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GET UP, STAND UP: Recalling the "Green Corn Rebellion" of 1917

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OKLAHOMA CITY – It was on this day, 100 years ago – Aug. 2, 1917 – that nearly 1,000 determined folks of differing ethnic backgrounds (white, black, Native American) gathered at the farm of Joe and John Spears in Sasakwa, Okla., in Seminole County, to begin a march to Washington, D.C. to protest conscription for military service – a draft – following the recent decision by President Woodrow Wilson, to declare war on Germany, in what would later be called World War I.

As Red Dirt Report's Olivier Rey wrote in early 2016, World War I was the "rise of Uncle Sam" by making the grandfatherly figure of Uncle Sam and the mass war machine "a personal face," making one feel like Uncle Sam was part of your "family." Protesting one's family or pointing out flaws doesn't always work out so well, particularly on the state or national stage, as agrarian protesters soon learned.

If you are unfamiliar with what became known as the "Green Corn Rebellion," don't feel bad for not knowing about it. There were strong efforts to suppress this information from the wider public for decades. Even today, many Oklahomans (even some from Seminole County I know personally) know little to nothing about their state's politically radical early history. The way things are today, you'd get the impression Oklahoma was always right-wing Republican.

But that was not always the case. A streak of radicalism - think Oklahoman and American treasure and folk singer Woody Guthrie, for instance - has always run through Oklahoma's political veins. And a good place to start is by reading Jim Bissett's Agrarian Socialism in America, with a specific focus on Oklahoma after the turn of the 20th century.

This information has been gathered at the terrific Oklahoma Green Corn Rebellion Centennial website, put up by James M. Branum and others, who want Oklahomans - and everyone - to remember what happened here 100 years ago, in the face of official oppression as America entered that awful war in Europe.

The site notes: “The truth of the details of what happened after this point is shrouded in mystery and conflicting eye-witness statements, but what can be said with some degree of accuracy is that local and state authorities, as well as hundreds of members of armed possees, some coming from as far away as Oklahoma City, converged and crushed the rebellion. Three people were killed, and 450 were arrested. Of those arrested, 266 were released with charges being filed.

Of the remaining 184 participants who were charged, 150 were either convicted or pleaded guilty, receiving jail and prison terms ranging from 60 days to 10 years. But most served far less than the original sentences with the final five held at the Federal prison in Leavenworth, Kansas in Feburary 1922.

The aftermath of the rebellion was a radical change in Oklahoma politics, which included a severe crackdown on the Socialist Party of Oklahoma (which had not been involved in the Green Corn Rebellion) and the Industrial Workers of the World. There was also a crackdown on all forms of dissent against the draft and World War I, and a large scale orientation of Oklahoma politics towards the right — a major change in a state which had once had the strongest and most active Socialist Party in the USA.”

As Red Dirt Report has noted, there has been an uptick in recent years, of interest in radical politics, in the form that was largely new a century ago – socialism, anarchism, and varying left-leaning ideologies – and embraced, in particular, by agrarian folks here in the new state of Oklahoma.

During coverage of a protest here in Oklahoma City in September 2016, one targeting the Red River II Pipeline, where long-time activist Robert Mendoza noted that the Green Corn Rebellion of 1917 – which featured “an alliance of white, Native and African-American activists” – inspires folks even today, even though the Green Corn Rebellion is hardly – if at all – noted in high school history courses.

“We need an alliance (of different groups) if we are going to make real changes in Oklahoma,” said Mendoza, who is part of the progressive Green Corn Alliance, named after the original rebellion.

And groups seeking real change are organizing here in Oklahoma, thanks to social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. 

At the Green Corn Rebellion Centennial website, the mention of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or "Wobblies") reminds us of how that organization is making a bit of a comeback, as this April 2015 Red Dirt Report article noted at the time.

As Oklahoma IWW organizer Mitch Runnels said at the time: "If anybody in this state is fighting for a better workplace environment or a better future for themselves or other workers in this state, and doesn’t want to go at it all alone anymore … that’s what we’re here for. Get in touch with us and we’ll do what we can."

You may not agree with progressive politics, but you may be frustrated with the status quo and a lack of real change that benefits you and your family, don't sit on the sidelines.

Get involved. Run for political office. Make your voice heard, just as they did 100 years ago, even in the face of brutal violence and oppression.

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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About Red Dirt Report

Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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