (anti- versus pro-Industrial Workers of the World [IWW]), their deliberations on force and violence, the inevitable makeshift of their rebellion, its failure, their ruin. And he told of the end, November 1917, after it was all over but the punishment, in one rebel’s case, military service, but even then a flash of hope, a headline in a discarded newspaper: “Lenin and Trotsky Seize Power in Russia…Democracy Temporarily Crushed.”

It was morning on the Popular Front in 1935, and Cunningham’s “proletarian” novel got good New York reviews. It also won him directorship of the WPA Writers’ Program in Oklahoma, where he hired various Communists and wrote the Green Corn Rebellion into the state’s first official handbook.2 Cunningham’s second novel, published the next year, told of “Pretty Boy” Floyd, whose recent burial in Sallisaw, Sequoyah County, an old hotbed of the WCU, had drawn the biggest funeral crowd in Oklahoma history, a record that still stands.3

But there, public memory went blank again. In 1937, Cunningham moved to WPA headquarters in Washington, and wrote no more about the WCU rebels or Oklahoma. Nor did the rebellion attract other writers; none of Steinbeck’s Joads recalled Sallisaw’s red socialism.4 For decades, very few historians showed any particular interest in the rebellion. One, two, three theses (no dissertation) sat in libraries, written from mostly the same local primary sources, telling more or less the same sociological story, the basis of every (rare) historical treatment of the rebellion that came into print. In the last fifteen years, two commendably old-fashioned studies in new sources have cast highly welcome new light on the subject, an article on Indian opposition to the draft and a book on the IWW in Oklahoma.5 Plus, the Internet has connected academic research and maybe hundreds of genealogists and amateur historians interested in the rebellion; Google already provides significant new details. But it bears emphasis that, ninety-odd years after the rebellion, we still do not know much more than the old local story.

The republication of Cunningham’s novel by the University of Oklahoma Press is a sterling public service and a boon to professional, amateur, and political students of the rebellion.6 It brings the added benefit of an introduction by Nigel Sellars, the author of the book on the IWW in Oklahoma. Sellars is now the best historian of Oklahoma’s labor movements in their radical period, from before statehood (1907), in Oklahoma Territory west, Indian Territory east, to the state CIO’s strength and militance in the 1930s. Here, he gives the novel’s readers some expert help: evidence of the exploitation in rural Oklahoma, then a sketch of Cunningham, real WCU names and dates, tips on odd fictions (wheat in the hills and brush of Pott County), and a pointer to the story’s dramatic climax on August 3, 1917, when the rebellion collapses because the rebels on the hill decide not to fire on the posse below, where they see neighbors. Most promisingly, to find the rebellion’s “deep roots,” Sellars broadens its context from local to national historical terms. In terms of analysis, the broader perspective is a big improvement. However, as Sellars takes it, the national perspective turns into a national definition, which induces deep confusion.

The Green Corn Rebellion, he argues, was “class warfare,” but nevertheless an “American rebellion,” meaning not the obvious geography, but that it belongs to “a long, and very American, tradition of resistance to oppression and injustice.”7 The problem here is a combination of critical vagueness, a gross error, and a very American illusion. Yes, the rebellion was class warfare in the United States, a good analytical start. But class warfare differs, as modes of exploitative production differ; the differences certainly mattered to the AF of L regarding the Knights of Labor and (as Sellars to his inexhaustible credit has shown) to the IWW regarding the WCU. The historic resistance adduced here by Sellars as a peculiarly American tradition (revolts against taxes, rents, political abuse) is not peculiar to Anglo-America; it has happened wherever there have been states, landlords, and entrenched hierarchies. The illusion is, if conflict happens in (U.S.) America, it is both special and ultimately all right, no threat to “America,” which, in regard to the Green Corn Rebellion, gets the rebellion and Cunningham’s novel wrong. Though Sellars honorably intends to make U.S. history explicit about class struggles, his Americanization of them is a domestication of them. Like Red Indians, U.S. red socialists fit the American story best when dead and gone. For all intents and purposes, here is the message: “These reds won’t really hurt you.” Next, Ken Burns will be documentarizing U.S. class warfare, capturing the reds in a very American series, every episode ending in a fadeout on the perpetual, always progressive reconciliation process, a song in the distance, the Internationale, a lullaby.

Seven years from now, by the Green Corn Rebellion’s centennial in 2017, thanks to Sellars and other historians doing deep regional and local research, we may know much more about it. But if they have us thinking in “American” terms, we are not going to understand it any better than we do now. The main question about the rebellion has always been: What did it mean, how should we understand it? This is a question, not only of what happened in the rebellion, but also about the world in which it happened.

