Oklahoma Governors 1931-1935: William Henry David “Alfalfa Bill” Murray (1869-1956)
Toadsuck, Texas native William Henry “Alfalfa Bill” Murray provides lasting evidence that a roughhewn frontier country known as Oklahoma once existed. Murray rose to lead the people of Indian Territory even before it helped form a state. His long and stormy career got him christened as “crazier than a bedbug” by political foe Franklin D. Roosevelt and compared unfavorably to bedbugs by one Oklahoma historian. It also established him as a political titan whose character, perhaps more than any other prominent individual, the Sooner State reflected—for good and not so good.
Murray’s mother died when he was an infant. He ran away from home at age 12 and grew to manhood in North Texas. Seeking greener vocational fields, like many others of his generation Murray set out in 1898 for Oklahoma. He moved to Tishomingo, capital of the Chickasaw nation.
He built good relations with tribal leaders, established himself as a prominent attorney, impressed the tribe’s Governor, Douglas Johnstone, married his beautiful niece Mary Alice Hearrell, and rose to a position of elite influence among the tribe. He also gained the lifelong sobriquet of “Alfalfa Bill” for his pioneering planting of alfalfa—a high quality grass and stock forage—in the Chickasaw environs, and his animated promotion of it.
The five great Indian republics determined to press toward statehood for themselves. The Chickasaws selected Murray—by now an unrivaled legal, oratorical, and political force in the Indian Territory—to represent them at the convention to author a constitution for the proposed state of Sequoyah (OKLAHOMANS 1, Chapter 11). It comprised roughly the eastern half of present Oklahoma.
U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt (OKLAHOMANS 1, Chapter 12), a northeastern Republican, forced Sequoyah proponents to merge their statehood efforts with those of the more politically-mixed Oklahoma Territory to the west, thus preventing the possibility of two new Democratic states coming into the Union.
Oklahoma Founding Father
The Sequoyah experience, however, rendered its participants more politically schooled and unified than their neighbors to the west. This catapulted Murray into the leading role of the 1906 Oklahoma Constitutional Convention, and to election the following year as Speaker of the House of Representatives in the new state. He wrote large portions of the Constitution. His politics defied simple description. He opposed Kate Barnard’s efforts to improve state manual labor conditions, yet battled for the rights of the low income, politically powerless “boys at the fork of the river,” on farms and elsewhere. He forged a Constitution that protected small local business owners against the power of out of state corporations and monopolies.
He loved the Sooner State and its people, led their ascent into the Union as a preeminent Founding Father of Oklahoma, and served or sought to serve them for close to half a century. Yet, he did not apply the nation’s Constitution to the state’s sizable African-American population. He turned back the clock on them with one of America’s most draconian Jim Crow programs, even as they surged to unparalleled success and power.
Murray served one term as Oklahoma House Speaker, lost a gubernatorial bid, then won election to the U.S. House in 1912 and 1914 before suffering defeat in 1916. After losing another gubernatorial race in 1918, he led a colonization effort of family and friends in Bolivia that struggled through most of the 1920s before failing. He returned to Oklahoma on the heels of more than a decade of personal setbacks and disappointments. But he found a state mired in its own, unprecedented struggles. His ringing declarations of the rights and dignity of the common folk and the sinister, intrusive power of big business and national (Northeastern) government struck a visceral chord with the sweep of rural and lower and lower middle class Oklahomans.
At a 1929 Okmulgee reunion of those who wrote the state Constitution, he found a vanguard of influential men ready for another agrarian uprising. He combined all this, along with $40 in borrowed money and a rekindled fire in his belly, to mount yet a third run for the Governor’s house. This one succeeded.
Facing the bankruptcy of his state, with its citizens sunk in the Great Depression and Dust Bowl and barely able to meet their own debts, Murray rolled out a determined, multi-faceted strategy to save Oklahoma. Historian Arrell Gibson declared that his “concern for state solvency and his careful management of limited state fiscal resources resulted in restoration of full faith in state credit by the end of his administration.” This stands as one of his greatest deeds, especially considering the unparalleled economic situation he faced.
Murray spearheaded formation of the National Council for Relief, which provided food and other provisions for the needy across the nation. He also launched the effort to return control to the states of their petroleum supplies from the national government, which led to the 1935 Interstate Oil Compact Commission. And he employed his constitutional acumen, political savvy, fiery personality, and iron will to end the legislature’s intimidation of the state’s executive branch.
Murray’s distrust of the Washington-sourced New Deal fueled his run for the Presidency the next year against Franklin Roosevelt. He received little support, though, and his defeat and mockery at the hands of Roosevelt sired a bitter hatred in “Cockleburr Bill” for the new President. Murray achieved a measure of revenge by helping thwart FDR’s and E. W. Marland’s New Deals program in Oklahoma.
Murray continued to disseminate his many opinions, some bigoted and vengeful, others wise and faithful to traditionally professed American ideals. The latter included his opposition to overweening central government power and the nation’s many foreign military adventures. Some evinced anti-Jewish sentiment, common among the people of many nations at the time, such as the involuntary removal of European Jews to the African island of Madagascar—a plan earlier envisioned by Adolph Hitler and the Nazis.
So long was his shadow, his own son Johnston won election in 1950 to the same governor’s mansion where his father once resided. “Alfalfa Bill” moved back into it to live with him. He retained his own simple philosophy of life: “Civilization begins and ends with the plow.”
It is impossible to separate the history of Oklahoma and Bill Murray. Murray served as midwife at the birth of Oklahoma in the capacity of president of the State Constitutional Convention; he was speaker of the first House of Representatives and served four years as United States congressman.
The above article is a bonus to the fascinating historical content found within our book
Oklahomans Vol 2 :
Statehood - 2020s
which can be purchased HERE.
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