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AMERINGER, OSCAR (1870-1943)

Oscar Ameringer

AMERINGER, OSCAR (1870-1943). Oscar Ameringer, “the Mark Twain of American Socialism,” was born in Achstetten, in Germany, August 4, 1870. He came to Oklahoma in 1907 and helped organize one of the largest socialist movements in American history. Ameringer synthesized Jeffersonian democratic principles, the frontier individualism of the Homestead Act, and Marxism in order to formulate “Industrial Democracy,” or “Industry of the People, by the People, and for the People.” He was friends with, and an ally of, moderate socialists such as Milwaukee's Victor Berger and more radical socialists such as the Socialist Party's presidential candidate, Eugene V. Debs. Ameringer advocated a tolerant, nonsectarian form of Marxism.

Ameringer was a staunch supporter of the rights of the disadvantaged. In 1909 he helped found the Oklahoma Renters Union to promote the rights of sharecroppers, and twenty-five years later his writings inspired the creation of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union. In 1910 he led the fight against the “grandfather clause” that disenfranchised African American voters. He vocally opposed World War I, and in 1917 he and his wife, Freda, established the Oklahoma Daily Leader, which promoted peaceful opposition to the war.

Oscar and Freda Ameringer in their office

Ameringer also dabbled in local politics. In 1911 he received 23 percent of the vote in a three-way race for mayor of Oklahoma City, and in 1918, despite censorship and a federal indictment, he ran a strong race for U.S. Congress in Wisconsin. After one of the most intense campaigns of political repression in United States history, the Oklahoma Socialist Party was disbanded, and Ameringer helped organize the Farmer-Labor Reconstruction League, a progressive coalition similar to the South Dakota Nonpartisan League. The coalition helped elect “Our Jack” Walton as an anti-Ku Klux Klan governor. When betrayed by Walton, Ameringer quipped, “Politics is the art by which politicians obtain campaign contributions from the rich and votes from the poor on the pretext of protecting each from the other.”

Ameringer was a prolific writer. In 1931 he helped found, and edited, the American Guardian, which became an internationally respected socialist newspaper. He also edited the Illinois Miner and authored hilarious satire, including a column titled “Adam Coaldigger,” a book titled The Life and Deeds of Uncle Sam, which sold more than half a million copies, and “Dumdum Bullets,” the poem that prompted his indictment. In 1940 his autobiography, If You Don't Weaken, was published with a forward by Carl Sandburg. The national press lauded the book, comparing it to The Education of Henry Adams and The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens. Despite his despair at the destruction of the Socialist Party and the outbreak of World War II, Ameringer's humor triumphed. One day when his nemesis, Edward K. Gaylord, publisher of the Daily Oklahoman (Oklahoma City) was out of the office Ameringer visited the newspaper and regaled its staff with funny stories. Oscar Ameringer died November 5, 1943, in Oklahoma City. A conservative editor for the Oklahoman, a man whom Ameringer had comforted during a personal tragedy, titled his obituary “He Hated No Man.”


BIBLIOGRAPHY: Oscar Ameringer, If You Don't Weaken: The Autobiography of Oscar Ameringer (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1983). Oscar Ameringer, Life and Deeds of Uncle Sam (Chicago, Ill.: Charles H. Kerr, 1985). James R. Green, Grass-Roots Socialism: Radical Movements in the Southwest, 1895-1943 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1978). Oklahoma City Advertiser, 12 November 1943. John Thompson "She Never Weakened: The Heroism of Freda Ameringer," in An Oklahoma I Had Never Seen Before: Alternative Views of Oklahoma History, ed. Davis Joyce (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994).

John Thompson

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