That world was not simply “America,” or the world at war in 1917. It was the world in tremendous, globally contentious capitalist development ever since the 1870s, a world building in British, French, German, Russian, Japanese, and U.S. imperialism in the 1890s, exploding in the First World War in 1914, forcing several major revolutions and many local mutinies and rebellions, including Oklahoma’s in 1917. The same sort of high-powered capital that sent railroads from 1870 to 1914 all across Eastern Europe, Russia, India, China, Korea, South Africa, South America, Canada, and Mexico also sent them all across the United States, from the great hubs of Chicago and St. Louis, south to the Texas Gulf, west to the Pacific. It was Wall Street bankers, J.P. Morgan and J. and W. Seligman & Company, who put the first railroad through Indian Territory on the way to Galveston. International finance used railroads everywhere to open new mines, for gold from the Klondike, diamonds from South Africa’s Big Hole, copper from Chile, Mexico, Coeur d’Alène, Idaho, and Bisbee, Arizona, coal from Manchuria and Colorado, silver, zinc, and lead from Mexico and Colorado. Just as finance capital brought oil on line from Russia’s Baku fields, Texas’s Golden Triangle, and Mexico’s Faja de Oro, so it took coal from Krebs, zinc and lead from Picher, and oil from the Glenn Pool, in Indian Territory, USA. By 1914 capital had made rail towns, mine towns, smelter towns, or oil towns like those on the world’s other industrial frontiers, in almost every county in eastern Oklahoma. There too the railroads had raised thousands of new corn and cotton farms. And international finance also promoted great new agribusinesses, above all wheat, in Russia and the United States. The rails across the plains from the Dakotas down into western Oklahoma drew new wheat farms from the land. Meanwhile, all over the world, capital turned peasants, yeomen, and farmers, especially corn, cotton, and wheat farmers in Oklahoma, into renters, tenants, sharecroppers, and hired hands.

The social and political movements that capital caused in the United States could not then have been essentially “American.” The illusion that they were is yet another instance of American exceptionalism. Since every empire since, monarchical or republican, had its own history, laws, and special institutions, “American exceptionalism” makes no more sense than British exceptionalism, or French or German or Russian or Japanese exceptionalism. The monopolistic capitalism, white racism, Christian gall, masculine presumption, and aggressive patriotism rampant elsewhere in the world of 1914 were just as strong in the United States. And the struggles against them elsewhere, mainly by labor movements, agrarian movements, organized anarchists and socialists, or associations of people of color, differed no more from each other than they did from the struggles here. They were all of the same species. Like revolts in Russia then, or China, or Turkey, or South Africa, or Mexico, or Peru, or the Philippines, or Cuba, revolt in the United States then was special, much more for its time than for its place.

This means the Green Corn Rebellion was not traditional, one more in the series of “American revolts.” The few historians who have so far written about the rebellion have gone back and forth on its traditionalism. On one page, they call it “Jeffersonian”; on another, they attribute it to the IWW or Socialists, but before long try to Andrew-Jacksonize anarcho-syndicalism and socialism, as if U.S. citizens or immigrants had invented their own, safely “American” versions. But as it was finance capitalism that generated anarcho-syndicalism and socialism in Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, and Latin America then, so it was finance capitalism that generated the IWW and the Socialist Party of America, its yellows and its reds. Everywhere, of course, traditions figured in these movements. But the driving reasons for the movements were new, which made the movements new. And they were newest on industrial frontiers, like Cananea or Torreón in northern Mexico, or Beaumont or Tampico on the Gulf, or the Caucasus in southern Russia, or Pittsburg or Tulsa County, Oklahoma. Whatever their history, however old the location, the working people there were mostly new, and their organizations new, direct, defiant, and impatient.

