John Calloway Walton, a direct descendant of George Walton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, remains the most controversial of all Oklahoma governors. He also had the shortest tenure, during which he exhibited a darkness of character unknown to the public record among any of the state’s other chief executives. Born in Indiana in 1881, he came to Oklahoma City via Nebraska, Arkansas, and the U. S. Army.
Energy, charisma, sensational public speaking ability—coupled with jazz bands on the campaign trail—and a focus on the interests of both the urban and rural laboring classes propelled him to the office of OKC commissioner of public works in 1917, mayor in 1919, and governor in 1923. Colleague and Oklahoma Banking Commissioner E. T. Bynum recalled a Packing Town strike march while Walton was mayor in which the latter eyes filled with tears at the sight of the bedraggled meat packers. Even his bitter political opponent W. D. McBee cited “His personality, vibrant and enthusiastic, engaging and contagious,” and echoed an Oklahoma publication’s description of him as “magnetic.”
Already mistrusted in many circles due to his unscrupulous political scheming, Walton entered the governor’s office with something less than a mandate from the people. He garnered only a 44% plurality of the Democratic Primary vote. Though the Democrats had tallied nearly 90% of the state’s total primary vote in the contest, in the general election, Republican John Fields won tens of thousands of Democratic Party votes and scored 45% of the vote.
Though championing several bills supportive of individual farmers during his first months in office, and tenaciously opposing the growing power of the Ku Klux Klan, Walton was actually a secret member of the organization. As legislative pressure mounted on him for unprecedented gubernatorial corruption and abuse of power, he reversed political course and alienated the liberals and socialists who had fueled his rise.
He was impeached and removed from office less than a year after taking it. He served one later term as a corporation commissioner, but was rejected by the voters in several tries for higher office.
Walton had some admirers. A Catholic priest who eulogized him at his 1949 funeral praised the former governor for his defense of the church a generation before against the Ku Klux Klan. The clergyman recalled over 5,000 robed and hooded Klansmen passing by his church in a night march.
“It was shortly after this that Governor Walton took a decided stand,” the priest said. “Conditions had developed to such an extent that strong measures were necessary. He lost his fight (for governor), but his efforts attracted national attention and it was the beginning of the end for the Ku Klux Klan.”
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Oklahomans Vol 2 :
Statehood - 2020s
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