In the early twentieth century people from Oklahoma were occasionally nicknamed "Okies," a special appellation that seemed a natural shortening of the state's name. With the publication of John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath in 1939, however, "Okie" took on negative connotations. Steinbeck recounted the story of the Joad family who lost their Oklahoma farm and sought a new life in California. In the 1930s California newspaper reporter Ben Reddick wrote a series of articles on the movement of farm laborers into California and observed that many came in cars with tags from Oklahoma. Reddick seized the Oklahoma nickname and began to apply it to all migrants. Indeed, the term "Okie" took on the same negativity as a racial or ethnic slur. Steinbeck's image of Oklahoma and its citizens was ingrained in the nation's consciousness.
Over the years Oklahomans have struggled to overcome this negative image. In the mid 1960s Robert L. Haught, Gov. Henry Bellmon's press secretary, called on the governor to develop an "Okie Promotion Program." Haught argued that "Okie" could become a symbol of pride and respect rather than an emblem of shame. He advocated a sweeping public relations campaign with certificates, buttons, and essay and sculpture contests.
Dewey F. Bartlett, Bellmon's successor, set Haught's plan into motion. Indeed, Bartlett made the campaign the cornerstone of his administration. Launched on May 6, 1968, the twenty-eighth anniversary of the award of the Pulitzer Prize to Steinbeck for The Grapes of Wrath, the OKIE campaign consisted of honorary titles, pins, and contests, all devised to instill pride in the Sooner State. Bartlett noted that OKIE was the acronym for "Oklahoma, Key to Intelligence and Enterprise." Because of the push for industrial development for the state, OKIE also meant "Oklahoma, Key to Industrial Expansion." The governor constantly coined new definitions for the word, such as "Oklahoma, Key to Individual Enthusiasm" or "Oklahoma, Key to International Energy."
The persistent symbol of the campaign was the gold OKIE pin. With a drop of water on the letter "O" and a tree on the "I," the pin suggested a land of water and forests, a direct contrast to the barren land portrayed by Steinbeck. Bartlett also promoted his program with OKIE speeches. Often these addresses were published in pamphlets, complete with lists of famous Oklahomans and little known state facts. Again, care was taken to avoid mention of those who promoted a negative image of the state. For example, "Dust Bowl" singer Woody Guthrie was noticeably absent. The governor championed economic incentives found in the state as a way to attract industry. In order to avoid critics' charges that he was spending too much on industrial development, he personally paid for his travel expenses. The governor also tried to get editors of the Webster and American Heritage dictionaries to change the official definition of the term "Okie." The meaning was somewhat modified but not to the extent that the governor wanted.
The OKIE program brought national and international attention to the Sooner State. Honorary Okie designations went to Pres. Richard M. Nixon, Prince Charles of Great Britain, and actor Andy Griffith. Oklahoma astronaut Thomas P. Stafford took OKIE pins on his Apollo mission. Between 1967 and 1971 more than $700 million was invested in Oklahoma industry. During that same period Oklahoma taxpayers expended $250,000 per year to pay for the program. In 1970 Bartlett lost his gubernatorial reelection bid to David Hall. Because the new governor did not support the OKIE program, and there was some public opposition to the revival of the word, the public relations venture ended.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Kenny Franks and Bob Burke, Dewey F. Bartlett: The Bartlett Legacy (Edmond, Okla.: UCO Press, 1996). Jennifer J. Collins, "The Lingering Shadow: The Grapes of Wrath and Oklahoma Leaders in the Post-Depression Era," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 81 (Spring 2003). Neil A. Martin, "The Governor Is a Businessman," Dun's 95 (June 1970). Mike McCarville, Okie (Oklahoma City, Okla.: Colorgraphics, 1970). "Oklahoma's Salesman-Governor," Business Week (October 11, 1969).
Carolyn G. Hanneman
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