U.S. Representative and governor of Oklahoma William H. "Alfalfa Bill" Murray was born in Toadsuck, Texas, near Collinsville, on November 21, 1869. He was the son of Uriah Dow Thomas Murray, a farmer, and Bertha Elizabeth Jones. He grew up in north central Texas before running away from home at the age of twelve. For seven years he worked as an agricultural laborer attending public schools sporadically. After attending College Hill Institute, a secondary school at Springtown, he became a public school teacher in Parker County.
An activist in the Farmers' Alliance and the Democratic Party, Murray often demonstrated his talent as an orator. He spoke widely in opposition to the Peoples or Populist Party while a member of the faction of the Democratic Party led by James Stephen Hogg. Murray campaigned actively for Hogg when the latter sought the governorship.
Establishing himself as a leader in the alliance and the Democratic Party, Murray moved to the larger community of Corsicana where he founded a newspaper, the Corsicana Daily News; he served as both editor and publisher. Twice a candidate for the state senate, he lost both contests. The newspaper failed financially, and Murray moved to Fort Worth where, after reading widely in legal texts, he became an attorney. Admitted to the bar on April 10, 1897, Murray's practice did not flourish, and in March of 1898 he departed for Indian Territory.
Murray settled in Tishomingo, the capital of the Chickasaw Nation, immediately establishing relations with tribal leaders. His legal practice proved lucrative, especially after he married Mary Alice Hearrell, niece of the Chickasaw governor on July 19, 1899. His ties to tribal leaders made him a prominent figure in the Nation, and he became deeply involved in Chickasaw politics.
A major effort was made to obtain statehood for Indian Territory in 1905, and Murray helped to write the constitution for the proposed state of Sequoyah. While the movement failed, his role at the constitutional convention in Muskogee and his frequent speaking engagements gave him prominence in the Territory. Murray spoke extensively in support of the Democratic Party and for diversification of agriculture. His orations in favor of the cultivation of alfalfa led to his sobriquet, "Alfalfa Bill."
After the movement for separate statehood for Indian Territory failed, a joint statehood convention with Oklahoma Territory was held in Guthrie, Oklahoma Territory, in 1906, and Murray and his allies dominated the meeting. Supported by delegates from Indian Territory and by alliance members he won election as president of the convention. Murray wrote major sections of the constitution using his authority as presiding officer to force inclusion of his ideas. Voters in the "Twin Territories" approved the proposal, and on November 16, 1907, Oklahoma was admitted to the union. Though conservatives such as William Howard Taft denounced Murray's handiwork, the Oklahoma Constitution included numerous examples of reforms being advocated nationally by Progressives in both major parties.
Murray won a seat in the Oklahoma House of Representatives in the First Legislature, and his colleagues elected him speaker of the house. He battled for legislation to curb business excesses and to enhance agriculture during the next two years. Murray constantly defended "the boys at the fork of the creek," his rural supporters. Defeated for the Democratic nomination for governor in 1910, he sought election to the U.S. House of Representatives two years later and won an at-large seat. Following congressional reapportionment, he ran in the new Fourth District in 1914, winning another term.
During his four years in Washington Murray made few significant legislative contributions, but he championed Pres. Woodrow Wilson's preparedness program. Isolationist sentiment in his district swept Murray out of Congress in 1916, and he again failed to win the gubernatorial nomination two years later. Strong support in rural southern and western Oklahoma could not overcome the opposition he roused in the towns and cities.
Discouraged by successive defeats, Murray left the United States in the 1920s as he sought to establish an agricultural colony in southern Bolivia. Murray's sons and their spouses, with a few neighbors from Tishomingo, settled in Bolivia where they suffered numerous hardships when support from the Bolivian government failed to materialize. Harsh living conditions demoralized the settlers, and when the colony collapsed, Murray returned to Oklahoma where he found political and economic chaos.
While some Oklahomans had enjoyed unprecedented prosperity in the 1920s, the state government was torn by the emergence of the Ku Klux Klan, the impeachment of two governors, and the ascendancy of the Republican Party. The collapse of agricultural prices and a catastrophic decline in the petroleum revenues fomented an economic crisis. Murray discovered that his reformist ideas and agrarianism now resonated with voters who faced financial ruin. In 1930 Murray ran for the governorship on a reform platform, and his fiery oratory swamped a wealthy oilman who opposed him in the Democratic primary. Despite the strenuous efforts of the metropolitan press to portray him as a radical, the flamboyant Murray won an overwhelming victory in the general election.
Governor Murray proved to be irascible, controversial, and extraordinarily colorful. He attacked the administrators of the state's colleges and universities; he planted food crops on the lawn of the governor's mansion to feed the hungry; and when a controversy broke out between the state and the owners of toll bridges across the Red River when free bridges were constructed, Murray dispatched the Oklahoma National Guard to open the toll-free bridges. The National Guard was frequently on duty throughout the Murray administration as it was sent into the oil fields to halt the production of illegal or "hot" oil. Murray advocated proration or limits on output to raise prices, and he appealed to the governors of other oil-producing states to reduce the output of petroleum.
Confusing notoriety with popularity, in 1932 Murray sought the Democratic nomination for president. In rumpled, ash-covered, food-stained clothes Murray campaigned across the country advocating his platform, "Bread, Butter, Bacon and Beans." He won only one delegate outside of Oklahoma, and his opposition to Franklin Roosevelt earned him the disdain if not hatred of many New Dealers.
After March, 1933, Murray fought with federal agencies over relief funds and their administration. An unrelenting critic of Roosevelt and the New Deal, Murray caused Oklahoma to lose federal money, and he limited the role of relief programs and agencies. His often eccentric behavior continued to generate magazine and newspaper articles, but his support faded when he refused to cooperate with Washington.
When his gubernatorial term ended, "Alfalfa Bill" retired to his farm near Tishomingo and began to publish books and pamphlets attacking the New Deal and Franklin Roosevelt. Murray's racism and anti-Semitism became ever more virulent as he defended segregation and condemned urbanization and industrialization. Defeat in the gubernatorial primary of 1938 proved his last political hurrah. Murray spoke out against Roosevelt in 1940, but the shaky, disheveled old man had few followers. Only in 1950, when his son Johnston Murray was elected governor, would the elder Murray return to the governor's mansion. Throughout his life he had championed agriculture and the family farm, often stating his firm belief that "civilization begins and ends with the plow." Murray died in Oklahoma City on October 15, 1956, after a paralytic stroke followed by pneumonia.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Keith L. Bryant, Jr., Alfalfa Bill Murray (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1968). Keith L. Bryant, Jr., "Oklahoma and the New Deal," The New Deal: The State and Local Levels, ed. John Braeman, Robert H. Bremner, and David Brody (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1975). Danney Goble, Progressive Oklahoma: The Making of a New Kind of State (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1980). James R. Scales and Danney Goble, Oklahoma Politics: A History (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1982).
Keith L. Bryant, Jr.
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