Oscar Ameringer’s sobriquet of “The Mark Twain of American Socialism” provides a clue about this unlikely couple’s colorful, passionate, and often dangerous pursuit of justice in the state for sharecroppers, factory laborers, women, African-Americans, young male conscripts for foreign wars, and anyone else they felt was oppressed by the engines of U.S. capitalism. The fact that they lived amidst the “Red Scare,” Jim Crow, and the fight for women’s suffrage only magnified the drama of these luminaries of the historic early Oklahoma Socialist movement.
Their coming together in the first place was an unlikely adventure. German-born Oscar only came to Oklahoma at age thirty-seven, while Freda, more than twenty years his junior, was still a young Arkansas teen. Among young Freda's earliest memories were the charred bodies of local coal miners, the inequities faced by her father's criminal-defense clients in capital cases, and the evils of racial discrimination. She came to Oklahoma a decade later when her father Dan and Oscar collaborated to lead the state’s vigorous Socialist Party movement. Indicative of the frustration they would all face in the years ahead was the fact that the Socialist Party had already crested its high water mark in the state.
According to Ameringer biographer John Thompson, Oscar synthesized Jeffersonian democratic principles, the frontier individualism of the Homestead Act, and Marxism in order to formulate “Industrial Democracy,” or “Industry of the People, by the People, and for the People.” Among his major early work in Oklahoma, as chronicled by Thompson, were his 1909 founding of the Oklahoma Renters’ Union to aid sharecroppers (farmers who received a portion of the earnings from working others’ land), his efforts against the 1910 “grandfather clause” that took voting rights away from African Americans following statehood, and his very public opposition to World War I. Among the numerous publications Oscar and Freda founded was the Oklahoma Daily Leader, which promoted peaceful opposition to that war.
When Oscar realized the charismatic but corrupt Oklahoma Governor Jack Walton had used the Socialists to help get elected, but had no intention of advancing their aims, he memorably declared: “Politics is the art by which politicians obtain campaign contributions from the rich and votes from the poor on the pretext of protecting each other from the other.” Indeed, the hope the Ameringers and Oklahoma Socialists placed in Walton’s administration brought betrayal and the vanquishing of the movement as a significant force in Sooner State politics and social issues.
Politics is the art by which politicians obtain campaign contributions from the rich and votes from the poor on the pretext of protecting each from the other.
Socialist Leaders Nationally
Oscar devoted much of his energy to the national Socialist movement. His wholehearted commitment was alloyed with a shrewd pragmatism that served the Ameringers’ comprehensive strategy. For instance, he avoided using such bracing (to most Americans) Marxist terms as “proletariat” and “bourgeoisie” in the pages of the prominent national Socialist publication the American Guardian that he published for seventeen years.
Similarly, Freda exhorted the American laborer, even those of very modest means, to vigorous giving to others:
“Early trade unionists had a vision for those who would come after then . . . . As they labored to build up their own miserable standards of living, for the right to call their souls their own, they still found time to work for free public schools and libraries . . . . I am one who believes that the best answer to attempted brainwashing against unions is the performance of unions themselves in their community’s affairs.”
Freda did not slow down during the four decades after Oscar's 1943 death. She helped found the Oklahoma Urban League and raised funds to build numerous community centers that served thousands of inner city children. She also campaigned to build and expand the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA), one of the few integrated community centers in Oklahoma City; the United Nations Children's Education Fund (UNICEF); and the Metropolitan Library System of Oklahoma County.
She also editorialized against segregation, as well as the burgeoning late-twentieth century right to work movement that advocated the right of individual workers to choose for or against union membership, and in favor of slum clearance, public transportation, and the federal government’s “War on Poverty” of the 1960s, which has proven with the passage of half a century a colossal social and economic failure.
Controversial and Humane
For all their admirable aims, the Ameringers held to beliefs contested by many Americans, national institutions, and founding documents. These include the benefits of redistributing—many would term it confiscating or stealing—enormous percentages of the earned possessions of productive workers to the non-productive, without the permission of the producers. Also, the progressively increasing taxation—not just in total, but percentage of earnings—of a person, the more productive they become, which is a pillar of Marx and Engels’ nineteenth century Communist Manifesto.
They additionally advocated inheritance taxes, the government confiscation of already-taxed property upon a person’s death, before what remains of it is permitted to be passed on to heirs, also a bulwark of the Communist Manifesto. And, they labored on behalf of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.), the Soviet Union, the 1922-1991 Bolshevist Communist empire of Russia and its many subject states, one of the most violent, wicked, and soul-crushing tyrannies in the long, sordid scroll of human history.
Still, the Ameringers exhibited a heartfelt concern not just for “the masses,” but for individual human beings. Although they differed with Daily Oklahoman newspaper publisher Edward K. Gaylord about nearly everything, they maintained cordial relations with employees of the newspaper. Freda recalled to biographer Thompson an afternoon when Gaylord was out of town and an Oklahoman editor invited Oscar to the office, where he regaled the staff with colorful stories. When another Oklahoman editor’s daughter died and the editor was blamed by many of his friends for his decisions regarding the girl’s medical treatment, Oscar proved one of the few not to condemn the man, and wrote him a heartfelt note of condolence.
Another Ameringer biographer, James Green, quoted perhaps Oscar’s most appropriate valedictory for Freda and himself:
"Before settling the troubles of distant lands, settle your own. If war there must be, make it war to the knife against poverty, disease, and ignorance at home…. You alone of all the countries of the earth have neared the land of promise. See that your gifts are neither hoarded by greed nor wasted in conquest and war, but are honestly distributed for the good of all. Close your glorious arch of religious and political freedom with the keystone of industrial democracy, be the cost what it may. For economic autocracy and political democracy cannot dwell under the same roof."
When Oscar died, Daily Oklahoman editor Luther Harrison honored him in the pages of that powerful conservative publication with a eulogy entitled “He Hated No Man.”
“Probably the man did not even know how to hate a human being,” Harrison wrote.
You alone of all the countries of the earth have neared the land of promise. See that your gifts are neither hoarded by greed nor wasted in conquest and war, but are honestly distributed for the good of all.