From these mistakes, exceptionalism, and traditionalism, comes another, that the Green Corn Rebellion was a distinctly rural, agrarian, isolated uprising. Yes, the rebellion did happen far from any big city, in a state very heavily agricultural, and even outside its small towns, out in the country. But, as on other frontiers then, capital’s development of the U.S. West did not segregate urban from rural, industry from agriculture; railroads, markets, banks, mortgages, foreclosures, tenantry, and wage labor fatefully integrated town and country. In states as agricultural as Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, and Oklahoma, some highly valuable industrial production could only happen out in the country: coal mining, for example, or the oil industry’s operations, big corporations working wage labor out in the country. These were rural industries, but not in the least isolated; by telegraph and train, workers not only in Shawnee, but also in Henryetta, Krebs, Drumright, or Ragtown (all in Oklahoma) could exchange news in a few hours with fellow workers across the entire country (and beyond), in San Francisco, Bakersfield, Butte, Ludlow, Topeka, or St. Louis, Beaumont, Virden, Chicago, or Kanawha County. And Sellars himself has made clear that tenant farmers were not only tenant farmers, but also, sometimes, railroad workers, miners, and oil field workers, and vice versa. Describing the state’s “great rebellion,” he forgets this key to it, and like historians before him, dramatizes a scene of pathetic backcountry isolation (polite for “rural idiocy”). Poor tenant farmers up on a hill in Seminole County one morning in August 1917, determined for the moment to overthrow the government of the United States, for a world of economic, social, and political justice, are suddenly all by themselves, routed by a local posse, pursued through the brush, arrested, and ruined. Yes, but only if the focus is on that hill.

The notion of isolation on a booming, modern frontier is patently wrong in explaining Oklahoma’s class struggles. Starting in the 1880s, among Knights of Labor in the coal districts, the labor movement grew into a major force in Oklahoma and Indian Territories, and after statehood, consolidated across the state. The railroad brotherhoods on the M-K-T, Missouri-Pacific, Frisco, Santa Fe, Rock Island, Kansas City Southern, and lesser lines, the Machinists, Carpenters, Boilermakers, Steam Engineers, and other trade unions, the United Mine Workers (UMW), and the IWW all had locals there. Most powerful was UMW District 21, western Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma, with locals in hardly urban places like Hartford, Frogtown, Henryetta, Krebs, Dewar, and Lehigh. These unions were not timid about using their power either, in politics or in direct action. The Twin Territories Labor Federation drove Oklahoma’s constitutional convention in 1906-07 into the most pro-labor constitution in the United States. In 1914, just weeks after the Rockefeller-backed Colorado National Guard massacred coal miners’ families at Ludlow, District 21’s treasurer shipped crates of firearms, three hundred to four hundred rifles, shotguns, and pistols, from his base in McAlester to District 21’s president, across the state line in Hartford, Arkansas, for the miners to defend themselves against a big coal company there. So armed, the Hartford miners did fight the company’s armed guards, in the Battle of Prairie Creek, July 17, 1914, and won. The arms shipment and the forceful victory impressed not only miners across the United States, but also miners’ neighbors in western Arkansas-eastern Oklahoma corn and cotton fields as well.

Because of the labor movement, socialist politics also gained extraordinary ground in Oklahoma.8 Already in 1895, the Socialist Labor Party had an Oklahoma Territory local. Already in 1899, the new Social Democratic Party did too. After it reorganized into the Socialist Party in 1901, it chartered scores of dues-paying, dues-collecting Oklahoma Territory and Indian Territory locals. By statehood, the party had a headquarters in Norman (soon moved to Oklahoma City), a staff of professional organizers, probably 150 locals, fifteen thousand members. And by then, local Socialist newspapers, the national weekly Appeal to Reason (Girard, Kansas), and the monthly International Socialist Review (Chicago), and National Rip-Saw (St. Louis) were circulating altogether probably thirty thousand issues of excellent socialist articles regularly through the state. Remarkably, the party was already an organization of mostly tenant farmers, expanding ever more in the mining, corn, and cotton counties. Labor unions did not organize renters or croppers (as such); even the IWW, despite pleas by tenants to organize them, refused, because however poor, they were not wage workers.9 But the many union officers and members who were Socialists, some of them also in the IWW, did promote separate tenants’ organizations, a Renters Union in 1909, an Emancipation League in 1914, a Protective Association in 1915.

The Socialist Party struggled to serve them. It reformed its position on “the land question,” especially for tenants. It staged programs of adult education through its “socialist encampments,” that were public short courses on socialism, revivals for justice, which drew thousands for a week at a time, out in the country. It educated white workers and tenants particularly about race, opposing the Democratic Party’s policy of the disenfranchisement of black men, defending their right to vote, and winning black support for Socialist candidates. And it often featured the national party’s best advocate of women’s suffrage, Kate Richards O’Hare. In 1912, despite the national party’s purge of the IWW, the state party’s yellows and pro-IWW reds cooperated to win 16 percent of Oklahoma’s presidential vote for Eugene Debs, the highest Socialist percentage of all states. In 1914 the state’s reds having taken charge of the party, the Socialists ran the UMW District 21 treasurer (who had armed the Arkansas miners) for governor, and won 21 percent of the vote for him, reducing the Democratic victor to a minority governorship. They ran strong, too, in Congressional elections, won six seats in the legislature, and a hundred or more county and local offices. In 1915-16, their papers informed readers (and their listeners) of international red resistance to the war in Europe, a rebellion in Ireland, and terrific armed struggles for land in Mexico (which the Oklahoma National Guard tried to stop on the Mexican border, June 1916-February 1917).

