Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture

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TWENTIETH-CENTURY OKLAHOMA

The dawn of the twentieth century found the region between Kansas and Texas in transition. Once set aside as a permanent home for indigenous and uprooted American Indians, almost two million acres of Indian Territory had been opened to settlement in 1889. Joined with a strip of land above the Texas Panhandle, the two areas were designated "Oklahoma Territory" by an act of Congress the following year. Subsequent additions of land surrendered by tribal governments increased the new territory until it was roughly equal in size to the diminished Indian Territory. Land was the universal attraction, but many white pioneers who rushed into Oklahoma Territory or settled in Indian Territory hoped for a fresh start in a new Eden not dominated by wealth and corporate power. Freedmen dreamed of a new beginning in a place of social justice where rights guaranteed by the Constitution would be respected. Most Native Americans, whose land was being occupied, had come to realize the futility of their opposition to the process that would soon unite the two territories into a single state. A few Indians, most wedded to tribal traditions, simply ignored a process they could not understand and refused to participate in an allotment of land they had once been promised would be theirs "forever."

The birth of the new state occurred in an era of protest and reform. Populist and Progressive currents merged to sweep reform-minded Democrats to an overwhelming victory in 1906 in the selection of delegates to a Constitutional Convention tasked with forging Indian and Oklahoma territories and the Osage Nation into a single state. The constitution drafted at the convention in Guthrie in 1906 1907 was not as "radical" as Pres. Theodore Roosevelt suggested, but it did reflect its authors' belief that the will of the people, not powerful corporations, should determine state policy. A series of provisions, including a corporation commission, popular election of many state officials, initiative and referendum, preferential balloting for U.S. senators, a single term for the governor, a weak legislature, and inclusion of details in the constitution normally enacted by statute, reflected the founding fathers' conviction that corporate influence on state government should be held in check.

When Oklahoma became the forty-sixth state in 1907, its 1,414,177 inhabitants comprised a population larger than any other state's upon admission to the Union. Despite Oklahoma Territory's history of voting Republican, the new state began life solidly in the Democratic column. Its citizens shared in the national prosperity that accompanied the new century. If a majority of the state's families, who lived on its two hundred thousand farms, struggled to make ends meet, oil gushing from thousands of wells made Oklahoma the nation's leading petroleum-producing state and created a facade of prosperity that concealed a growing disparity in income.

The progressive fervor that characterized the state's birth did not survive the administration of its first governor. Civic leaders, deemed the "interlocked parasites in the electric light towns" by a Sooner Socialist, quickly wrested control of the Democratic Party and state government from the reformers. In 1910 successful completion of a literacy test was made a requirement for voters whose ancestors did not have the franchise before 1866. This "grandfather clause" virtually ended black voting in Oklahoma and meant that Democratic leaders from the state's towns and cities no longer needed the support of poor farmers and workers. Turning their backs on the reforms that had attracted the "have nots," they chose to represent the interests of citizens whom future governor William H. "Alfalfa Bill" Murray would call "the better element." The poor farmers' loss of political influence was accompanied by declining economic fortune. Between 1900 and 1910 farm tenancy in Oklahoma increased 120 percent. By 1914 Socialists claimed that three farmers out of four did not own the land they worked.

As impoverished farmers and workers watched the Democratic party renege on its promises, they turned to the burgeoning Socialist movement. By 1914 more than twenty percent of Oklahomans had cast their votes for the party's candidate for governor. An improbable alliance between the Socialists and Republicans in support of a constitutional amendment to restructure the state's election machinery posed a threat to the Democrats' monopoly in state government when the U.S. Supreme Court declared Oklahoma's "grandfather clause" unconstitutional in 1915. The prospects for genuine two- or even three-party government in Oklahoma were undermined by Democratic manipulation of election results and by Democratic legislators' establishment of a short registration period designed to limit black voting. The hope that Oklahoma's "have nots" harbored for help from the Socialist Party was dashed by America's entry into World War I and by the subsequent superpatriotic zeal that destroyed the Socialist movement in Oklahoma. The demise of Oklahoma socialism left many urban and rural poor without a party.

