|Green Corn Rebellion|
|Part of the American Theater of World War I|
The Green Corn Rebellion was centered in rural Seminole County in southeastern Oklahoma.
|Pontotoc Rebels||United States|
|Commanders and leaders|
|Working Class Union (?)||Woodrow Wilson|
|800 to 1000?||Thousands|
The Green Corn Rebellion was an armed uprising that took place in rural Oklahoma on August 2 and 3, 1917. The uprising was a reaction by radicalized European-Americans, tenant farmers, Seminoles, Muscogee Creeks and African-Americans to an attempt to enforce the Selective Draft Act of 1917 and was so-called due to the purported plans of the rebels to march across the country, eating "green corn" on the way for sustenance. Betrayed by an informer in their midst, the country rebels met with a well-armed posse of townsmen, with whom shots were exchanged and three people killed. In the aftermath of the incident, scores of arrests were made and the Socialist Party of America, formerly strong in the region, was discredited in the public eye for allegedly having attempted to foment revolution. The incident was also used as a pretext for national reprisals against the Industrial Workers of the World.
On April 6, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson, recently sworn into a second term of office for which he had run behind the slogan "He Kept Us Out of War," appeared between a joint session of Congress to ask for a declaration of war against Imperial Germany. Congress readily obliged the President's request, voting to declare war on Germany by a margin of 373-50 in the House and 82-6 in the Senate.
This decision of the United States government to enter World War I was backed up with additional legislation imposing military conscription in America to staff the nation's wartime Army and Navy. On May 18, 1917, a draft bill became law. The bill called for all eligible young men nationwide to register for the draft on a single day — June 5, 1917. While isolated hotspots of anti-conscription activity sprung up in some urban centers, the registration process was generally an orderly affair, with the vast majority of young American men accepting their fate with what has been characterized as "a calm resignation."
On July 20, 1917, a blindfolded Newton D. Baker, the Wilson administration's Secretary of War, drew numbers choosing certain registered young men for mandatory military service. Opponents of American participation in the war continued their efforts to change the country's course, holding meetings and distributing pamphlets. Among the leading organized forces in opposition to conscription and the war was the Socialist Party of America, which at its April 1917 National Convention had declared its "unalterable opposition" to the war and urged the workers of the world to "refuse support to the governments in their wars."
Although it was a young state, admitted into the union only in November 1907, there was already a strong radical tradition in Oklahoma, in which the impoverished tenant farmers of the southeastern part of the state seized upon the millenarian fervor of the early Socialist Party in an attempt to improve their lives. In the 1916 election, despite Woodrow Wilson's siphoning off a portion of the anti-war vote for the Democratic ticket, the Socialist Party garnered more than a quarter of the votes cast in the 1916 election in Seminole County and 22% in neighboring Pontotoc County.
Nor was the Socialist Party the only active organizers in the area — in 1916 a radical tenant farmers' organization called the "Working Class Union (WCU)" claimed a membership of as much as 20,000 in Eastern Oklahoma alone. The group's ideology blended what one historian has called "a muddled industrial unionism with traditional southern forms of countervigilantism, self-defense, and opposition to conscription" and arose as a complement to the radical syndicalism of the Industrial Workers of the World — an organization which did not seek to organize tenant farmers.
Tenant farmers were predominantly young – the age group most impacted by conscription. Some 76% of Oklahoma farmers under age 24 rented their land, while 45% of those between the ages of 25 and 33 found themselves tenants. Most tenant farmers were white and African-American. Many of these young "dirt farmers" found their economic prospects hopeless, squeezed between a usurious credit system practiced by stores and substantial crop liens inflicted by landlords. The depleted condition of Oklahoma's land forced the input of twice as much labor as the sharecroppers of Mississippi and Louisiana to generate comparable yields. Disaffection was rife and proposals for radical solutions found ready ears.
Despite the WCU's highly questionable membership claims, ballooning to 35,000 for the whole state of Oklahoma, the group had by 1917 clearly established a solid foothold among the tenant farmers of Oklahoma. The organization was not a tame one, taking the form of secret society, with activities which included night riding and the use of physical violence against its opponents.
Hostilities between the radical rural supporters of the WCU and the conservative forces of the towns of the region ran high, with dynamite used against cattle dipping-vats late in 1915 in protest of a mandatory use of costly insecticide that some felt was as lethal to dipped cattle as to the ticks and other parasites they carried. The controversy was punctuated by a shotgun blast fired through the window of the Pontotoc County Attorney early in 1916. Conservative voices declared the action to be an act of political terrorism, while radicals charged the shot to be a provocation, "part of a concocted plan on the part of the officials and two or three newspapers to wreck the Socialist Party by pulling off a fake attempted assassination."
