The Green Corn Revolution

Secretary of War Newton Baker draws the first number of the lottery created by the 1917 Selective Draft Act.

No, the post is not about a new Monsanto GMO variety of corn.

It is about a “revolution” in Oklahoma, of all places.

The Green Corn “revolution” uprising took place in rural Oklahoma on August 2 – 3, 1917.  It was a reaction by radicalized European-Americans, African-Americans, tenant farmers, Seminoles, and Muscogee Creek native Americans resisting the enforcement of the Selective Service Act of 1917.

Although it was a young state, admitted into the union only in November 1907, there was already a strong radical tradition in Oklahoma, in which the impoverished tenant farmers of the southeastern part of the state seized upon the fervor of the early Socialist Party in an attempt to improve their lives.

In the 1916 election, despite Woodrow Wilson’s siphoning off a portion of the anti-war vote for the Democratic ticket, the Socialist Party garnered more than a quarter of the votes cast in the 1916 election in Seminole County and 22% in neighboring Pontotoc County.

Nor was the Socialist Party the only active organizers in the area — in 1916 a radical tenant farmers’ organization called the “Working Class Union (WCU)” claimed a membership of as many as 20,000 in Eastern Oklahoma alone.  The group’s  ideology included self-defense, and opposition to conscription in additional to traditional socialism and arose as a complement to the radical syndicalism of the Industrial Workers of the World — an organization which barred membership by tenant farmers.

Tenant farmers were predominantly young – the age group most impacted by conscription. Some 76% of Oklahoma farmers under age 24 rented their land, while 45% of those between the ages of 25 and 33 found themselves tenants.  Most tenant farmers were white and African-American.

Many of these young “dirt farmers” found their economic prospects hopeless, squeezed between a usurious credit system practiced by banks and stores in town and substantial crop liens inflicted by landlords.  The depleted condition of Oklahoma’s land forced the input of twice as much labor as the sharecroppers of Mississippi and Louisiana to generate comparable yields.

Here again,the Socialists were able to relate to tenant farmers on their own terms  what they already knew in their guts, that the whole system is stacked against them and the only chance they had was to band together.

The Oklahoma Socialist Party proclaimed they would expand public lands for tenant use and initiate a cooperative marketing system. At a Sallisaw convention, many also joined the Working Class Union under the leadership of Rube Munson and Homer Spence.

Disaffection was rife and proposals for radical solutions found ready ears.   The draft would have depleted much needed farm labor, and many farms would have been foreclosed leaving women and children destitute. There was no oil boom yet and little alternative work, and no welfare system. Within 20 years would come the great Dust Bowl and Depression which would drive the Okies to the road and California.  Today fully one-eighth of California’s population is of Okie heritage.

When the 1916 presidential election took place, Socialist Party presidential candidate Allan Benson won 15 percent of the entire state ofOklahoma’s vote while winning only three percent nationally.

When President (He kept us out of war!) Wilson signed into law the Selective Draft Act of 1917 in order to gather troops to fight Germany in World War I, thousands of farmers refused to register, seeing the conflict as a rich man’s war.

Oklahoma officials estimated the number of draft-age males in the state to be 215,000. Of that number, only 111,986 young men actually registered, and more than 80,000 of these claimed to be exempt from the draft. Thus, only 15 percent of the state’s draft-age men indicated their willingness to fight in the European war.

Deputy Sheriffs were hired to go out and bring in young men who had not registered and when they weren’t found, other family members were arrested – as well as any socialist or members of the WDU as “friends of draft resisters.”

The WDU had been formed before the draft for specific economic reasons – more than 100 banks in Oklahoma had been forced to return usurious interest rates to tenant farmers thanks to law suits engineered by the WDU.  Landowners had been forced to lower rents to tenant farmers.  The resistance to the draft was the pre-test for the crackdown against the WDU.

An elderly farmer named John Spears raised the red banner of socialism over a bluff on the Little River outside Sasakaw, Oklahoma on July 27 and called for volunteers to march on Washington.

Seminole County Sheriff Frank Grall and a deputy rode out to investigate. On Aug. 2, they were ambushed in a hail of bullets by five Socialists, barely escaping with their lives.

A meeting was held that night on a sandbar in the South Canadian River to convince farmers that it was time to act. Under the cover of darkness, phone lines were cut, and the railroad bridges as well as an oil pipeline were destroyed. They met in the morning at the Spear farm where a wagonload of corn and roasted beef waited for them. One of the rebels likened it to a picnic. Nearly a hundred men assembled on the farm.