Allied victory in World War I was followed by a brief period of economic turbulence in the nation and the state. The return to "normalcy" signaled prosperity for many urban Oklahomans, but increased agricultural production meant declining prices for most farm products. Long hours and hard work could keep farm-owning families solvent, but tenant farmers and sharecroppers found it increasingly difficult to make ends meet. Aware of the difficulty in organizing a third party, representatives of farm and labor organizations, assisted by leaders of the now defunct Socialist Party, conspired to hijack the Democratic Party. Most elections were decided in the party's primary, in which the winner needed only a plurality, not a majority. Given the number of candidates who usually registered in the gubernatorial primary, a well-organized minority could influence the party's selection. Backing Oklahoma City mayor John C. Walton, the conspirators outmaneuvered Democratic Party leadership and won the nomination and general election in 1922. The new governor promised "a party for all the people" and launched the most progressive administration since the state's first. However, his political inexperience and reckless disregard of tradition and constitutional rights led to his impeachment and removal from office before the end of the year. For the rest of the decade state government remained in the hands of the Old Guard of the Democratic Party, although the GOP showed signs of becoming a viable opposition.

In the 1920s several developments revealed the darker side of Oklahoma character. African Americans sent to fight overseas returned less willing to accept discrimination and lynch law. Their attitude seemed to pose a threat to the status quo. In 1921 in Tulsa a race riot, fanned by newspaper editorials, destroyed the city's black Greenwood District and resulted in many deaths. Although the exact number of lives lost will never be known, the episode left a scar that remained raw at the beginning of the twenty-first century. The superpatriotism of World War I rejuvenated the Ku Klux Klan. No longer aimed at just keeping African Americans in their place, the organization assigned itself the task of enforcing morality and maintaining the tenets of "Americanism." With overwhelming middle-class support the Klan ignored the law and civil rights and instituted a reign of terror against those who failed to meet its definition of "100 percent Americanism." Many who had challenged the authority of "the better element" found it advisable to take their beliefs elsewhere. Eventually, Oklahomans recognized the Klan for the sinister threat to human decency it had always been, but the roots of intolerance remained deeply imbedded in the state.

The economic problems that were restricted to the countryside in the 1920s reached Oklahoma's towns and cities after the collapse of the stock market in 1929. If the Great Depression did not hit Oklahoma harder than other states, it left an image of the Sooner State that has been almost impossible to erase. John Steinbeck's location of the fictional "Joad" family in Sallisaw, the use of the term "Okie" to describe an uprooted destitute seeking a better life, and the center of the Dust Bowl in western Oklahoma left an indelible image in the public mind. Actually, the people of Oklahoma's cities probably survived the depression better than the state's farmers. As the bottom dropped out of farm prices, sharecroppers and tenant farmers by the thousands abandoned their farms and took to the road, looking for economic opportunity. Many left the state, but thousands drifted to the cities, where they congregated in migrant camps and shanty towns called Hoovervilles. Those less affected by the depression had difficulty understanding the plight of the poor. For state leaders of the Democratic Party it was business as usual, but their plans failed to take into consideration one of the state's founding fathers, an old-time agrarian reformer whose philosophy had been too old-fashioned for the modern Sooner State of the 1920s.

"Alfalfa Bill" Murray returned from his effort to establish an agrarian utopia in Bolivia in time to see the depression ravage the state. Many Oklahomans, too modern to support him earlier, now found his vision of returning to some past agrarian golden age better than the grim reality of the present. Opposed by those who controlled the Democratic Party and ignored by the metropolitan press, Murray swept his opponents away in the election of 1930 and promised to represent the "Indians, niggers, and po' white folks" (his own words) in his inaugural address. The new governor probably meant what he said, but his fiscal conservatism and inability to push his relief measures through a conservative legislature limited him to largely symbolic gestures such as establishing garden plots near the Capitol or threatening to free vagrants arrested by the Oklahoma City police. His contribution of thousands of dollars of his own salary and his coercion of state employees to follow his example were well intentioned, but his refusal to cooperate with the New Deal did more to retard recovery in Oklahoma than anything he did to help the poor. His colorful administration did little to stimulate recovery, although his eccentric antics focused national attention on the state. The state continued to grapple with the depression, but Murray's successor welcomed the New Deal, because it brought federal jobs and assistance to Oklahomans and accelerated the exodus of farmers no longer able to earn a living from the land.

Despite state and federal efforts the Great Depression persisted until spending for World War II created work, restored agricultural prices, and stimulated business recovery. During the war Oklahoma's favorable climate and the close relations between Gov. Robert S. Kerr and Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt secured a disproportionate number of military bases and defense contracts for the state. Not only was the state debt retired, but employment neared 100 percent, and income reached record levels. Prosperity continued after the surrender of Japan, and attracted by economic opportunities in the cities, more of the state's farmers left the land. Many of the state's "po' white folks" had either migrated during the depression or war or had been swept up into the middle class by the war and the good times that followed it. Thus, Oklahoma's population declined even more rapidly in the 1940s than it had during the Depression.

