United States farmers’ anti-World War I revolt

This video from the USA is about socialist Eugene V. Debs, with an actor reading an anti-war speech Debs made in 1918.

By Vince Ostroweicz in the USA:

The Green Corn Rebellion: 1935 novel about an episode in the American class struggle

28 January 2013

The Green Corn Rebellion, by William Cunningham, republished by University of Oklahoma Press, 2010, 256 pp.

The Green Corn Rebellion

First edition cover of The Green Corn Rebellion

The writing of fiction directly relevant to the class struggle is something of a lost art, and even when looking to the past we must scour the libraries and bookshelves among obscure works to find examples. While many readers are familiar with Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906), or Oil! (1927), which became the basis for the film There Will Be Blood (2007), other novels of social struggle are more difficult to track down.

William Cunningham’s The Green Corn Rebellion, first published in 1935, gives a fictionalized account of an August 1917 uprising in Oklahoma by black and white tenant farmers and Native Americans against conscription during the First World War.

The revolt, although stillborn, is significant and speaks to the level of radical opposition to the status quo in America at the time. According to a note from the Oklahoma Historical Society by Nigel Anthony Sellars, who has written extensively about the event, “While antiwar sentiments fueled the Green Corn Rebellion, it actually grew from long-standing grievances many tenants held against local landowners, businessmen, and state and local authorities. The farmers were particularly angered over the growing control of land by small numbers of wealthy landholders who often resorted to rampant land speculation and outright fraud to obtain property.”

Concrete details of the rebellion are scant. A 1922 article in the Socialist Party-aligned publication The New Day recounted that the rebels numbered about 150 and were armed with “pistols and squirrel rifles and ancient shotguns in the main,” occupied a hilltop on John Spears’ farm in Seminole County, Oklahoma and raised a red flag along with the American. The rebellion crossed three Oklahoma counties: Seminole, Hughes and Pontotoc. Across Seminole County bridges and oil pipelines were burned or destroyed with explosives and telegraph lines cut. Railcars were commandeered and checkpoints set up. However, the rebels collapsed quickly. They were overcome by a group of about 50 men from nearby towns, men the rebels knew and were reluctant to shoot.

William Meredith Cunningham (1901-1967) grew up in Oklahoma and came under the influence of socialism like his father—a follower of socialist leader Eugene V. Debs—had before him. The Green Corn Rebellion was his first novel. The same year that book came out, Cunningham was appointed state director of the Oklahoma Federal Writers’ Project by the Works Progress Administration, part of Roosevelt’s New Deal, a post he held for two and one-half years. Like his successor in the job, novelist Jim Thompson, Cunningham was presumably close to or in the Communist Party. He later moved to New York City, where he worked for TASS, the Soviet news agency, from 1940 until 1948.

The Green Corn Rebellion follows the life of tenant farmer Jim Tetley, who lives in poverty, debt and endless toil and dreams of somehow escaping. When Jim’s father-in-law comes in contact with Socialist Party agitators, the family is steered towards participating in the impending rebellion.

Cunningham treats the human relationships as Jim carries on an adulterous affair with his sister-in-law throughout the first half of the book. This is a semi-conscious attempt on Jim’s part to find some sort of new morality. While the treatment of personal issues of this sort is interesting enough, the author passes up the opportunity to place the relationship problems caused more directly by poverty at the forefront of the story.

Some peripheral characters are called in to shore up the story in this regard, with children dying from illness and money made from moonshining, but the main focus in terms of the relationships remains on the love “quadrangle” formed by Jim, his brother Ted, Jim’s wife and her sister. An unfortunate side effect of this focus is to remove the economic concerns that pushed the tenant farmers to insurrection and supplant the conflict with a love story.

The book is written in a flowing vernacular and is not very detailed at times, as if it were a folk story. Words like “quirt” and phrases like “pouring leather” may be unfamiliar to the modern urban reader, but having a folk story written in complete colloquial style is valuable in that we are placed in the rebellion in the terms through which the rebels themselves understood it.

