Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


This short-lived tenant farmers' revolt broke out in three counties along Oklahoma's South Canadian River in August 1917. Ostensibly an uprising against World War I and the Conscription Act, the Green Corn Rebellion actually emerged from a series of long-standing grievances tenant farmers held against local landowners, businessmen, and state and local authorities, especially over the increasing consolidation of agricultural land by a few wealthy landholders. At the time of the rebellion, more than half of Oklahoma's farmers were tenants, many of whom had been forced into that condition by rampant land speculation and outright fraud.

In the early years of the twentieth century, large numbers of tenants and small farmers sought help from the state's Socialist Party and its affiliated organizations, such as the Renters Union. While the Socialists called for expanding the public domain, enacting a graduated land tax, and creating a cooperative marketing system, some tenants grew frustrated with the political process and turned to night riding or to direct action techniques borrowed from the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). But the IWW itself rejected the tenant farmers because the union recruited only wageworkers.

The tenants instead joined another organization, the Working Class Union (WCU), based in Van Buren, Arkansas. The WCU locals in Oklahoma soon claimed 35,000 members, a questionable number. wcu membership rose with the collapse of cotton prices at the start of World War I, then grew again with opposition to a 1915 cattle-dipping campaign intended to check the spread of Texas fever. Charging that the chemicals used in the treatment harmed livestock, wcu members dynamited dipping vats and destroyed the property of local officials. But the organization became inactive after cotton prices rose in 1916.

The WCU revived in 1917 after American entry into World War I. Both opposition to the war and the old grievances simmered throughout the summer of 1917. In early August hundreds of men gathered at the Sasakwa, Oklahoma, farm of John Spears, an aging Socialist, to plan a march on Washington to end the war. They intended to live on barbecued beef and roasted green corn, the latter giving the rebellion its name. On August 3 rebels started burning bridges and cutting telegraph lines, but hastily organized posses soon halted the rebellion. Three men were killed and more than 400 others were arrested. Of those, 150 were convicted and received federal prison terms of up to ten years.

In the wake of the rebellion, the state Socialist Party disbanded. State and federal authorities used the uprising as a means to suppress the IWW, which had taken no part in the rebellion.

Nigel Anthony Sellars Christopher Newport University

Burbank, Garin. When Farmers Voted Red: The Gospel of Socialism in the Oklahoma Countryside, 1910–1924. Westport CT: Greenwood Press, 1976.

Green, James R. Grass-Roots Socialism: Radical Movements in the Southwest, 1895–1943. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1978.

Sellars, Nigel Anthony. Oil, Wheat, and Wobblies: The Industrial Workers of the World in Oklahoma, 1905–1930. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.

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