Revolution In The Air: The Historical Significance Of The Green Corn Rebellion

Originally published in republished courtesy of Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

Submitted by David in Atlanta on September 8, 2009

The year of the Green Corn Rebellion, 1917, was a tumultuous year. The war among the imperialist European states had been raging for three years when President Woodrow Wilson ordered U.S. troops to join the fray in April 1917. After nearly four decades of increasingly militant labor struggles in the United States with the Socialist Party and the Industrial Workers of the World gaining members daily, it is not far-fetched to conclude that Wilson saw entry into the war and an effort to unite U.S. citizens around a patriotic cause as a way of defusing the social revolution he was determined to crush. U.S. socialists and anarcho-syndicalists had a strong sense of connection with like efforts elsewhere. Revolution in Mexico, fundamentally agrarian in nature, was followed closely. Ricardo and Enrique Flores Magón, Mexican-American brothers in San Diego, organized on both sides of the border, and with the IWW in the United States. In the Spring of 1916, the northern Mexico revolutionary leader, Pancho Villa led his army across the U.S.-Mexico border into the small border town, ironically named, Columbus, New Mexico. Eighteen U.S. citizens were killed along with ninety members of Villa's army. Wilson sent his top general and veteran of the Indian wars and the Spanish American war, General John J. Pershing, with 10,000 troops to capture Villa, employing aerial surveillance. After a year of failure, the troops withdrew, and Pershing led U.S. forces in Europe. 1917 was also the year of triumph of the Russian Revolution.

In one small corner of the globe, a rebellion flared and was snuffed out. The low, hard hills and wooded creek bottoms of eastern Oklahoma were the scene in the summer of 1917 of an organized rebellion by some 1,500 white, Black, and Indian tenant farmers. Trouble had been brewing since the United States entered World War I in April. The feeling of electricity in the summer air. The Working Class Union's local lodges had lain dormant for six months, but, stimulated by the IWW, they began a new organizing campaign. The little red membership card was once again a common sight along the South Canadian River Valley. Lights from kerosene lamps flickered at late hours through the windows of little rural schoolhouses throughout the countryside as secret meetings laid plans and set deadlines. All spring there were vivid indications of a discontent of some more than ordinary gravity. Fears that riots would break out on registration day, June 5, did not materialize. But the deep rumbling continued while the crops were being worked. Then in August the lightning flashed and the storm broke. Within two weeks, civil authorities restored order, with 450 men arrested and held for trial, charged with resistance to the draft and seditious conspiracy. The rest were bonded as government witnesses or freed through pity or a lack of conclusive evidence. At first consideration, the rebellion was a simple political protest against the draft law. The rebels were popularly referred to as "draft-dodgers," "slackers," or "anti-draft resister." The rebels were certainly not alone in their resistance. More or less organized antagonism to the draft appeared all over the country, including in other agrarian settings. Yet, this largely political explanation of the Oklahoma rebellion seems superficial, for it never really makes clear why these particular tenant farmers were the ones to follow the agitators, to organize, and finally to break into conscious, headlong defiance of the recognized government--they did announce their intention of overthrowing the government in Washington and replacing it with the socialist commonwealth.

Undoubtedly, there were hundreds if not thousands Green Corn Rebellion kind of uprisings around the world during this revolutionary era, rebellions that flared and were rubbed out. Few have been recorded. Stories are passed down through the generations, but they don't make it into the history books.

The Green Corn Rebellion does not make it into many history books, except for studies of agrarian socialism, and then often negatively, even with ridicule. Though the rebellion's economic roots are clear, it took the form of a political anti-war movement, against conscription and against U.S. entrance into the European war, "the rich man's war." That proved disastrous for the Working Class Union and the Socialist Party in Oklahoma. But, the Socialist Party nationwide suffered a decline due to its antiwar stand, and even without the Oklahoma rebellion, Oklahoma Socialists would have declined. Because of those circumstances, the rebellion is not assigned historical significance.

