Green Corn Rebellion
The crushing of the Green Corn Rebellion also ended the Socialist Party—which had arisen, blazed for a season, then flamed out like Halley’s Comet—and the IWW presence in the state. The violence by which the Green Corn uprising was suppressed, along with the apparent lesson of “might makes right,” arguably strengthened in the state’s psyche a comfort and dependency on violence as a remedy to difficulties large and small. William Cunningham’s powerful 1935 novel, The Green Corn Rebellion, rich with local dialect and idioms, and from which the following excerpt is drawn, brought the heart-rending episode to life with a power and intimacy a non-fiction work would have found difficult to capture. Numerous issues that drew many Oklahoma farmers and laborers to the Socialist Party’s aggressive addressing of them are woven through the narrative of this scene.
It was afternoon, and they were sitting in the grandstand at county fair grounds waiting for the big Socialist meeting to begin. Fred Nick was going to speak.
“Well now, I reckon you mean old Dixie that got sway-backed from eatin’ too much roastin’ ears and drinkin’ a lot of water,” Mack said.
“Yeah, that’s the hoss.”
“Well, he wasn’t no good for a saddle horse,” Mack began, “but we figgered that if we fixed him up a little he could do a little light plowin’, so we rigged up a pole and put the front end on his shoulders and the back end of his rump, then we took some sursingles and put ‘em over the pole and under his belly and tightened ‘em up and pulled his back up straight.
“Well now, one thing we forgot. When he was rigged up that way he couldn’t turn a corner but had to travel in a straight line, and he wassn’t no good plowin’ because when you got to the end of the furrow and wanted to turn around, there you was. We took off the pole and fixed a hinge in it, bendin’ sideways, so he could bend his back enough to turn a corner. Well, that seemed like it would work, and it did for a while, maybe an hour, but you see we had ganted him up so there wasn’t much weight in his belly, and we hadn’t thought how weak his back was from bein’ ben once and then straightened. I was plowin’ along and the old fool he forgot himself and pushed harder with his hind feet than pulled with his front feet, and all at once his back arched up like a cat’s and there was that darned pole ‘way up in the air. Well, I unhitched him and took him to the barn, and we got a ladder and took the pole down.
“We couldn’t lead him into the barn because he was too high in the middle, so we tied him outside and fed him a heavy meal and his back gradually settled down till it was as swayed as before.”
Mack’s story was cut short by a stir down in front. Fred Niek had climbed on the platform and was shaking hands with the men there. Niek was a pleasant-looking fellow, kind of fat. He’s a Gehman, ain’t he?” Uncle Billy asked. “Lookin’ at him it’s kind of hawd to believe that them Gehman soldiers cut off women’s breasts and stick bayonets through the kids.”
“Well,” Jim Tetley said suddenly, “even if they do, which I doubt like hell, they ain’t no worse than Americans. I seen a crowd of fellers cut a Negro once. If German soldiers do as bad as that them French and English soldiers do the same things.”
“Yeah, and us Americans is gonna have our chanct to cut a few off over there,” Mack added.
Hit shore looks lak we was headin’ into that waw,” Uncle Billy said, “and Ah cain’t think of no reason neither.”
“The reason is,” Mack said, “that this here war is fought for profits.”
“Well, Ah ben votin’ the Socialist ticket,” Uncle Billy observed, “becaue Ah think the Socialists is a lot nearah right than the Democrats. But the trouble is at the old pawties will take a lot of Socialist planks an’ git the votes and not do anything about hit.”
“They’s only Socialist plank,” Mack said, “and that’s govament ownership, and the old parties won’t take that.”
“Well, hit’s hawd to believe some of theings you Socialists have ben sayin’. You say that ev’body will jes’have to woak five owahs a day. That means that if you stawt to woak at five o’clcok in the mawnin’ you would be through at ten in the mawnin’ instead of ten at night, and eve’day would be like Sunday. Hit sounds crazy.”
“Maybe so,” Mack agreed. “Maybe it sounds crazy, but it can be figgered out. Brainy men can figger it out and nobody can show where they’re wrong.”
“Well, that mot be,” Uncle Billy admitted. “But maybe Socialism won’t woak. Maybe ev’body’ll git shif’less. Now Woodrow Wilson is a brainy man and a college pafessah, and he ain’t a Socialist.”
“No, he ain’t a Socialist,” Mack said, “but he’s a crook.”
Jim looked around over the crowd. The place was packed with farmers and poor people from town, and you could tell it was going to be a good meeting, because everybody was excited. The banks had quit loaning money to Socialists, and the business men in town had talked about running every dirty Socialist out of the country. But the farmers didn’t feel like taking talk like that. They were sore. Jim had heard fellows say they ought to go to town and horsewhip a few guys. And now when it seemed that the young men might have to go to war there was talk that the American people wouldn’t stand for it, that the farmers and working men everywhere would get out their shotguns and see to it that no damned capitalists and politicians would send boys to Europe to be killed.
There was a lot of clapping when Niek got up to talk. Most of the people there had heard him before and liked him. They felt like he was on their side.
He talked with a German accent. He told the crowd about his old German mother and his brothers in the German army, and after you listened to him a while you knew damned well that the German people were just like the American people and didn’t want this war.
Fred Niek could tell a lot of funny stories and get you to laughing, then change his tone and before you knew it you wanted to cry.
He said some things that made you think. He said that people in this country starved to death because there was too much food, and went half naked because there was too much to wear.
“Did you effer hear of a betbug,” he said, “that starved to det because there vere too many lumberjacks in the bunk? Or a jackass that went hungry because there was too much grass in the pasture? Vell, you fellers ain’t got the brains of a bet bug or the sense of a jackass.”
Jim nudged old Uncle Billy and grinned. Old Uncle Billy after hearing this speech would have to admit that Socialism would work better than capitalism.
When the speech was over a lot of the farmers went up and shook hands with Niek and others stood around a while and talked. Jim heard some of them talking about the Working Class Union. They said they would order ammunition from Montgomery Ward, and the first son-of-a— that tried to make them go to war, well, we might as well have the war right here close to home.