As prose, the novel’s language is perhaps not exceptional, but that seems to be the point here: to transmit to the reader the struggles of a sharecropper and why he would have taken up arms in a manner and language the sharecropper would have understood. To be too eloquent would not have suited the characters, subsistence-farming sharecroppers. In this regard, The Green Corn Rebellion has many literary weaknesses, although in terms of its target audience and aims, these might also be viewed as strengths. The novel preserves a semi-historical account of the experience of rural America in a form that allows it to be readable to that same stratum. Transmitting such suppressed histories of American social struggle in a digestible form is a laudable undertaking.

The characters are recognizably human, although some become caricatures. Ted has been crippled after a disease and refuses to bathe out of self-loathing. It is reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Richard III, a character made evil by his deformity or co-equal to the latter. Certainly more pitiable is Jim’s father-in-law Mack, whose heart is broken both by the affair conducted by Jim and Jim’s evasion of legal consequences by enlisting in the army.

It is easy to be sympathetic toward the characters at points and dubious of them at others, and those reactions already indicate that Cunningham is up to something more than transparent one-dimensionality. The reader finds the impoverished tenant farmers overwhelmed by the Socialist Party representative’s car and nearly consumed by urban awe during their trip to Oklahoma City. Sometime later they comfortably set about cutting telegraph poles and burning bridges, after inevitable initial hesitation.

The volume is valuable for Sellars’ introduction as well, which, along with his article “Treasonous Tenant Farmers and Seditious Sharecroppers: The 1917 Green Corn Rebellion Trials,” provides an in-depth analysis of the conditions that led to the uprising, such as the rate of tenancy and the effects of land speculation on the farmers.

Land speculation saw the price rise from $6.50 per acre in 1900 to $22.49 per acre in 1910, an increase of 246 percent. This was combined with a rise in tenancy from 47,250 farms out of 108,000 in 1900, to 104,137 farms out of 190,192 in 1910. Of farms that were operated by their owners, “36,036 were heavily mortgaged.”

In other words, the vast majority of farmers in Oklahoma (which became the 46th state in 1907) were either in severe debt or owned no land at all. Renters paid landlords in cash or kind, although most often in kind, in the form of crops. Sellars asserts that this amounted to a form of surplus value and at another point criticizes the Industrial Workers of the World’s reluctance to organize the tenant farmers because they weren’t wage workers.

Matters were exacerbated by the banks’ usurious practices, some of them charging astronomical rates of 2,000 percent. The tenants could never escape debt, nor could the small-scale farmers. Although such practices were outlawed, the laws were a farce because if a farmer attempted to take action against the illegal operations, the bank would blackball him and he could not obtain any more loans in the area. This practice is referred to in Cunningham’s novel.

The failure of the Green Corn rebels contrasts sharply of course with the success of the Bolsheviks, under quite different conditions in Russia, later in that same year. The Oklahoma rebels are subdued without their having fired a shot in anger (one tenant farmer was killed and many were jailed, some to long prison sentences), and Jim is finally conscripted under pressure from his brother. As Jim reads a newspaper while boarding a train, we find reference to Lenin and Trotsky, whose appearance interests Jim greatly even though his battle is seemingly over.

The Green Corn Rebellion moves quickly, but it makes many fine points. The novel establishes the conditions under which social upheaval takes place. The oppressed sharecroppers were certainly ready, more than ready for action. In their jubilation, they comment that they weren’t sure why they didn’t overthrow the government every year. But although the conditions of poverty and indebtedness were severe, the farmers were cut off from the working class, ill-coordinated in their actions and unprepared for what they faced. They could be easily suppressed when they discovered that the ruling class they were fighting would be represented by people known to them.

With all its limitations, Cunningham’s book sheds light on an explosive and fascinating episode in the American class struggle.

Today in 1918: Ginger Goodwin is shot and killed in the mountains of British Columbia for avoiding the draft: here.

