The Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity boys at the University of Oklahoma, who say that they were taught racist chants, became more famous than they ever expected to be in a bad way, making the cable news cycle.
The university public relations team, including President David Boren, went into damage control overdrive alleging that this incident grossly mischaracterized that institution’s character on race.
I can believe that. Universities are typically more progressive than the general populace, so the University of Oklahoma is probably ahead of the rest of the state on race. The state of Oklahoma has an interesting history on race that I discovered in my studies of Theodore Roosevelt, who subscribers know is my favorite president.
Roosevelt challenged Oklahoma on the issue of race first. William Murray was governor of Oklahoma from 1931-35. Before that he was legal advisor to the Governor of the Indian Territory acquiring the nickname “Alfalfa Bill.”
He helped write the state’s constitution serving as president of the convention that wrote it.
Alfalfa Bill was also an avowed public racist. The only thing it was said that he hated more than blacks was Jews. As such, the Oklahoma constitution that was proposed contained white supremacist and segregationist clauses.
In his campaign for governor in 1930, Wikipedia says he railed against “The three C’s – Corporations, Carpetbaggers and Coons.” He was elected on that platform in a landslide taking 59.1 percent of the vote.
Alfalfa Bill got into it with Theodore Roosevelt – first because he was incensed that Roosevelt in 1901 had invited and entertained Booker T. Washington, a black man in the White House. This damaged Roosevelt’s political standing in the South.
Wikipedia said that Mississippi Sen. James Vardaman “complained that the White house was now so saturated with the odor of (n-word) that the rats had taken refuge in the stable.”
But more than that, what really angered them was that Roosevelt refused to allow Oklahoma to become a state until it removed the white supremacist and segregationist clauses from the state constitution before he would allow it to be submitted to Congress for approval.
Alfalfa Bill begrudgingly was forced to comply and Oklahoma was accepted as the 46th state on Nov. 16th, 1907 by Roosevelt. It also earned Roosevelt, Alfalfa Bill’s eternal ire with Murray damaging Roosevelt politically wherever he could.
The change in the constitution didn’t stop Alfalfa Bill from trying to enact Jim Crow laws in Oklahoma. When blacks tried to hold an Emancipation Day rally in a park in Oklahoma City, Alfalfa Bill imposed martial law and ordered his guard to shut them down.
In later life, Alfalfa Bill wrote a book in support of fascism and supported Strom Thurmond for president against Harry Truman. Alfalfa Bill’s son, Johnston was elected governor of Oklahoma and Bill administered the oath of office to his son in 1951.
Oklahoma has a uniquely ingrained racist history. I was surprised to hear former Congressman Joe Scarborough claim on “Morning Joe” that during the decades of time he had spent in the South and in college at Alabama he had never personally heard anything like the racist incident that occurred at the University of Oklahoma. He must not be someone that racists confide in.
I was in Oklahoma City in 1979 buying lightweight calves at the auction and the order buyer there who was, of course white, took my friend and I to lunch. The waitress was black and the order buyer denigrated her racially to us not knowing that my friend was married to a black women.
I wanted to crawl under the table wishing that he would just shut up.
That was 45 years after Alfalfa Bill – and he would have still gotten that order buyer’s vote.
The next incident happened just a few years ago at the Clay County Fair in Spencer. I was sitting at a picnic table with a South Dakota farmer in front of some commercial booths just enjoying the day and watching the people walk by.
One of the attendants representing an ag magazine publication stepped out from his booth and noting a mixed race couple walking by, told us, “I just can’t get used to seeing that.”
He was from Kansas, not Oklahoma but I guess that was close enough.
The question that I have pondered is, “What is it about me specifically that these racists feel comfortable in openly sharing their opinions with me?” Do they really think that because I am another white guy about their age that I would be sympathetic?
Do they have reason from past experience where they live to believe that? I expect that must be the case. I expect that a couple of their sons or grandsons just got expelled from the University of Oklahoma for it.
Ironically, my first vocal solo in high school was from the musical “South Pacific,” entitled, “You’ve Got To Be Taught.” It was controversial at the time because it commented on race.
The musical’s producers asked Rodgers and Hammerstein who wrote South Pacific to drop the song, but they refused. The lyrics to that song defined what it took to perpetuate the racist mentality. I was just 15 years old at the time, but I still remember the lyrics:
“You’ve got to be taught to be afraid of people whose eyes are oddly made and people whose skin is a different shade . . . you’ve got to be carefully taught.”
Anyway, I have a mixed race adopted granddaughter who I am pretty darn proud of, and she is not going to the University of Oklahoma even if that is the least racist institution in the state.
In all of the on-air discussion of the racist chant and blowback from the University of Oklahoma incident in the media, I never saw any discussion of the history of this in that state.
No mention of their first constitution before statehood or Alfalfa Bill, the example that he set for his son and the legacy there.
Only because of my knowledge of Theodore Roosevelt did I know it. I think Alfalfa Bill adds perspective.
David Kruse is president of CommStock Investments Inc., author and producer of The CommStock Report, an ag commentary and market analysis available daily by radio and by subscription on DTN/FarmDayta and the Internet.
Please Enter Your Facebook App ID. Required for FB Comments. Click here for FB Comments Settings page