Although it was a small movement, communism in Oklahoma had strong roots and far-reaching impact. A similar movement, socialism, peaked in Oklahoma in 1916, when almost forty-seven thousand people voted for Socialist Party candidates statewide. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and Farmers' Union contributed to rise of socialism, and World War I hysteria, the postwar national "Red Scare," and incidents like the Green Corn Rebellion hastened its fall. Many Oklahoma farmers and workers were immersed in socialist ideology.
A generation later, ideas picked up by a younger generation led them into another political philosophy, communism. Nationally the Communist Party enjoyed its greatest success prior to World War II. The Communist Party of America issued its first manifesto in September 1919. In 1920, plagued by internal factionalism and attacked by the U.S. Justice Department, the party went underground. However, it reappeared in 1923 rejuvenated and united but nevertheless failed to gain a large membership. The Great Depression greatly enhanced the party's numbers and prestige. In the 1930s the party line tried to appeal to liberal Democrats, and many artists joined the communist ranks, if only for a short period of time. Others may have been attracted to an economic alternative that they thought might have avoided the economic collapse and depression of the early 1930s.
The party's agenda changed from early, more overtly revolutionary activities such as public marches, speeches, and open recruiting in the 1920s to a more subtle, covert approach in the next decade. In the 1930s in Oklahoma as elsewhere members were required to join unions and other organizations and then work from within to direct matters along communist lines. Around the state several ran for elected office, such as school board member or county commissioner, on the Independent ticket. Fred Maxham, an Oklahoma Communist Party leader in the 1930s, claimed that while the party did not control an organization like the Workers Alliance, nevertheless key members were communists, making the Alliance an asset to the party. Years earlier socialist leaders had argued that the only thing socialists and communists have in common is the overthrow of capitalism. That being said, Oklahoma communist leaders still hoped to convert the older socialist membership into their cause. Maxham in 1938 noted that the party's paying membership was made up mostly of trade unionists, tenant farmers, and African Americans. By 1939 the Oklahoma branch of the Communist Party numbered more than five hundred officially registered members. Although the communists were a small number and had little power, the reactions of government and citizens of Oklahoma to their existence makes these "Reds" a significant story.
A prominent characteristic of the communist movement in Oklahoma included the recruitment of African Americans. Agnes "Sis" Cunningham, an organizer and songwriter, claimed that African Americans made up two-thirds of the people attending one Communist Party meeting in the early 1930s. The actions of the Communist Legal Defense in defending African American Jess Hollins, arrested in December 1931 on a charge of raping a white girl, provided another reason for blacks to join the party. Like their defense of the Scottsboro boys in Alabama, who were charged with the same crime earlier that year, the communists jumped at the chance to defend Hollins. Their defense proved inadequate, and the NAACP took over the case. During this case the Communist Party held a rally in Oklahoma City that drew many African Americans, but few actually joined. The black press in the state preached against any involvement with the party.
William H. Murray, governor from 1931 to 1935, was suspicious of subversives and even sanctioned an investigation of the University of Oklahoma, but his focus was more on "immorality" than communism. His successor, Leon Phillips, crusaded against radicalism throughout his entire term. Like others, he suspected communist influence in New Deal policies and projects. Phillips warned all communists to leave the state and launched an investigation of the University of Oklahoma, accusing the college of harboring subversives on its faculty.
In 1935 Oklahoma's Works Progress Administration (WPA) hired William Cunningham, Agnes Cunningham's brother, as director of the state branch of the Federal Writers' Project. Cunningham's father, a farmer from Blaine County, fit the old socialist description, and in the 1920s William taught Marxist economics at Commonwealth College, a leftist labor institution in Mena, Arkansas. Cunningham also had written a very sympathetic novel about the Green Corn Rebellion and the impoverished farmers who had participated. Working for him at the Oklahoma branch of the Writers' Project were many leftist advocates and Fred Maxham, an officer of the Oklahoma Communist Party. Among the writers and artists who at the time flirted with communism were Jim Thompson, Louis L'Amour, and Gordon Friesen; all worked for the Federal Writers' Project. The Southwestern Writers' Congress was another organization that included some of these writers and also some faculty at state universities. Rumors about these groups' meetings and discussions offered Governor Phillips plenty of ammunition to launch investigations.
