Monday, 1 February 2010

Oklahoma - Socialism, Guthrie and the Green Corn Rebellion

I've never professed to have a deep understanding of the American political system and the state politics versus federal politics of Oklahoma is something that confuses me no end. The only state to have voted for the Republican candidate in every county during the last US presedential election, I can't then understand how the majority of posts in Oklahoma's executive are held by local Democrats. Although, Oklahoma votes Republican for its participation in the national agenda, it would seem that they prefer Democrats in their local politics.

I guess a comparison might be how people vote for the European elections here in the UK, which can differ greatly from how people vote in national elections or in local politics. This idea of 'vote- splitting' would be unusual in the UK however, generally you pick one generally you pick one party and remain loyal to them at regional, national and European level.

Deemed to be one of the most conservative states in the US, it's good to remember that this wasn't always the case with Oklahoma. That there was a strong tradition of working-class solidarity in the state, resulting in the Oklahoma Socialist party regularly winning 10% of all votes in the pre-World War 1 elections. The First World War really changed the political landscape in the US, especially for the left, as opposition to the 'capitalist war machine' led to a polarisation of politics and the germination of ideas like 'un-American' behaviour.

Working-class opposition to the draft during World War One led to a brief moment of unified resistance, when the Native American tribes united with the blacks of Tulsa and Oklahoma City and the farmers of rural Oklahoma, to challenge the status quo and raise their voices in opposition to the bloody-minded slaughter of the working classes of Europe. This became known as the Green Corn Rebellion after the traditional Creek ceremony which inspired this revolt.

Events like the Green Corn Rebellion and the Tulsa Race riots in 1921, led to a red scare and played their part in a lengthy swing to the right in American politics. Oklahoma's current flag was designed as part of a competition in the 1920's. It contains important symbols of the state, such as the Native American 'calumet' or peace pipe and an olive branch from the American settlers. The word Oklahoma was added later to improve literacy in the state. The original flag of Oklahoma was considered to be too communist-looking - after the Russian revolution, red flags with stars on them could only mean one thing.

One of Oklahoma's most famous sons, Woody Guthrie, was closely associated with the Communist Party and, if not a member, was considered to be a 'fellow traveller'. He is famous for putting a sticker on his guitar that read This Machine Kills Fascists. Guthrie sang about the working classes and the experiences of the many 'Okies' who were forced to migrate to California in the 1930's, during the depression and dust bowl era. Guthrie was a real working class hero and went on to inspire a whole new generation of folk and protest singers of the sixties, like Bob Dylan.

I think, reading about both Guthrie and the Green Corn Rebellion makes me think that the good guys have always lost out in American history. The left and communism is always pointed to as a danger to American liberty and democracy, but I can't help wondering how different the world might be, had there been even more Green Corn rebellions and even more working-class heroes like Woody Guthrie.

Guthrie's most famous song, now sung in classrooms right across the US is This Land is your Land. It's anti- capitalist and anti-property and somehow in keeping with Native American concepts of the land they'd inherited from their ancestors.

The song I want to leave you with is called Pastures of Plenty and is about the aspirations for a world where no one has to starve or suffer.  It tells of the difficult journey many Okies had to make through the hot deserts and cold mountains to work as wage slaves in the vineyards and orchards of California. 

Image Credits

The former flag of Oklahoma is from Wikimedia Commons and as copyright free.  The image of Woody Guthrie has been released into the public domain and there are no known restrictions on the the use of this image. 
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