Between 1906 and 1917, the Industrial Workers of the World and the Socialist Party won converts on a mass scale in small towns and the countryside of Oklahoma. There had never been anything like it in the rural United States. The Socialists adopted the religious evangelists’ technique of holding huge week-long encampments with charismatic speakers, male and female, usually near small towns. Many Protestant Christian evangelists were themselves converts to the gospel of socialism. Socialists were elected as local officials and the lampposts of many towns were hung with red flags. In 1915 alone 205 mass encampments were held. This was the seething social cauldron in the region and the country when the Green Corn Rebellion exploded in the summer of 1917.

When a core group of native white Americans, the very foot soldiers of empire, began turning socialist and anti-imperialist, even inching away from white supremacy, the government and other centers of power acted swiftly, viciously and relentlessly to crush the movement. A wave of propaganda accompanied the repression. The D.W. Griffith film extolling the KKK, The Birth of a Nation had already appeared in 1915. After the victories of the Russian and Mexican revolutions, Red Scare propaganda flooded newspapers and magazines, and formed the main text of sermons.
The Green Corn Rebellion was not just one more agrarian uprising in a history of agrarian uprisings among Anglo-American farmers. It was a new kind of movement, forced by booming capitalist development of the U.S. interior frontiers from Reconstruction through World War I, the kind of movement more organized in other U.S. regions (never mind Canada and Mexico), particularly in mining, timber, oil, and agro-industrial country, but nowhere else in the United States at least trying to be revolutionary, to overthrow the government for a different kind of system. It was not in the old agrarian tradition, but in the great new industrial divisions of labor and industrial class struggle, where the Industrial Workers of the World was flourishing, that we need to see the Green Corn Rebellion.

New industries flourished in Oklahoma from the time the railroads cut across the territory. Significantly, the outside organizers that influenced the Rebellion (LeFever, Crane, Munson) came from railroad towns and mining districts. If the real story is just one more agrarian uprising, Cunningham falsified it. If it was part of something new, he got it (mainly) right.
The racial question is central. However it appears, whatever it meant, it is amazing that white, black, and brown rural poor people, in that part of the United States then, in the Age of Lynching, were willing and able to come together and think of themselves together overthrowing the government of the United States, not to become individual yeoman farmers, but in some kind of at least national community. This indisputable fact is the heart of the story.

The problem--“agrarian” vs. “working-class”-- is a false dichotomy. Precisely out in the country is where much industry was developing, with rail towns, mine towns, mill towns, not yet then grown into cities, and probably 80% of the labor in the oil fields was doing unskilled construction work, clearing brush and digging ditches for pipelines. And the big wheat harvests were industrial operations. These are the sites where the Industrial Workers of the World took root and grew.
The Green Corn Rebellion represents a sharp break with previous white agrarian rebellions, actually reflecting more the militancy of Black and Indian resistance (after all this was Indian Country where it happened) over the previous three centuries, and also reflecting the new ideas and organizing methods of the industrial working class, a potent combination.

The new character of rural life came as a consequence of the commercial and capitalistic elements of U.S. agriculture, both of which had been inherent and obvious from the beginning. One of the grandest myths of the United States has been that the small self-sufficient, non-commercial farm provides the unique source of virtue in life. But if the myth of agrarian virtue unspoiled by the taint of commercial traffic has proved one of the most powerful, productive, and enduring in the United States, it has also become with each year more fictional. Historically, U.S. agriculture was commercial from the beginning. The early appearance of tobacco and rice enterprises in the Southern Coastal colonies and grain and cattle enterprises in the Middle Atlantic colonies suggest that what the farmers sought was a chance to make money. Self-sufficiency itself seems to have been taken more as a way to enter the marketplace rather than as a way to escape it. And for the newly independent United States, land sales and speculation formed the economic basis for the development of capitalism and requiring the forced appropriation of Indian farmers' lands. It was no accident that the profession of land surveyor was so widespread, taken up by many who became land-wealthy, including George Washington. By the middle of the 19th century, the general character of agriculture was permanently transformed. The development of industries created domestic markets and new transportation to them became available as turnpikes were opened, canals dug, and railroads laid. The Civil War remodeled what larger regions remained uncommercialized by 1860.

