The post-war population stream into the larger towns and cities generated major political consequences as well. The state constitution required the legislature to redraw house and senate district lines each decade, in accord with shifting population patterns. The intent was to insure that every Oklahoma citizen’s vote possessed the same weight in electing their state representatives and senators.
For more than half a century, however, the legislature had ignored this law. In the words of historian Brad Agnew, “Protests from Oklahoma's urban areas had fallen on deaf ears in a legislature dominated by rural interests.”
Critics cited the situation of Tulsa as a prime example of what their inaction had wrought. The state’s second-largest city, with a population of nearly 350,000 people, had the same number of state senators—one—as did the Panhandle county of Beaver, with a population of 7,000. Oklahoma City and Oklahoma County had one senator as well—and 440,000 people.
Nonetheless, in 1961, the massive rural legislative majority attempted to permanently enshrine its dominance through a constitutional referendum. It did so against the veto of Governor Edmondson, a statewide vote of the people, voiding by the State Supreme Court, and rejection by the State Election Board. Still, the legislature kept its wildly unconstitutional apportionment scheme in place.
The next year, recognizing the increasingly-disproportionate state and house districts in Oklahoma and many other states, the United States Supreme Court intervened. In Baker v. Carr, it established the principle of “one man—one vote.” This compelled the reapportionment of electoral districts across the nation, escalating rural-to-urban migration in Oklahoma. However, the legislature’s obstinate refusal to adjust house and senate apportionment continued to make a farce of the notion of “one man—one vote” in the Sooner State.
The federal high court may credibly be criticized for abusing its own constitutional authority to rule on individual states’ electoral processes, as well as their social and public customs concerning the rights of African Americans. These and other issues were boiling to the surface in the 1960s. Here, however, the words of American colonial founder William Penn seem appropriate: “Men must be governed by God, or they will be ruled by tyrants.”
Critics in the Republican Party, which was trending increasingly more conservative than the national Democratic Party as the 20th century moved into its second half, heaped more kindling on the fire. They claimed that the GOP’s growing electoral strength in the cities contributed to the Democratic-controlled legislature’s desire to hold as much power as possible out in the rural districts. These issues possessed both political and philosophical implications for Oklahoma. Elected officials from rural legislative districts tended more than those in the cities to favor public rather than private sector financing of jobs, and were often less inclined to possess the wherewithal or interest to generate significant new employment, or to bring the same in from other states.
Thus, proponents claimed, legislative reapportionment would accomplish two apparently Herculean tasks. It would more fairly distribute political representation for the people of Oklahoma, and it would shift additional power to those with the inclination and economic philosophy to better enhance the financial climate of the state. Up to this point, even the great Robert S. Kerr depended on tens of millions of American taxpayers’ dollars to facilitate the sprawling program of rivers, dam, and navigation whose dividends he promised would include a great monetary boon to the state.
The high stakes of the issue was evidenced when, after the U.S. Supreme Court told the legislature to reapportion, their new plan was rejected by a three-court panel of federal judges as inadequate. After the legislators continued to delay making meaningful improvements, the judges finally commissioned brilliant statistician and future Oklahoma City mayor Patience Latting to redraw the districts for them, “breaking down the citadel of rural power,” in the words of historians Danney Goble and David Baird in The Story of Oklahoma.
Overnight, representation for the Oklahoma City and Tulsa metropolitan areas multiplied nearly tenfold, according to historian Agnew. The 1965 legislature, commencing January 21st of that year, would reflect the reshuffled lineup. Historian Goble well summarized the immediate impact on state-sponsored funding and projects:
“Urban Oklahomans at last got the representation their numbers deserved. That change begat another: new policies enacted by newly elected legislators on behalf of their newly empowered constituents. Revised formulas matched highway and school monies with traffic counts and classroom enrollments. Metropolitan governments won new levies to fund local and county libraries. Not least, the state wrote new and more urbane liquor laws. Over the years that followed there were so many other changes that many judged the legislature's reapportionment a watershed event for Oklahoma's political history.”
As chronicled by historians Bruce Fisher and Robert Henry, among those new metropolitan legislators were the first African Americans since A. C. Hamlin (OKLAHOMANS 1, Chapter 12) from 1908-1910. Archibald Hill Jr. and John B. White of Oklahoma City and Curtis Lawson of Tulsa won election to the House. And OKC’s E. Melvin Porter (Hill, White, Lawson, Porter, OKLAHOMANS 2, Chapter 9) took his seat as the first black state senator ever. Within months, the changes to that Senate roster would provide the determining balance in one of the most momentous events in Oklahoma history.
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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