13 thoughts on “United States farmers’ anti-World War I revolt

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  6. Butte, Montana, June 5: Miners demonstrate against conscription

    A crowd estimated in the thousands marches in this copper mining city against the Wilson administration’s imposition of the draft. The parade begins with an estimated 600, led by miners’ wives marching behind a twelve-foot red flag. It is soon attacked by police and “patriotic citizens,” but does not disperse. “Women paraders fought the police, and the crowd swelled to several thousand,” the New York Times reports.

    Mayor W.H. Maloney mounts a business clock in the center of the city and orders the crowd to disperse within 15 minutes. At that point, “Troops that had been held at their barracks came at a run with their bayonets fixed.” The demonstrators then reassemble outside the Finnish socialist hall, where the crowd is addressed by a woman speaking in Finnish.

    The leadership of an Irish anti-conscription organization called the Pearce Connolly Club are jailed the same day for distributing anti-conscription literature in Butte. The city is placed under martial law.

    Demonstrations against conscription are also reported among the miners of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula at Hancock, Houghton, Calumet, and Nagaunee, where national guardsmen, local police, and vigilantes are used to disperse and arrest protesters.

    Arrests, beatings, and public humiliations of individual “slackers” are reported from across the US. Many of these individuals are publicly forced to kiss the American flag.

    June 5, Conscription Day, is nonetheless declared to be a success by the Wilson administration, with estimates that some 9 million American men—overwhelmingly workers and farmers—enroll in the draft.



  7. Flagstaff, Arizona, June 5: American Indians refuse conscription

    American Indians refuse conscription at several locations across the US. At Flagstaff, Navajo Indians drive draft officials and other officers off their reservation when they attempt to impose conscription. Ute Indians in Colorado refuse to register and have reportedly threatened to burn the nearby city of Ignacio. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, leaders of the Pueblo are arrested and charged with “conspiring to prevent registration.”

    Only two decades have passed from the conclusion of the bloody Plains Indians Wars—the killing and forced dispossession of the tribes of the trans-Mississippi West to make way for American mining, railroading, and ranching interests. American Indians have been forced onto poverty-stricken reservations and, through the Dawes Act of 1887, compelled to privatize their lands and give up traditional cultural practices. Now they are asked to fight and die in Wilson’s “war for democracy.”



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  10. Oklahoma, August 2: “Green Corn Rebellion” of tenant farmers against conscription

    An uprising involving thousands of Oklahoma tenant farmers and allies—white, black, and American Indians of the Muskogee and Seminole nations—against the imposition of military conscription is met with massive repression, resulting in hundreds of arrests and three deaths.

    Called the “Green Corn Rebellion” because the tenant farmers allegedly intend to march on Washington, DC, surviving on roasted green corn as they move, the rebellion emerges in a part of the United States where socialism has had a major influence. In Seminole County, the center of the rebellion, the Socialist Party won 22 percent of the vote in the 1916 presidential election. The same year saw the emergence of a union of tenant farmers calling itself the “Working Class Union,” or WCU, which was inspired by the revolutionary trade unionism of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). The WCU, which claims 35,000 members in Oklahoma, has armed itself and carried out violent reprisals against the vigilante “justice” of the rural elite.

    According to one local newspaper account, a statement has been issued to the tenant farmers calling for resistance to conscription:

    Now is the time to rebel against this war with Germany, boys. Boys, get together and don’t go. Rich man’s war. Poor man’s fight. The war is over with Germany if you don’t go and J.P. Morgan & Co. is lost. Their great speculation is the only cause of the war.

    An army of some 800 to 1,000 farmers respond to the call to arms on August 2, burning down bridges and cutting telegraph lines. However, after a skirmish with a large sheriff’s posse, the men disperse. Three are killed in the exchange. Mass repression follows. Some 450 are arrested, of whom 150 receive lengthy prison sentences lasting as long as 10 years. The Oklahoma Socialist Party, facing persecution, disbands. The IWW in Oklahoma is also targeted.