An informant told Pontotoc County Sheriff Bob Duncan where the rebels were. Duncan led a posse of 25 men on a charge of the Spear farm and captured 10 of the rebels.

During those critical six days following the raid, the Ada Weekly News reported on a series of shootouts and raids in southeast Oklahoma.

Shootouts took place during the following night at Stonewall and Francis. Sixty men were rushed by train to Konawa to prevent rebels from seizing the town. In a shootout nearby, W.T. Cargill, secretary for the rebels, was killed, shot in the back by a posse.

The Ada newspaper recorded that at a rural school south of Spaulding, rebels and a posse clashed Aug. 5, leaving a rebel farmer dead.

A separate shootout took place at a roadblock south of Holdenville, killing a rebel who refused to stop his vehicle. He was riddled with bullets, according to the Ada Weekly News.

Eventually, 450 farmers were arrested and 150 convicted. The leaders were tried for conspiracy and sentenced to ten years in prison. They were pardoned by President Warren G. Harding in 1921.

Town business owners, who had been subject to perennial attacks as “robbers, thieves, and grafters” by radical public speakers, were thoroughly convinced that the Socialists and the secret WCU were part of a single radical conspiracy to launch a long-desired revolution in their own locale.

The rebellion allowed both the state and federal governments to clamp down on the Socialists in Oklahoma. By the end of World War I, the Oklahoma Socialist Party was gone, while nationally the Socialist Party was discredited. It was never again to poll double-digit numbers in presidential elections.

The so-called “rebellion” was used as a cudgel against the Socialist Party of Oklahoma, with the party being blamed for the incident despite its largely spontaneous and external origins  This was one in a series of events that undermined the American socialist movement and fueled the Red Scare.

The Green Corn Rebellion and its aftermath helped spark a backlash against opponents of the war.   During 1917 and 1918 those who disagreed with American war policy were perceived as “radical” and “un-American,” and the period was marked by unprecedented hysteria and the suppression of dissent. In this sense, developments in Oklahoma mirrored those in other states where federal officials used the recently enacted Espionage and Sedition Acts to prosecute approximately eighteen hundred antiwar dissenters. In addition, the federal government created a network of semiofficial watchdog organizations called the Councils of Defense to ensure the” support” of the citizenry for the war.

Given the kind of superpatriotism engendered by the Councils of Defense, especially the tendency to equate dissent with disloyalty, it is hardly surprising that at times the actions taken by these “patriots” took a decidedly extralegal form. Those identified as disloyal were often subjected to rituals of public humiliation and violent intimidation.

The Industrial Workers of the World shared the brunt of popular indignation, despite the fact that the organization took no part in the Green Corn Rebellion and was related to the WCU only by virtue of the latter group having formed in response to the IWW’s refusal to organize tenant farmers.

The IWW was still blamed for every action of the WCU, however, and the bogey Green Corn Rebellion was ultimately used as a justification for further measures against the IWW nationally.

An elderly Muscogee Creek woman relayed to Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz ( a historian, raised in Central Oklahoma and daughter of a share-cropper) that her uncle had been imprisoned after the rebellion.

She is quoted, “The full moon of late July, early August it was, the Moon of the Green Corn. It was not easy to persuade our poor white and black brothers and sisters to rise up.

We told them that rising up, standing up, whatever the consequences, would inspire future generations. Our courage, our bravery would be remembered and copied. That has been the Indian way for centuries, since the invasions. Fight and tell the story so that those who come after or their descendants will rise up once again.

It may take a thousand years, but that is how we continue and eventually prevail.”



About toritto

I was born during year four of the reign of Emperor Tiberius Claudius on the outskirts of the empire in Brooklyn. I married my high school sweetheart, the girl I took to the prom and we were together for forty years until her passing in 2004. We had four kids together and buried two together. I had a successful career in Corporate America (never got rich but made a living) and traveled the world. I am currently retired in the Tampa Bay metro area and live alone. One of my daughters is close by and one within a morning’s drive. They call their pops everyday. I try to write poetry (not very well), and about family. Occasionally I will try a historical piece relating to politics. :-)
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4 Responses to The Green Corn Revolution

  1. beetleypete says:

    I knew nothing at all about these events, Frank, so this was doubly fascinating.
    I enjoyed reading the newspaper too. (At least the larger print sections. 🙂 )
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. jfwknifton says:

    Sounds like the USA had a lot more in common with Soviet Russia than you might have thought. A “rich man’s war”….that’s just about it.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Elizabeth Gurley Flynn – for Int’l Women’s Day | toritto

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