Green Corn Rebellion remembered

by Steve Fair

mnia vincit. It is Latin for labor conquers all. The phase was on the seal of Oklahoma territory before statehood. Labor omnia Vincit is widely used in organized labor, which is odd given Oklahoma doesn’t have a strong labor union influence. Oklahoma’s roots were more along the line of socialism, which brings up the Green Corn Rebellion.

In August of 1917, exactly two weeks after the draft lottery in Washington, D.C., between 800 to 1,000 young Oklahoma farmers gathered on the banks of the South Canadian River in Seminole County on a ranch owned by John Spears. They were upset about being forced to fight in WWI because they believed it was a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight. They believed they were being used by a government that wasn’t taking care of them and they were needed on their small farms to help their families survive. The rebels, self-described as ‘old American stock’ armed themselves and planned to march east to Washington, D.C., eating roasted ‘green corn’ and barbecued beef on their trip for sustenance. Their plan included joining up with countless thousands of likeminded comrades and then march to Washington and overthrow ‘Big Slick’ Wilson (President Woodrow Wilson), repeal the Draft Act of 1917, and end the war. They had hoisted the red flag of socialist revolution. Most of the men were members of the Working-Class Union (WCU), a socialist organization that vowed to destroy capitalism and avoid the military draft.

The rebel’s plan was betrayed to local authorities by an informer and a posse was formed. Shots were fired by both sides. A total of three people were killed in the Green Corn Rebellion. One was a black tenant farmer. 450 were arrested, but only 184 were charged. 150 were convicted and most served short sentences, but those identified as leaders served 5 years in federal prison. The rebellion was over in hours.  

Three observations:

First, WWI was a rich man’s war fought by poor men. Most wars are. WWI was started in 1914, after the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria and led to most of Europe picking a side. President Woodrow Wilson pledged neutrality in the European war, but that changed in 1915 when Germany sunk an ocean liner with Americans abroad. The war was not popular in the American south, especially among those engaged in agriculture. Those involved in the rebellion were willing to give up everything, including their life to feed their families, but they weren’t interested in fighting a war halfway around the globe for a government that had neglected them.

Second, the rebels had zeal, but not according to knowledge.  Socialism is an inferior economic system to Capitalism. They didn’t know that because they were reacting to their circumstances.  Their point of reference was poverty, despair, and hopelessness. Cotton prices had hit bottom and they were starving.  They had to do something, but it is never a good strategy to react to situations without a plan.  The result of their rebellion was failure, but you can’t fault their zeal. 

Third, the Green Corn Rebellion should be an example to modern day Oklahomans.  Those involved in the rebellion were not afraid to get involved. They were willing to march across the country for their cause. Many of them served time for their involvement. Desperate people are not to be underestimated.  You never know how far they will go to get what they want. Just look at the Taliban.

Oklahoma has changed in the last century. Far from being socialist, the Sooner state is the reddest in the U.S. Few Oklahomans would march under a Socialist flag today, but few of today’s Okies have the fortitude(intestinal and physical) to march across the country for a cause.  America could use another Green Corn rebellion. 

Steve Fair is Chairman of the 4th district of the Oklahoma Republican Party.  He can be reached by email at steve.fair@ymail.com.  His blog is stevefair.blogspot.com.



Comanche Times
United for Oklahoma - September