The capitalistic aspect of U.S. agriculture has been similarly inherent, similarly obvious, and similarly denied. Another theme of the agrarian myth, derived from Lockeian natural rights philosophy, has held that the farmer is the most virtuous of citizens because he, unlike the others, has roots in the land he works and lives on. The U.S. farmer is supposed to regard his land as something with which he mixes his own labor, his own soil, so that the land is, in a sense, part of him and he part of it. But history does not justify this view of agrarian psychology. Not only did farmers seem to consider their farms as commercial enterprises, fit for producing goods to be sold for profits, they furthermore seemed to consider them as capitalist investments to be bought and sold themselves. The speculative attitude of the U.S. farmer appeared even more clearly in the 19th century. The real attachment was less to the land than to land values. Such political measures as the Homestead Act have been infamous for the stimulation they gave to land speculation.

By the close of the nineteenth century, and the setting for the 1917 Green Corn Rebellion, U.S. agriculture had become as thoroughly capitalistic as it was commercial. A penchant for speculation, a great surplus of annexed territories, taken from Indians and Mexico, and an itch to keep on the move seem to have bred a unique boom psychology into the character of U.S. farming. Significantly, dealing in futures developed as a new technique in the grain business in those years.
Agriculture being commercial and capitalistic, it is not surprising that in time the relationships of those embraced in it took on an industrial tone. Farming was a business, and new methods of organization were necessary. In earlier days, the owner and hired man on a farm, even it were a mercantile and speculative venture, were bound by personal ties. But when the systematic and habitual uses of labor and capital began to make such homely relationships obsolete, new methods of association and bargaining appeared that were in fact industrial. So it happened that with the passing of every year the individual who actually plowed the land, sowed the seed, and reaped the crop, all for another man, came to view himself more as a wage-laborer than as a prospective owner of a "family farm." The rise in farm tenancy illustrates most clearly the new nature of U.S. agriculture. The amount of money investment required to establish a farms as a going concern was prohibitive to most entrepreneurs. It is noteworthy that in the decade in which the Green Corn Rebellion occurred, the industrialization process was extraordinarily rapid.

For the tenant farmers and their families, it was a life lived from hand to mouth and not much more. Very few tenants' homes had gardens of any kind. Their supply of meat, milk, and butter they had to buy at jack-up rates from the creditor-merchant or go without, and most often they went without. Many actually lived on the border line of starvation. Their homes, often unhappily remodeled chicken houses, had no floors; the walls were unpainted vertical siding. Few had wall boards inside; usually only heavy building paper was stuck up to keep the wind from whistling too loudly through the cracks. As renters, they might well move into another county after the crop was in, and they rarely felt any attachment to their temporary community.

