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Oklahoma Journeys

Governor Walton Declares Statewide Martial Law, 1923


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This week on Oklahoma Journeys we take a look at an Oklahoma governor who was at various times both adored and hated by many of his constituents. Governor Jack Walton was known for being a bit quirky at times, but the former Oklahoma City mayor is probably best remembered for his declaration of war on the KKK, the topic of this week's Oklahoma Journeys from the Oklahoma History Center.

From the Oklahoma History Center, this is Oklahoma Journeys. I'm Michael Dean.

Oklahoma, in its short time as a state, has had its fair share of odd political celebrities. One of the elite members of Oklahoma's odd-squad is Jack Walton, one time Oklahoma City mayor and state governor for a total of 11 months, the shortest gubernatorial term in the history of our state. Flaunted as the candidate of choice for the working and common folks of the state, Governor Walton made good on his promise of a giant BBQ feast at his inauguration and began his term on ostensibly good footing; however, things began to decline at a rapid rate. Largely to blame for Walton's short time in office was his so-called "war" with the Ku Klux Klan.

The period of Walton's governorship was also a time of activity for the KKK. During the 1920s the Ku Klux Klan experienced a resurgence in both Oklahoma and in the Midwest. In this incarnation the Klan not only continued to hate African-Americans but also expanded to include hatred of Catholics, immigrants and anything and anyone that might be perceived as anti-American. The Klan was particularly strong in Oklahoma and in fact did control the politics in a number of towns. Thinking that opposition to his programs was organized by the Klan, Governor Walton took it upon himself to declare war on the group and began by declaring martial law in Okmulgee and in Tulsa. He also unconstitutionally suspended the right of habeas corpus for people in those towns. When a grand jury began investigating the legality of Walton's activities, the governor escalated the war.

It was in this week of 1923 that in his efforts to stifle Klan activity and prevent grand jury snooping, Governor Walton declared martial law over the entire state. He then placed the entire state capital complex under his direct command. Walton, by dropping this political atomic bomb on the state and through various other mishandlings, managed to alienate himself from everyone in the legislature and caused a complete reversal of opinion from his one-time supporters. The general feeling around the state was that, Klan or no Klan, Walton with his haphazard declarations of martial law, was going too far and by declaring it over the entire state he was setting himself up for trouble. Indeed, his actions did invoke the wrath of the legislature who began circulating demands for impeachment. Walton tried unsuccessfully several times to prevent the legislature from meeting, and when they did it was to suspend and then eventually remove him from office, replacing him with Lt. Governor Martin Trapp.

Oklahoma Journeys is a production of the Oklahoma History Center, dedicated to the collection, preservation, and sharing of our state's past. I'm Michael Dean.