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This Day in Labor History: August 2, 1917

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On August 2, 1917, the Green Corn Rebellion breaks out in Oklahoma against American participation in World War I. This spasm of radicalism from Oklahoma farmers may seem unexpected given the politics of the place today, but in fact it built out of a long-standing radical tradition there based in the poverty of the white sharecropper class.

By the 1910s, the conditions for sharecroppers were even worse than they were before. Rural organizing had been a common thing in the southern Plains going back to the late 1870s, when the precursors to the Farmers Alliance developed. For decades then, poor white farmers had tried to figure out how to reorient American politics to help them. They after all believed that they were the backbone of America. But land ownership was denied to them. They tried to figure out if they had anything in common with Black sharecroppers and sometimes did move in that direction but usually did not. They saw an increasingly capitalist America that centralized land in fewer hands as anathema. And so they engaged in a series of actions and movements to rectify that. By the 1910s, that often meant the Socialist Party.

There was a lot of interesting political currents in rural America at this time. The Industrial Workers of the World appealed to a lot of farmers. But unlike how the IWW often acted, it refused to organize these sharecroppers because they aspired to land ownership and thus were not industrial wage workers. Usually, the IWW would adjust its ideology to organize at the local level but not in this case. So the Socialists had an advantage here. The Working Class Union was a New Orleans-based subset of the Socialists, but it had actually come out of Van Buren, Arkansas, where farmers labored in conditions quite similar to those of Oklahoma. The WCU at least claimed 35,000 members in Oklahoma, but organizations like this often overstated their membership for political reasons, so really, who knows. What’s interesting here is that the Socialists proved a lot more flexible than they usually did. Simply put, the biggest mistake Marxism ever made was to be anti-religion. Talk about alienating the working class. But in this case, the Socialists claimed Jesus Christ was a socialist. This would appeal to Oklahoma farmers who thought atheism the worst possible sin. So the socialists overcame this contradiction for once. Too bad they didn’t learn from this in the future.

In 1915, farm owners began to demand that cows be dipped in a chemical vat to kill the ticks that caused Texas Fever. They forced this on their tenants. The tenants opposed it because it could often sicken or even kill the cattle. Increasingly angry and now organized, some WCU members began to blow up the cattle dipping stations and even engaging in property destruction targeted at the various county-level officials involved in this program.

In 1916, cotton prices skyrocketed due to the war and wages went up. The WCU went into decline. But by 1917, it came roaring back as a way that farmers could resist World War I. Many of these socialist farmers were reasonably well-read (at least the ones that were literate) and they read a lot that this was a war of rich people forcing poor people to die for them. They opposed American entry into World War I. This was not so uncommon actually–there is a lot of focus on American opposition to World War I, but we usually focus it either on radicals such as Emma Goldman and the IWW or the ethnic groups of the Central Powers. However, that only tells part of the story. There was widespread opposition in the rural South, not only Oklahoma but almost everywhere, by poor farmers who believed they had nothing to gain by going to war, correctly objected that the government had not explained why the nation was at war, and worried about taking care of their already impoverished families. What made this different in Oklahoma was the WCU, which gave organizing shape to the opposition.

There was even some interracial organizing within the WCU. On August 2, 1917, farmers and other poor rural people–white, Black, Native–met at the farm of John Spears, a socialist near the town of Sasakwa. They decided to just end the war. They figured they would arm themselves, march to Washington, and survive by eating barbecued beef and green corn along the way. This is what gave the Green Corn Rebellion its name. Now, this rebellion wasn’t necessarily that well thought through and it will not surprise you that it didn’t get that far. The next day, they started raising hell in rural Oklahoma, cutting phone lines and burning bridges. It took about one more day after that for Oklahoma authorities to raise posses to bring down this incipient rebellion that threatened their control over the state’s poor more than it did the American war effort.

There were a few shootouts and three men died. The authorities were not happy. The government had no interest in coddling protestors of any kind during the war. They sent around 100 Green Corn Rebellion members to prison and some received sentences reaching ten years. That included Spears.

In the aftermath, the Socialist Party in Oklahoma disbanded, though it really had nothing to do with the rebellion outside of having already provided workers the belief that they could organize for change. And this is why the Green Corn Rebellion is so important. It didn’t really do anything. But what it does do is provide evidence to a very important point–that organizing around economic lines can provide a conduit for workers to think of their own issues that don’t necessarily have to do with class and then know how to act to move forward their agenda. In the present, we know that unions are the most effective way to get white workers to move away from racial bias and toward voting for socially liberal policies and support other movements. The lack of unionization today among the white working class has contributed materially to the rise of extremism among these groups; in fact, some of the most extreme areas of the nation used to have serious left-liberal credentials. Northern Idaho is an excellent example of this, which was a New Deal stronghold into the 1980s. But even in rural Oklahoma you can see the impact of this. Get workers organized and who knows what they might do.

Here’s an interesting memory of the Green Corn Rebellion from the descendants of some of the people.

This is the 448th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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