Ever since the Green Corn Rebellion trials, judges have blamed the rebellion on isolation, ignorance, yokeldom. “If only they had known better, they would not have done it.” The standard (bourgeois) indices of incompetence, disreputable, pitiful dysfunctionality, “otherness” (unmentionable inferiority) are there—poverty, manual labor, physical afflictions, “bad choices,” weird syntax and accent—and all out in the country. There is also the mental affliction in the background, Oklahoma Socialism’s country revivalism, its often intense Christianity, a red Christianity.

But the people who made the rebellion were not yokels or nuts. They were competent, consciously anti-racist, internationalist, politically engaged, and deliberately dangerous to the established order. Because of a radical, collective, egalitarian, righteous, enthusiastic determination for justice in Jesus’ name, they could imagine action to save a warring world from rich, predatory, enormously irresponsible killers, fornicators, thieves, and liars. They did not plan a rustic “Green Corn Rebellion.” The leaders were old men, at a time of “last days,” when “your old men shall dream dreams” (Acts 2:17). They actually dreamed of a revolution. And they acted as best they could to make it real. It was their conquerors who baptized their failure a bumpkins’ folly. They were fools for justice’s sake.

Most important in all this history is the organization behind the rebellion, the Working Class Union. Like other such organizations, in the United States and elsewhere, it grew from working people in local struggles learning that they suffered more than local abuses and grievances; that they suffered general, systematic exploitation, and they could organize collectively for a better system. In this sense, the Union began in Oklahoma when tenant farmers and Socialists met increasingly after statehood. It took on a limited, mostly white aspect in the Renters’ Union in 1909, got stronger when the Socialist Party fought for black tenants too, and broadened after 1912 when the IWW, definitively organizing only wage workers (as Sellars has shown), gave it the tenant field.

The organization first chartered as the WCU sprang from an IWW Louisiana timber workers’ union, which had been founded in 1913, separate from the IWW, precisely to unionize the tenant field. But the WCU’s serious formation took place in the wake of the Battle of Prairie Creek in July 1914, which Oklahoma-armed Arkansas miners had won by force and violence. On August 25, 1914, thirty miles north of Prairie Creek, Dr. Wells LeFevre, a Socialist doctor (twice an Arkansas delegate to the national party’s conventions), refounded the WCU in the river port and railroad junction of Van Buren, Arkansas. The WCU’s charter expressed more than the IWW’s industrial unionism, an absolutely One Big Unionism, for every “working man or woman,” working for wages or not. On its face, the new organization was civil. But with nearby workers, armed so effectively and impressively for self-defense, WCU members pledged under oath to “do all in our power to help every worker,” any color, and demanded above all, “Total abolition…of rent, interest, and…the wage system.”

Several historians have clarified how the IWW and the Socialist Party fared in Oklahoma from 1914 to 1917. The IWW returned in strength through its new Agricultural Workers Organization, chartered in Kansas City in 1915, unionizing wheat-harvest hands to the west and oil-field workers to the east and south. The Socialist Party, despite bankers’ and Democratic bosses’ campaigns to break it, increased its registration; its proposal for electoral reform won a state referendum in November 1916. It had strong, new bases in northwestern counties (where Cunningham was then coming of age).

However, we know little of what the WCU did from foundation to failure in 1917. We still dwell on local reports, and because the WCU was “a secret society,” these reports are often shaky. Altogether, they suggest a WCU base in Sallisaw and substantial WCU power in eastern counties in 1915-16: membership in the thousands; blacklists of “obnoxious” landlords; “night-riding”; county commissioners joining; a town marshal joining; recalcitrants whipped for not joining; members defended by lawyers in court; a WCU-backed Democrat elected judge in Sequoyah County—the judge’s lawsuit against banks for usury; state cattle-dipping vats dynamited; a red-shirt march through downtown Muskogee; a convention in Sallisaw to declare demands. In 1917 the union’s national organizer (LeFevre) claimed a membership of 34,800. This may be ten times the number of engaged members. Even so, if we infer from the rebellion—which neither the IWW nor the Socialist Party wanted—the WCU was an organization more potent than either of them at that time in eastern Oklahoma.

