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Oklahoma Governors 1951-1955: Johnston Murray (1902-1974)

Born in the old Chickasaw Nation in 1902, Oklahoma’s fourteenth governor walked in the giant shadow of his father, Oklahoma pioneer and founding father William H. “Alfalfa Bill” Murray (Chapter 3). He put forth a raft of excellent programs for legislative approval. Like Governor J. Howard Edmondson later in the decade, however, he failed to build either a rapport or a governing collaboration with the solons, and left office with his political career in tatters.

Political historians James Scales and Danney Goble overviewed the problem, within the context of the elder Murray’s legacy:

“Oklahomans who anticipated that the new governor would exercise the forceful leadership that his father had given twenty years earlier were totally disappointed. Indeed, the contrast between father and son was startling. The older Murray had been unmovable in his convictions; the younger was given to indecision and vacillation at critical moments. The elder had dominated his administration with an iron hand; his son left affairs of state to drift. Alfalfa Bill had eschewed the ceremonies of office; Johnston seemed more absorbed with the trappings of power than its exercise. His father had advanced bold new programs, but Johnston Murray was content to hold the line. If the first Murray was strong, the second was merely stubborn.”

Daily Oklahoman political reporter and columnist Otis Sullivant connected the dots even more precisely. He wrote that the governor had “let control of the legislature slip away from him. Murray’s principal trouble has been lack of follow-through on legislative proposals and contact with the legislature.”

Like Edmondson later, Murray’s agenda needed more than the diplomatic speeches and public declarations that he delivered. It needed workmanlike relationship building, and, in the words of a later governor, “the occasional knocking together of legislative heads to get things done.” For the legislature with whom Murray had to contend still featured unconstitutionally apportioned, rural-dominated delegations.

Solid Programs Stymied

These legislators stymied numerous solid programs that Murray advocated. They included: 1) preventing state tax increases, while searching for ways to economize spending, 2) raising and equalizing the assessment of property values to their constitutionally-mandated levels, thus increasing education funding, 3) exempting incoming industry from ad valorem and user taxes for five years, enhancing Oklahoma’s appeal to them, 4) requiring state budget requests to be vetted by an additional agency not involved in the expenditure, 5) elimination of earmarked funds, because of which more than half the state budget was beyond the control of the people’s elected officials, and 6) consolidating some of the state’s sparsely populated counties to save expenses of many kinds.

Historian LeRoy Fischer delivered a penetrating post-mortem for Murray’s term. It offers wisdom for any who would aspire to leadership of any sort.

“Murray lacked an adequate understanding of human relations, an attribute that plagued him throughout his years as governor. When he should have worked closely with the legislature to sell his program, he remained aloof, thus conveying the impression that he was insincere and shallow.”

Insult seemed to pile onto injury as Murray’s term came to a close. His beautiful, charismatic wife Willie, likely gifted with more intellectual power than her husband, and certainly more energy and ambition, sought to succeed him as governor. Murray opposed her effort to do so.

Soon after her campaign came to naught, he initiated divorce proceedings. A pitiable, months-long contest ensued. At the end of it, Murray remarried and moved to Texas to enter private business.

He also unloaded a parting cannonade on the legislature and, by inference, the people who elected them, on the pages of the iconic Saturday Evening Post national magazine. He rehearsed the afore-mentioned ideas that, other than preventing tax hikes, the solons had shunned. He added the need for a state employee merit system to reduce patronage and “spoils,” a central purchasing to enhance state expenditure efficiency, and deal with “the 231 little kings in 231 little kingdoms” that constituted Oklahoma’s County Commissioners.

This closing manifesto rings today with prophetic power. Like Edmondson a few years later, Johnston Murray was a flawed voice crying in the wilderness for Oklahoma to get its political house in order. Happily, in time, the value of much that he desired grew manifest, and much of it came to pass, including through judicial reform and legislative leadership justice in the 1960s (OKLAHOMANS 2, Chapter 9) and a county government reckoning in the 1980s (OKLAHOMANS 2, Chapter 13).


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.

View the inspiring 2-minute preview video HERE.

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