One condition is fundamental and essential in accounting for the situation in southeastern Oklahoma at the time of the rebellion, namely, the fact that Oklahoma had been Indian Territory, promised by the government to remain so "as long as water shall run, as long as grass shall grow…" This was the territory carved out of the Louisiana purchase to be a dumping ground for indigenous farmers forced out of their homelands east of the Mississippi, the best known of them the "five civilized tribes," the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole, who had for thousands of years farmed--true subsistence farmers--the rich land that now makes up the southern states of the United States. During the presidency of Andrew Jackson, they were forcibly removed to Indian Territory remembered by them as "trails of tears." Despite the uprooting and hardships, the displaced peoples, representing dozens of indigenous nations, rebuilt their institutions and adopted many European technologies, such as the printing press and written language, formal orphanages and schools. As the U.S. military moved to annex western and southwestern Indians lands following the Civil War, the refugees of those wars were also forced on to reservations in Indian Territory, on top of the buffalo hunting communities already there--the Kiowa, Comanche, Wichita, Ponca, and Caddo. Then, in 1889, following legislation to divide and allot the communal indigenous holdings, dismantling reservations, Indian Territory was opened to white settlement. Even before the legislation opening the territory, white men had slowly filtered into Indian Territory, and soon after the Civil War, white men began to enter the region in swiftly increasing numbers. Some married into the tribes and became legal members and landholders. By 1880 these numbered several thousand. Others came as businessmen, merchants, or railroad employees on the Atlantic and Pacific, MKT, or Santa Fe lines that now crisscrossed the territory. Still others came as coal miners, imported under permits granted by the tribal governments. Several thousand more white men arrived illegally, many of these being outlaws who fled there and lived under protection of the tribes, including the infamous former Confederate guerrillas such as Jesse James and his brothers and Belle Starr. The Cherokee and other southeastern tribal elites had owned African slaves in their original homeland, and the slaves were taken with them when they moved to Indian Territory. Freed after the Civil War, a significant population freedmen also became renters in the industrialization of agriculture in eastern Oklahoma, as did the mass of poor Indians. As the tenant system grew more entrenched, full blood Indians soon held only a few acres of good land, and most of it had drifted into the clutches of intermarried whites.

With a history of chaos, Indian Territory developed a system of cultivating land where in fact the worker was an industrial wage-hand, and an atmosphere of violence and poverty prevailed. And cotton became the single cash crop binding tightly the lives of most of the people of that part of the state to its rise or fall. By 1910, the oil industry was firmly established in eastern Oklahoma as well. This setting provided both the basic foundation and the deepest explanation of the situation in eastern Oklahoma in the summer of 1917. After years spent in a helpless and conscious distress, the renters in eastern Oklahoma were ready to follow anyone who even hinted at a remedy or an escape.

For several years before the rebellion, the most popular and powerful vehicle for protest by the tenant farmers was the Socialist party. Oklahoma Socialism developed a hybrid religious quality. Eugene Debs, head of the Socialist Party, should give gathered tenants a speech in the Holiness Tabernacle at Durant, and they would sing Socialist songs that were themselves old type hymn tunes. The large Socialist camp meetings of those days suggests the evangelical flavor of the movement. An encampment lasted a week or ten days and attracted crowds of thousands. Many came for miles in wagons. The program, held in a grove or large tent, included music, history, and economics classes and a great deal of oratory. The Socialists also published the Appeal to Reason and the National Rip-Saw.

The Socialist Party platform contained attractive proposal for the support of the debtor-renters, advocating laws setting maximum legal interest rates and invalidating all contracts that charged more than the legal rate. They called for state-owned elevators and warehouses, and demanded tax exemptions for farm dwellings, tools, livestock, and improvement, as well as state insurance against natural disasters. However, the Socialists were unable to produce results and lost the trust of the tenants. They looked for more radical solutions in direct action they found in the Working Class Union, which was founded in 1914. The WCU advocated the abolition of rent, interest, profits, and the wage system like the Industrial Workers of the World,

Many Blacks and Indians joined the WCU, but this fact should not be taken as a sign of lack of intolerance. The poor Scots-Irish settlers who came to eastern Oklahoma came from a tradition of settling and squatting on stolen Indian lands and dreaming of becoming plantation owners, and buying enslaved Africans. To see the Working Class Union and the Green Corn Rebellion as a movement for the brotherhood of races is misleading. All the more significant the fact that these groups who did not like each other united due to their common situation, their class interests, making the Green Corn Rebellion a first in the history of the United States. It may have failed, and the descendants of the white rebels may have joined the Klan or later voted for George Wallace, but the fact of their unity cannot help but hold promise for the unity of the oppressed and exploited.