We do have now a few new significant details. For example, after the U.S. declaration of war, April 7, 1917, the WCU’s Oklahoma state organizer, one Henry “Rube” Munson, supposedly hot from meetings in Chicago, reappeared in the state’s eastern counties, urging revolutionary action and swearing vast support for it. Rube was no rube. Munson’s father had come in 1856 from Erie, Pennsylvania to Lawrence, Kansas, fought for John Brown and a Free State against slavery, attended local college, enlisted in 1861 in the Union Army, returned to Kansas after the war, settled in Girard for some fifteen years, went back East, but returned to Girard for his last years. He was “a man of strong convictions, well educated, and honest,” friend of the Socialists at the Appeal to Reason, and a sometime dinner partner with Debs. His only son, Henry Hamilton Munson, born 1866, orphaned of his mother at birth, raised in Girard, schooled there, married at (almost) twenty-four, and worked in various Kansas City southern rail towns, Ft. Smith, Sallisaw, Mena, and in Seneca, in the lead-zinc district on the Missouri-Oklahoma line, where, by the time his father died in 1911, he was himself then the father of seven.10

By 1915 Munson was “a Bible Socialist,” organizing sharecroppers for the WCU in the Ozark “laplands” of southwestern Missouri-northwestern Arkansas. By 1916 he was organizing out of Sallisaw, south into Oklahoma coal country. From Chicago he may have returned in April 1917, but more likely it was from St. Louis, where the U.S. Socialist Party had just held an “emergency convention” over Congress’s declaration of war, and a red majority had pledged “continuous, active, and public opposition to the war, through…all means within our power.”11 In May 1917, he may well have attended the IWW-Agricultural Workers Industrial Union (AWIU) convention in Kansas City, bringing tenant farmers with him to try to shame the AWIU into opening its ranks to them (no luck).12 With his connections in Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, and Oklahoma, not in offices, but among reds in the field, Rube may well have known who in District 21 would supply dynamite, how to connect a new WCU branch west of Ardmore with reds south along the Red River, southwest toward Abilene, and north around El Reno, which would explain a new red organization there, the Universal Union. If these reds could make their connections east into Texas’s Piney Woods, west to Bisbee, up to Colorado, and the strike-exploded Northwest and back to Chicago, the United States at class war would be in a national crisis, incapable of imperialist war.13

Another example, a different kind, real details, but more speculation: The old man who hoisted his daughter’s red flag on a farm in Seminole County to start the rebellion there, John Meredith Spears, was new to the area. Born in 1857 and raised in Newton County, Arkansas, in a clan of Spears, half Union, half Confederate, almost all farmers, his father a Confederate militia veteran and a Mason, he had moved his family down to Franklin County, along the Arkansas River, in the 1880s. He moved farther in 1891, he, his wife, four children, and a younger brother emigrating to farm upriver, out of Arkansas, some twenty miles west of Van Buren, in the Cherokee Nation; his wife would bear three more children there. Sometime after 1900, his aged father and stepmother came too; he buried them there, a few miles east of Sallisaw, her in 1907, him in 1908. The younger brother, for a while a horse trader, had explored the territory southwest into the Choctaw Nation, around McAlester, and up the South Canadian River into the Seminole Nation, where his fifth child was born in the new rail town of Sasakwa. By 1910 both brothers were farming back near Sallisaw. In 1914 they moved to Seminole County, near Sasakwa. There, the brother soon became deputy town marshal. And a few miles north of town, John Spears, fifty-seven, took tenancy on a farm. The WCU organized his three grown sons and a son-in-law. He joined too. By 1917 he seems to have been the WCU chief in Seminole County and four adjacent counties. The sons and the son-in-law followed him into the rebellion; all went to prison, save the middle son, left on probation to keep the family together.14