The state's African Americans, however, remained segregated and victims of discrimination imposed by statute and tradition. The nation's antifascist propaganda during the war years brought that discrimination into stark perspective, and blacks in America and Oklahoma became more determined to challenge it. When she was denied admission to the University of Oklahoma School of Law, Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher, an honor graduate of Langston University, the state's only black institution of higher learning, appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Her case and that of George McLaurin, an elderly black man who was enrolled in the University of Oklahoma College of Education in 1948 at the direction of the Supreme Court, breached the color barrier at the state's institutions of higher learning. After the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954), an Oklahoma governor from "Little Dixie," Raymond Gary, might have joined other southern governors in opposing integration, but despite personal prejudice and opposition, he decided that Oklahoma would obey the federal ruling. His decision and the pressure he applied against reluctant school boards throughout the state saved Oklahoma from taking a position that was morally and legally indefensible. The state experienced sit-ins, demonstrations, and resistance against the Civil Rights movement, but compared to its southern neighbors, Oklahoma dismantled its Jim Crow institutions with less disruption and more dispatch. While prejudice, discrimination, and even segregation persist, they no longer enjoy the support of the law or the sanction of the majority of Oklahomans.

By mid-century most Oklahomans were more secure than their families had been on the eve of statehood, but in election after election the public rewarded politicians who railed against taxation, particularly progressive taxation, and punished those unwise enough to propose costly improvement programs. Major Oklahoma highways were inferior to Texas farm-to-market roads, and business in Oklahoma City and Tulsa suffered because of the primitive roads connecting them. Although the state had a plethora of institutions of higher learning, students with academic promise and financial resources often continued their education beyond its borders in schools with standards those in Oklahoma could not rival. Oklahoma's penal system resembled something from a Dickens novel, and other state, county, and municipal institutions needed to be reformed and modernized. In fact, when "Alfalfa Bill" Murray's son Johnston left the governor's office in 1955, he wrote an article entitled "Oklahoma's in a Mess" for the Saturday Evening Post.

Elected governor in 1958, J. Howard Edmondson vowed to address some of the "mess." Apparently aware of Will Rogers's adage that Oklahomans would vote dry as long as they could stagger to the polls, the new governor instituted draconian measures to stop the flow of alcohol, even in the country clubs of "the better element." A sobered electorate voted to end prohibition in 1959, just over a half-century after it was approved in the same election that ratified the constitution. Edmondson also succeeded in establishing a state merit system and central purchasing, but was stopped dead in his tracks when he attempted to diminish widespread corruption in county government by transferring control of county road funds to the Department of Highways. The voters not only rejected reform, they effectively ended Edmondson's political career. A little more than twenty years later, the Federal Bureau of Investigation conducted a devastating sting operation that revealed the extent of corruption among county commissioners.

Aside from giving its electoral votes to two Republican presidential candidates in the 1920s, Oklahoma remained firmly in the Democratic column for almost half a century. In the 1950s Oklahomans decided they "liked Ike" ( Pres. Dwight D. Eisehower), and most of the subsequent Republican presidential candidates, but Democrats claimed the governor's mansion and state house, except for a single Republican House of Representatives elected in 1920, for fifty-five years. Then in 1962 Henry Bellmon broke the Democrats' stranglehold on state government and made two-party government seem possible, at least at the state level. Although the GOP never won control of either branch of the legislature after 1920, its success in winning gubernatorial elections and its growing strength in the legislature made it a force the Democrats could no longer ignore.

The most significant development of the first Republican administration in state history was precipitated by a court case that began in Tennessee. In Baker v. Carr (1962) the U.S. Supreme Court established the principle of "one man one vote," which compelled reapportionment of electoral districts across the nation. Despite an Oklahoma constitutional provision mandating reapportionment after each decennial census, the legislature had never redrawn the legislative districts, even though before midcentury most Oklahomans lived in cities rather than on farms. Protests from Oklahoma's urban areas had fallen on deaf ears in a legislature dominated by rural interests. In the mid-1960s a federal court rejected a state plan as inadequate and redrew legislative boundaries to reflect the state's population distribution. Oklahoma City's and Tulsa's representation in the Senate jumped from two to sixteen and increased proportionally in the House. Ironically, at the same time Oklahoma lawmakers were forced to acknowledge the state's urban character, the once-vibrant city centers atrophied as shopping centers and mega-malls drew residents to the sprawling suburbs.

