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Oklahoma: Hot and Cold

Our weekly updates from the Humanities Research Fellows concludes for 2017 with a post from Jeff Van Hanken, an Associate Professor in the Film Studies program at the University of Tulsa and founder of C.H.A.M.P., the Center for Health, Arts and Measurable Practices at TU, which seeks to support and promote art projects that target specific community health indicators.

The line snaked out the front door of the Crystal Theater and down the street. It was 1990, maybe 1991. It was summer but I don’t remember it being especially hot. I had never been to Okemah and I’m not sure how I learned that a concert had been planned in celebration of Woody Guthrie. I’m not even sure what I knew about Woody himself. That he wrote “This Land is Your Land”? That he was from Oklahoma? This was before rock band Wilco and singer-songwriter Billy Bragg collaborated on an album based upon unrecorded Woody lyrics. This was still a few years before the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival itself was formally launched and I would not have been surprised if there hadn’t been more than a dozen people in attendance that night.

As it turns out, it was packed. A man and woman stood near us. They were friendly, a few years older than myself at the time. They recalled how they would play Woody’s children songs for their son. I added this to the list of things I didn’t know about Woody.

Someone pointed at the water towers standing at the edge of town, looming there like giant children’s toys. In simple, block letters, one tower was painted with the word, “Hot,” the other painted “Cold.” This was meant to symbolize the town’s feeling toward Woody. Some embraced the native son, celebrated his legacy, his music, his plainspokenness; other were turned off by what were presumed to be his leftist politics.

Looking at the turnout that night, then reflecting on the enthusiasm of the audience during the concert, I remember thinking that it surely couldn’t be long before both of those towers were painted, “Hot.” The trajectory from that point forward seemed so clear, unavoidable. The state, still among the nation’s youngest, was just beginning to come into its own. It wasn’t trending Democratic or progressive or populist. It was simply trending Oklahoman. What did that mean to me at that time? Modest, unboastful, curious, protective of its forests, its prairies, its water, its wildlife, unburdened by Texas bravado but livelier than bashful Kansans.

None of this seemed a paradox for me. My grandfather had come to Oklahoma in 1939 for work. In time, he built a fine little oil services company. And he loved the outdoors, buying a series of small ranches dotted across the Northeastern part of the state. That’s how we grew up: revering nature, camping, fishing, thinking everyone deserved a fair shake. We were largely a public school family, though a couple of us were lucky enough to go off to some of the better private schools in the world. It was a privilege. There’s the path, it seemed at the time: excellent education, unsullied nature, new industries, send emissaries out, import good ideas, leave off with the bad ones.

When the members of the seminar met to discuss my topic, Oklahoma and its legacy and what it means to be a native Oklahoman today, it became clear that thinking about Oklahoma as a site of tolerance and forward-thinking is difficult. As we all digest the news from the state Legislature, this seems reasonable. I prefer, however, to view this moment as an anomaly.

At the time of the Woody concert, there were six Oklahoma Congressmen. Four were Democrats, one of whom was the deeply missed Mike Synar, who seemed to me to have figured out a path forward. Not for Democrats or Progressives but for Oklahomans. David Boren was, at that moment, the lone Democratic Senator but reaching back, one could chart a course populated by Fred Harris, Robert S. Kerr, and Thomas Gore. Kerr himself was a very successful oilman who believed in big public projects such as the McClellan-Kerr Navigation system that connects Oklahoma with the Gulf of Mexico.

And it wasn’t just Democrats. Former mayor and current U.S. Senator James Inhofe himself came out in support of a full array of visionary projects from the still-developing river parks system, to solar energy, to perhaps my favorite, a monorail system that would connect the disparate parts of Tulsa.

Perhaps a train in the sky was overreaching, but so what? Shouldn’t we overreach a bit? If we fall a bit short, fine. That’s better than so much of what I read today, which seems petty and mean, unimaginative. Positioning ourselves in a mortal battle with government seems to miss the point.

Shouldn’t we want to be better than Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado? Shouldn’t want we to brag that our schools are the best, our teachers are better supported, our roads are the finest and our streams the cleanest? Why wouldn’t we want that? Who could possibly be against that? This isn’t about government; this is about improving, getting better, not going backward.

My son and I recently attended the OU-TCU football game. That first half was the finest 30 minutes of football I’ve ever seen in person. We’re a small state but we can make that happen. We can compete with the largest, best funded-institutions in the country. If we can do that on the football field, then why can’t we do anything else we want?

Sometimes when reading about the state Legislature, I feel like Paul Newman in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” riding horses over deserts, traversing rivers, all in an attempt to evade an advancing posse. Finally, exasperated, Newman snarls, “Who are these guys?”

In thinking back on that pivotal night at the Crystal Ballroom, I had a hazy recollection of a time when the Ku Klux Klan attempted to organize a rally down in Moore, which at that time was really just a small town that lay between Oklahoma City and Norman. Considering where we are today, I began to wonder if I had made it up. It took some searching, and a trial subscription to the Paris, Texas News but I finally found what I was looking for.

From the Jan. 25, 1980 edition of the Paris News, a small item near the bottom of page 4 ran with the headline, “KKK Leader recruits in schools.”

“During a short 45-minute visit near the perimeters of the Moore [Oklahoma] school, students booed and hissed at [Klan leaders] Wilkinson and Clary as they doggedly tried to enlist some teen-agers in their Invisible Empire. However, the group of about 12 white students didn’t buy the white supremacy pitch.”

Not only did the students not buy it, they expressed themselves rather forcefully.

“Two girls approached the men and laughed at their regalia. ‘Oh, they’re putting on their coneheads,’ cried Allison Badger and Joanna Freeman. ‘I see those robes on, and it makes me sick,’ Miss Freeman told the pair, adding, ‘This is what I think of you,’ while ripping apart a leaflet.”

That was the kind of Oklahoma I foresaw when standing on the sidewalk outside the Crystal Theater. Allison and Joanna, wherever you are, rock on. Woody would have been proud.