But there are many more questions. The most loaded is, Why focus on August 3, the hill, the rout, as if the entire rebellion came to a head and ended there? Cunningham and all the histories so far note WCU force and violence elsewhere, before and after August 3, but always in individual actions, as isolated and futile as the action on the hill. Why not look deeper into these, for connections among them: the dynamiting of the Dewar water tower on June 4, the day before the draft took effect; the anti-draft protests over the next ten days in Seminole, Holdenville, and way south in the old Chickasaw capital of Tishomingo; the intimidation of neutrals in Pottawatomie County in mid-July; the secret rendezvous of reds at El Reno on July 17 and 24; the wildcat strike at a Wilburton mine on August 2, an ambush of the Seminole County sheriff and a deputy outside Wewoka that afternoon, and the cutting of telephone and telegraph wires in the area, the attempts to burn the M-K-T bridge below Konawa, the Frisco bridge below Sasakwa, and the MO&G bridge downriver east of Calvin, all the night before the rebellion; the big concentration at Lone Dove, north of Sasakwa, and the ambush at Stonewall, in Pontotoc County, the day after; another concentration southwest of Holdenville, at Spaulding, and the Battle of Four Corners, near the Rock Island and MO&G junction at Calvin, on August 5; the arson at a grain elevator in McAlester and a threat in mid-August “to burn the town,” to release WCU prisoners in the state pen there; the arson at cotton gins in Pontotoc County in October? All this suggests not umpteen different acts of ignorant, angry loners, but a serious conspiracy and extensive, though poorly coordinated and badly disrupted organization.15 In this light, we might understand the Green Corn Rebellion better if we called it the Working Class Union rebellion.

The suggestion gains credence from the mighty UMW’s ban on the WCU. In January 1918, wrathful at IWW offensives in western mining and shaken by finding District 21 members in the WCU, the UMW amended its constitution to expel “Any member accepting membership in the Industrial Workers of the World, the Working Class Union or any other dual labor organization not affiliated with the American Federation of Labor” and to disallow IWW or WCU members into the UMW (unless they quit the other organization). After the war, the UMW executive board kept the ban on the IWW and the WCU, adding the One Big Union and the Red International of Labor Unions. To this day, the ban (long ago extended also to the Communist Party, Fascist, Nazi, and Bund organizations, the KKK, and the Chamber of Commerce) still includes the WCU, a vestige of the threat the UMW leaders once felt it posed.16

Another heavy question: The WCU and the rebellion were multi-racial, but how so? The novel and the histories are not quite straight about race. They have whites holding presumptions of superiority over blacks and Indians, living segregated from them, but freely commingling with them in the Socialist Party, the WCU, and the concentration on the hill (for the battle that never happened). The incongruity is troubling. Is it due to the typically liberal approach to race: personal, moral, individual? Considerably different, square with initial accounts, and more credible is a sharp memory from Konawa that people joined the WCU and the rebellion not individually, but by communities, around churches or schools (Lone Dove, Friendship, Rocky Point, Little River), so that their assemblies were of several collectives, like cells, and when they concentrated for action, they came practically in squads, then together in virtual platoons.17 Their multi-racial unity would then not have been integration, but a rainbow coalition.

Other racial questions, about the Indian WCU rebels: Who were they, and as Indians, still with tribal rights, did they have special concerns? Sellars mistakes them for the “dissident Creeks” already involved in violent “traditionalist” protests against U.S. appropriation of Creek land (in counties farther east).18 In fact, they were Seminoles, related to the Creek, but ordinarily trying to stay away from them. Like the Creek, some wanted restoration of the entire Seminole grant in Oklahoma to “the Seminole nation.” Others only wanted higher U.S. payments from tribal trust funds.19 But for these people, being Seminole, the question of special concerns cannot be simple. What about the Seminole WCU rebels of strong African descent, full members of the tribe, but looking black, living in their own communities, owning their own land, and gone politically red?20 What was up with longtime Seminole Governor John F. Brown, founder of Sasakwa, Baptist minister there, and brother-in-law of Wewoka businessman and Captain William S. Key of the Oklahoma National Guard, himself but recently back from the Mexican border, a volunteer for the war in Europe, his unit scheduled for orders on August 5? Did Brown advise Key or Oklahoma Governor Robert Williams to use posses (“neighbors”) on the rebels, to avoid using the Guard, which would have put the fat in the fire. And did the rebellion influence the armed Creek protests against the draft in June 1918, at their assembly grounds south of Henryetta? Sounding as if she had just come from a WCU meeting, a leader of the protest, a Creek firebrand, Ellen Perryman, denounced much more than local ills: “To H— with the Government and the Allies….They are nothing but a bunch of Grafters and S—of B—.”21

And whatever happened to the WCU (re)founder and “national organizer,” Dr. LeFevre? The WCU Oklahoma secretary Homer Carles Spence (1881-1952), buried in Wewoka? The captain of the union’s biggest local, Lone Dove, William L. Benefield? While the rebels were in prison, how did their families survive?