Since the Great Depression, state leaders had urged diversification of Oklahoma's economic base, which rested primarily on petroleum and agriculture. Continuing to value low taxes over civic improvement, Oklahoma voters frustrated efforts to strengthen the very services and facilities that would attract business. The state's disappointing economic growth was masked by the general postwar prosperity fueled by the Cold War and occasional hot conflicts. Concern about the narrowness of the state's economic foundation was forgotten almost entirely when international crises sent the price of beef, wheat, and oil soaring in the 1970s. While Sooners did not share equally in the economic bonanza, most Oklahomans and their government enjoyed the good times spurred by a spending spree underwritten by financial institutions with little apparent concern for tomorrow. Success was marked not by how much a firm could produce and sell, but how much it could borrow and spend.

While this buccaneer attitude was not unique to Oklahoma, the collapse of Penn Square Bank in Oklahoma City in 1982 marked the end of a spending binge fanned by unsound loans and left many Oklahomans and their government reeling. Bankruptcies, soaring unemployment, and plunging state revenue rekindled memories of the 1930s. Despite a population exodus from the industrial states of the Northeast, Oklahoma's economic development remained lackluster, its per capita income ranked in the bottom quarter, and its population growth lagged behind the national average. Many of the state's brightest youth sought economic opportunity beyond its borders.

In the final decade of the century Oklahoma shared in the nation's longest period of economic boom. Oil prices rose, and increased state revenue enabled the legislature to allocate additional funds for education, highways, and other public services and facilities. In April 1995, as Sooners were savoring the economic upturn, international attention was again focused on the state when an explosion rocked Oklahoma City and destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, killing 168 people and wounding hundreds of others. Whatever other problems they had confronted, Oklahomans, like most Americans, had felt safe from the threat of terrorism. With the Oklahoma City Bombing, their security vanished in the smoke and debris of the explosion.

Adversity has a long history in Oklahoma. Many of the state's American Indianss arrived via the Trails of Tears. The Plains tribes battled unsuccessfully to preserve their way of life. The pioneers faced isolation, drought, and an unforgiving land. The state's farmers, oilmen, and miners lived with the knowledge that forces beyond their control could turn boom to bust. The Great Depression and Dust Bowl of the 1930s made "Okie" synonymous with poverty and failure. Tornadoes regularly cut swathes of destruction through the state. The bankruptcies of the 1980s still haunt those affected. Most Sooners who survived those tragedies picked up the pieces and began again as, did the victims who lived through the bombing of the Murrah building. Some, like those who endured the Great Depression, will bear the scars for the rest of their lives. The pioneers who dreamed of establishing a new Eden might have been disappointed by the repeated trials that beset the state, but they could be proud of the way their children and grandchildren confronted them throughout the twentieth century.

SEE ALSO: OKLAHOMA ECONOMY, FARMING, GREAT DEPRESSION, GREAT SOCIETY, NEW DEAL, OKIE MIGRATIONS, PETROLEUM, VIETNAM WAR PROTESTS, WORLD WAR I, WORLD WAR II.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Keith L. Bryant, Jr., "Oklahoma and the New Deal," in The New Deal, vol. 2, The State and Local Levels, ed. John Braeman, Robert H. Bremner, and David Brody (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1975). Angie Debo, The WPA Guide to 1930s Oklahoma ([1941]; reprint, Lawrence: Kansas State University Press, 1986). LeRoy H. Fischer, ed., Oklahoma's Governors, 1890-1907: Territorial Years (Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Historical Society, 1975). LeRoy H. Fischer, ed., Oklahoma's Governors, 1907-1929: Turbulent Politics (Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Historical Society, 1981). LeRoy H. Fischer, ed., Oklahoma's Governors, 1929-1955: Depression to Prosperity (Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Historical Society, 1983). LeRoy H. Fischer, ed., Oklahoma's Governors, 1955-1979: Growth and Reform (Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Historical Society,1985). Jimmie Lewis Franklin, Journey Toward Hope: A History of Blacks in Oklahoma (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1982). Kenneth J. Hendrickson, Hard Times in Oklahoma: The Depression Years (Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Historical Society, 1983). Davis D. Joyce, "An Oklahoma I Had Never Seen Before": Alternative Views of Oklahoma History (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994). Anne Hodges Morgan and H. Wayne Morgan, eds., Oklahoma: New Views of the Forty-sixth State (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1982). James R. Scales and Danney Goble, Oklahoma Politics: A History (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1982). Howard F. Stein and Robert F. Hill, eds., The Culture of Oklahoma (Norman and London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993). John Thompson, Closing the Frontier: Radical Response in Oklahoma, 1889-1923 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1986).

Brad Agnew

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