Robert and Ina Woods worked diligently for the Communist Party in Oklahoma, with Robert serving as secretary. In 1938 Robert Woods signed, as state secretary of the party, a resolution that supported the pending and ill-fated O'Connell Peace Act, which was pending before the U.S. Congress. Woods sent this Communist document to the Oklahoma solons, requesting their support for the bill. This peace act would amend the Neutrality Act, legislation that not only kept the United States out of the conflict in Spain, but also made it legal for Americans to sell arms to the "aggressive nations" of Italy and Germany, who were assisting assisted Spanish fascists without declaring war. Conversely, it was illegal for an American to sell arms or loan money to Spain, because that nation was considered a belligerent. The O'Connell Act would have drawn a distinction between the victim and aggressor and forbidden the exportation of war materials and loans to the aggressor but made it legal for the victim. Ironically, a year later Russia made a nonaggression pact with Germany.
The Woods's Progressive Bookshop at 129 1/2 West Grand in Oklahoma City existed as a communist meeting place. Throughout the store, leftist books and literature were interspersed among other books and documents such as the Constitution of the United States. In September 1940, a few months after unknown persons broke into their store and publicly burned alleged communist propaganda and books, the Woodses, Eli Jaffe, Fred Maxham, and Alan Shaw were arrested. They were later convicted under Oklahoma's criminal syndicalism act. A product of the Red Scare of the early 1920s, this law made it illegal to circulate or display subversive material. The court sentenced each defendant to ten years and a fine of five thousand dollars. The Oklahoma Criminal Court of Appeals finally overturned the convictions in February 1943.
In 1941 the Oklahoma Legislature attempted to purge the universities and the state of communists. Among dozens of people questioned by a so-called "Little Dies Committee" (named after the famed House Un-American Activities Committee, 1934–77, headed in the 1930s through 1950s by U.S. Rep. Martin Dies of Texas) were communist leader Robert Woods, as well as newspaperman Roscoe Dunjee, University of Oklahoma professors E. Nicholas Comfort, W. C. Randels, and Maurice Halperin, and Rev. John B. Thompson. All but Woods had helped create the Oklahoma Federation for Constitutional Rights during the Woods's trial. The solons engineered Halperin's termination. Years later, he would again face charges of communism and spying that would prompt him to flee the country.
After the Woods trial ended, many of Oklahoma's high-profile communist adherents moved to the nation's hotbed of radicalism, New York City. People such as Agnes Cunningham and her husband Gordon Friesen stayed active and, along with fellow Oklahoman Woody Guthrie, helped the Almanac Singers protest for unions and later against fascism.
Throughout the 1940s and 1950s the Oklahoma state government had small "red hunts," mainly directed at the state's two universities. One occurred when students protested a proposed loyalty oath for college students and teachers. In the U.S. House of Representatives, the House Un-American Activities Committee investigated many Oklahomans, including E. Nicholas Comfort, Dean of the Oklahoma School of Religion (1940), and William J. Loe, a special investigator for Oklahoma City (1940). The communist-baiting of the Joseph McCarthy era and the actions of groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and the Oklahoma League against Communism, Nazism, and Fascism helped eradicate the communist element from the state, for the most part, in the last half of the twentieth century. Exposés in Oklahoma papers helped run Alan Shaw, leader of the Oklahoma and Arkansas branch, out of town in 1950. In 1976 the Communist Party failed to make inroads in Oklahoma, losing a bid to put a candidate on the general ballot.
George Lynn Cross, Professors, Presidents, and Politicians: Civil Rights and the University of Oklahoma, 1890–1968 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1981).
Agnes Cunningham and Gordon Friesen, Red Dust and Broadsides: A Joint Autobiography (Amherst: Massachusetts University Press, 1999).
Eli Jaffe, Oklahoma Odyssey: A Memoir (Hyde Park, N.Y.: Eli Jaffe, 1993).
James Scales and Danney Goble, Oklahoma Politics: A History (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1982).
Harvey Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism: The Depression Decade (New York: Basic Books, 1994).
The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Larry O'Dell, “Communist Party,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=CO040.
© Oklahoma Historical Society.