But the big question remains the rebellion’s meaning. Consider not only the severe class conflicts in the country then, but also the widespread opposition among working people specifically to the war and the draft opposition they made abundantly obvious in conscientious objection, slacking, civil disobedience, draft dodging, sabotage, especially in the South, and armed rebellion in Oklahoma.22 What if either the IWW or the red Socialists, or both, had prepared in 1916-17 to coordinate national resistance to “a rich man’s war, a poor man’s fight”?23 Where could the U.S. Army have gone in 1917-18? How then would the Great War have ended? Without U.S. armed forces in Europe, could the strikes and mutinies in Great Britain, France, Germany, and Austria in 1917-18 have forced socialism there?24

Notes

  1. “Armed Bands Resist Draft in Oklahoma,” New York Times, August 4, 1917, 8; “Hang Draft Resister, Then Cut Him Down,” ibid., August 5, 1917, 15; “Kill Draft Resister in Oklahoma Fight,” ibid., August 6, 1917, 1; “Demands Execution of Draft Resisters,” ibid., August 7, 1917, 3; “More Arrests in Oklahoma…Disorders Subside,” ibid., August 8, 1917, 3; “Oklahoma Band Defiant,” ibid., August 9, 1917, 2; Nigel A. Sellars, “Treasonous Tenant Farmers and Seditious Sharecroppers: The 1917 Green Corn Rebellion Trials,” Oklahoma City University Law Review XXVII, 3 (Fall 2002): 1097-1141.
  2. Angie Debo and John M. Oskison, eds., Oklahoma: A Guide to the Sooner State (Norman: University of Oklahoma, 1941), 48, 91.
  3. William M. Cunningham, Pretty Boy (New York: Vanguard, 1936), a minor classic in “Marxist noir.” Cf. Woodrow W. Guthrie, “The Ballad of Pretty Boy Floyd” (March 1939).
  4. John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath (New York: Viking, 1939).
  5. Erik M. Zissu, “Conscription, Sovereignty, and Land: American Indian Resistance during World War I,” Pacific Historical Review LXIV, 4 (November 1995): 549-51, 559-65; Nigel A. Sellars, Oil, Wheat, & Wobblies: The Industrial Workers of the World in Oklahoma, 1905-1930 (Norman: University of Oklahoma, 1998), 77-92.
  6. William Cunningham, The Green Corn Rebellion, introduction by Nigel A. Sellars (Norman: University of Oklahoma, 2010).
  7. Ibid., v. Emphasis in the original.
  8. James R. Green, Grass-Roots Socialism: Radical Movements in the Southwest, 1895-1943 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 1978).
  9. Philip S. Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the United States, 9 vols. (New York: International Publishers, 1947-94), IV, 258-59; Sellars, Oil, Wheat, & Wobblies, 78, 82-83, 92.
  10. “Descendants of Danyell Broadley of Bingley, Yorkshire…5266. John Henry Munson.…6386. Henry Hamilton Munson,” http://bradleyfoundation.org; “Munsons in Erie Co., PA,” April 15, 2001, http://archiver.rootsweb.com; Samuel P. Bates, History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-5, 5 vols. (Harrisburg: B. Singerly, 1869-71), 1, 234; Eugene V. Debs, “A Short Speech Amongst Friends: Girard, Kansas-May 21, 1908,” http://marxisthistory.org.
  11. “Reactionary Plans of American Militarists Must Be Thwarted,” Appeal to Reason, April 21, 1917.
  12. “Agricultural Workers’ Convention a Hummer,” Solidarity, June 9, 1917; Fred Whitehead, “John Day Interview,” January 11, 1986, Los Angeles, California. We are doubly grateful to Fred Whitehead for a copy of the transcription of his interview with John Day, native of Washburn, Mo., who as a boy rode with Munson organizing, joined the Communist Party in the Missouri Hunger Marches in 1931, served in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in combat in Spain, and died in California at the age of 87 in 1991: Fred Whitehead, “Tribute to John Day, Veteran for Peace,” People’s Culture, new ser., No. 8 (March-April 1992). It would be a golden service if a publisher brought into print Whitehead’s many interviews with old veterans of the left, most of them now gone.
  13. Sellars, Oil, Wheat, & Wobblies, 89-90; Foner, op. cit., IV, 518-59, VII, 22-39, 97-337.