Town dwellers, who had been subject to perennial attacks as "robbers, thieves, and grafters" by radical public speakers, were thoroughly convinced that the Socialists and the secret WCU were part of a single radical conspiracy to launch a long-desired revolution in their own locale.
The Muscogee Creek Nation at time of the rebellion was controlled by only 61 mixed blood Creek and intermarried white individuals. August 3 marked the end of the Muscogee Creek Green Corn Ceremony.
In early August 1917, preceding the rebellion, large numbers of African-American, European-American, and Native American men gathered at the farm of Joe and John Spears in Sasakwa to plan a march upon Washington, DC to end the war.
The so-called Green Corn Rebellion may be said to have started on Thursday, August 2, 1917, when a Seminole County sheriff and his deputy were ambushed near the Little River, a tributary of the Canadian river. Raiding parties followed this action, cutting telephone lines and burning railroad bridges.
On Friday, August 3, exactly two weeks after the draft lottery in Washington, D.C., an armed gathering assembled near the adjoining borders of Pontotoc, Seminole, and Hughes counties in Southeastern Oklahoma. The uprising seems to have been spurred by the agitation of the Working Class Union, which was reported in one newspaper as having called its supporters to arms with a manifesto which declared:
"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."
Unfortunately, no documents written by WCU members have survived and the mentality of those taking up arms must be considered speculative. Still, historians do speculate. Historian Garin Burbank argues that the coming of conscription threatened to decimate family economies by removing able-bodied young men needed to harvest cotton. Moreover, Burbank argues, Socialist ideas had found its mark in Oklahoma, with many poor farmers earnestly believing from their experiences in daily life in the reality of "exploitation" and accepting the notion that the European war was little more than capitalist business enterprise writ large.
The country folk, in short, saw military conscription as an invasion of their rights, and they rebelled in an attempt to keep the government from taking away their sons.
Arming themselves, an estimated 800 to 1000 rebels, "the vast majority of old American stock," met on the banks of the South Canadian River and made plans to head East, living off the land as they marched. They would eat roasted "green corn" and barbecued beef on the way, so it was later said, eventually joining up with countless thousands of likeminded comrades who would together march on Washington, DC where they would overthrow "Big Slick" Woodrow Wilson, repeal the draft act, and end the war.
These plans, if such a whimsical scheme may be called such, were instantly betrayed to local authorities by an informer. A posse of townsmen was formed and headed to the river banks to meet the ostensible revolutionaries. The so-called rebellion proved anti-climactic, as historian Garin Burbank notes:
"Catching sight of the advancing townsmen, the country people fired a few desultory shots and fled in disorder. This was the pathetic end of their overt resistance to the incursions of outside political authority."
The incident was over within a few hours and mass arrests of participants were begun.
A total of three people were killed in the Green Corn Rebellion of August 1917,  one of whom was Clifford Clark, an African American tenant farmer. Nearly 450 people were detained in connection with the incident, of whom 266 were released without charges being filed. Charges were levied against 184 participants, of whom about 150 were convicted or pleaded guilty, receiving jail and prison terms ranging from 60 days to ten years. Those identified as leaders of the uprising received the heaviest sentences.
The so-called "rebellion" was used as a cudgel against the Socialist Party of Oklahoma, with the party being blamed for the incident despite its largely spontaneous and external origins. This was one in a series of events that undermined the American socialist movement and fueled the Red Scare.
The Industrial Workers of the World shared the brunt of popular indignation, despite the fact that the organization took no part in the Green Corn Rebellion and was related to the WCU only by virtue of the latter group having formed in response to the IWW's refusal to organize tenant farmers. The IWW was still blamed for every action of the WCU, however, and the bogey Green Corn Rebellion was ultimately used as a justification for further measures against the IWW nationally.
An elderly Seminole-Muscogee Creek woman relayed to Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz that her uncle had been imprisoned after the rebellion. She is quoted, "The full moon of late July, early August it was, the Moon of the Green Corn. It was not easy to persuade our poor white and black brothers and sisters to rise up. We told them that rising up, standing up, whatever the consequences, would inspire future generations. Our courage, our bravery would be remembered and copied. That has been the Indian way for centuries, since the invasions. Fight and tell the story so that those who come after or their descendants will rise up once again. It may take a thousand years, but that is how we continue and eventually prevail."
A fictionalized account of the abortive revolt can be found in William Cunningham’s novel, The Green Corn Rebellion, published by Vanguard Press in 1935. The novel was republished by University of Oklahoma Press in 2010.
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