  11. October 1, 1917, New York City: Columbia University fires anti-war professors

    October 1, the Columbia University Board of Trustees ousts two professors, Professor James McKeen Cattell of the Department of Psychology and Assistant Professor of English and Comparative Literature Henry Wadsworth Longellow Dana, “upon charges that they had disseminated doctrines tending to encourage a spirit of disloyalty to the Government of the United States.” They are fired without severance or pension, and, in a bid to prevent them from finding work elsewhere, the dismissals are carried out with great publicity.

    The crime of Cattell, perhaps the leading academic psychologist in the US, consists of two letters he wrote to members of Congress and President Wilson in August 1916, reminding them they had not been elected to “send conscripts to Europe.” The transgression of Dana, the grandson of both Henry Wordsworth Longfellow and Richard Henry Dana (Two Years Before the Mast), is his membership in the pacifist People’s Council.

    This act by Columbia’s trustees will lead to the introduction of tenure protection for political speech at American universities and colleges.



  12. New York City, October 3 1917: Times supports firing of Columbia antiwar professors

    The New York Times, in its October 3 lead editorial, praises Columbia University’s decision, taken last week, to dismiss two antiwar professors. The Board of Trustees “have done their duty to the university and its good fame by expelling” the professors, the leading organ of American liberalism writes. The Times suggests similar firings be carried out across the US, condemning professors “who cover themselves with the threadbare cloak of ‘academic freedom’… for mischievous, unreasonable, and dangerous speech, a specious radicalism that tends to mislead the young.” The Times further accuses antiwar professors of engaging in speech that “disseminates treason.”

    Professor James McKeen Cattell’s “treason” consists of writing to President Wilson in August 1916, reminding him that he had not been elected to “send conscripts to Europe”—and indeed, Wilson won the popular vote on the basis of the infamously deceitful slogan, “He Kept Us Out of War.” Professor Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Dana is fired for his membership in the pacifist People’s Council.

    Not everyone agrees with the editors of the Times. The eminent American historian, Charles Beard, though himself in favor of US involvement in the war, resigns on October 8 from Columbia to protest the firings, stating, “the University is really under the control of a small and active group of trustees who have no standing in the world of education, who are reactionary and visionless in politics, narrow and medieval in religion.”

    Simultaneously, the New York Times is leading the crusade to expel from the US Senate Robert M. La Follette of Wisconsin, who stands accused by a police organization, the Minnesota Commission of Public Safety, of making “treasonous” antiwar statements in a recent speech in St. Paul. “Expulsion of this dangerous and disloyal member would be creditable to the Senate,” the Times editors write.



  13. On March 21, 1918, radical author Scott Nearing, a member of the US Socialist Party and an opponent of the imperialist war, was indicted by a federal grand jury in New York City under the notorious Espionage Act. He was charged with writing and distributing through the mail a series of articles titled, “The Great Madness,” in which he criticized US entry into World War I.

    Nearing, a former University of Pennsylvania professor, was accused of denouncing the Liberty Loan and the selective draft law, of defending a pacifist opponent of the war, Senator Robert La Follette, and of making “other utterances which the government alleges tend to create mutiny, disloyalty and insubordination among the armed forces of the United States.”

    If convicted, Nearing faced 20 years in federal penitentiary, a fine of $10,000 or both. The American Socialist Society, which distributed Nearing’s book, was also indicted.

    The first chapter of “The Great Madness” was titled “Give the Poor Trusts a Chance.” It began: “The entrance of the United States into the world war on April 6, 1917, was the greatest victory that the American plutocracy has won over the American democracy since the declaration of war with Spain in 1898. The American plutocracy urged the war, insisted upon it, and finally got it.”

    In another chapter, Nearing referred to the propaganda campaign waged by the press, aimed at whipping up pro-war sentiment:

    With the immense power of the public press at their disposal; possessing unlimited means; united on a common policy, the plutocracy spread terror over the land.

    The campaign was intense and dramatic. Japanese invasions, Mexican inroads, and a world conquest by Germany were featured in the daily press, in the magazines, on the movie screens and in public addresses. Depredations, murder and rapine were to be the lot of the American people unless they built battleships and organized armies.”



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