  14. “John Thomas Spears,” “Thomas Jefferson Spears,” “John Meredith Spears,” “Joseph Marion Spears [the horse trader and deputy marshal],” “Norval McKinley Spears,” “Oral Grady Spears,” “Olsen Theodore ‘Ted’ Spears,” http://spears.arkansas-roots.com; “Interview with Nettie F. Spears [daughter of John M. Spears],” August 29, 1977; John Womack, Jr., “Interview with Nettie F. Spears,” July 14, 1978; Leita Spears to John Womack Jr., September 5, 2007.
  15. John Womack, “Interviews with Ike Cargill,” May 25, July 11, 1978; idem, “Interview with Sam Campbell,” August 14, 1978.
  16. “Proceedings of Convention,” United Mine Workers Journal XXVIII, 40 (January 31, 1918): 8; Frank J. Hayes et al., “Official Notice,” ibid., XXVIII, 46 (March 21, 1918): 11; “Action of the International Executive Board, United Mine Workers, on Dual Organizations,” ibid., XXXIV, 13 (July 1, 1923): 5; “Mine Union Chiefs Warn Against Reds,” New York Times, June 22, 1923; “Mine Union Holds to Communist Ban,” ibid., January 31, 1934; “UMW Membership Ban on Taft Act Voters Urged,” ibid., August 30, 1947; United Mine Workers of America, Constitution of the International Union, April 13, 2006, Article 12, Section 3. We are grateful to Barry Kernfeld, at the Special Collections of the Pennsylvania State University Libraries, for copies of the UMW constitutions, 1924-1995 and to Jason Haught for a copy of the latest UMW constitution .
  17. John Womack, Jr., “Interview with Ike Cargill,” July 11, 1978.
  18. On these Creeks, ever less “traditionalist,” ever more defiant: David F. Littlefield, Jr. and Lonnie E. Underhill, “The ‘Crazy Snake Uprising’ of 1909: A Red, Black, or White Affair?” Arizona and the West XX, 4 (Winter 1978): 307-24.
  19. On Creek-Seminole estrangements: Kenneth W. Porter, “The Negro Abraham,” Florida Historical Quarterly XXV, 1 (July 1946): 1-43; Edwin C. McReynolds, The Seminoles (Norman: University of Oklahoma, 1957). On the Seminoles in 1917, Zissu, op. cit., 549-51, 559-61.
  20. Kevin Mulroy, “Ethnogenesis and Ethnohistory of the Seminole Maroons,” Journal of World History IV, 2 (Fall 1993): 287-305; Rebecca B. Bateman, “Africans and Indians: A Comparative Study of the Black Carib and Black Seminole,” Ethnohistory XXXVII, 1 (Winter 1990): 4-9; idem, “Naming Patterns in Black Seminole Ethnogenesis,“ ibid., XLII, 2 (Spring 2002): 227-59; John Womack, “Interview with John William Cross,” December 22, 1962.
  21. Quoted, Zissu, op. cit., 562; Thomas A. Britten, “The Creek Draft Rebellion of 1918: Wartime Hysteria and Indian-Baiting in WWI Oklahoma,” Chronicles of Oklahoma LXXIX, 2 (2001): 200-15.
  22. Foner, op. cit., VII, 104-06, 159-68, 172, 246-337; Horace C. Peterson and Gilbert C. Fite, Opponents of War, 1917-1918 (Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1957); James W. Chambers, II, To Raise an Army: The Draft Comes to Modern America (New York: Free Press, 1987); Jeanette Keith, Rich Man’s War, Poor Man’s Fight: Race, Class, and Power in the Rural South during the First World War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2004).
  23. James Connolly, “Revolutionary Unionism and War,” International Socialist Review XV, 9 (March 1915): 523-26, reprinted, Solidarity, May 27, 1916.
  24. G.D.H. Cole, An Introduction to Trade Unionism: Being a Short Study of the Present Position of Trade Unionism in Great Britain (London: G. Allen & Unwin, 1918); Peter von Oertzen, Betriebsräter in der Novemberrevolution: eine politikwissenschaftliche Untersuchung über Ideengehalt und Struktur der betrieblichen und wirtschaftlichen Arbeiterräte in der deutschen Revolution, 1918-19 (Düsseldorf: Droste, 1963); Guy Pedroncini, Les mutineries (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1967); Charles L. Bertrand, ed., Revolutionary Situations in Europe, 1917-1922: Germany, Italy, Austria-Hungary (Montreal: Centre Universitaire d’études européennes, 1977).
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