Plain Terror

by Abby Wendle


Oklahoma is considered a conservative state these days. But in the early 1900’s, Oklahoma had an active leftist movement. Equally active was the Ku Klux Klan, organizing to squelch the growing power of the socialists and the working class. Here we have a story from Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz about her grandfather’s involvement in the socialist party in Piedmont, Oklahoma, and as a labor organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World. Dunbar-Ortiz is a native Oklahoman, author of Red Dirt: Growing Up Okie and a retired history professor from California State University at Hayward.


Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: The Klan came and dragged him out in the night and they beat him badly, almost to death.  This was when my grandmother insisted that they get out of there, that they were going to kill him or burn down their house in the middle of the night.  She was terrorized and the kids were terrorized.  So, you can say the Klan, their terrorism actually worked.  The little town where I grew up, my grandfather’s town was made up of small farming communities.  The poverty was widespread and dire; very rough life, living in tents and dugouts.  The socialist movement and IWW had wanted to end that.  People have a very distorted vision of, you know, what a socialist is and that it might be un-American, but the Industrial Workers of the World and the Socialist Party was very popular in many, many counties of Oklahoma.  They would have these huge meetings in the summer.  Like tent revivals, only they were – they’re socialist gospel revivals.  Whole families would come, they’d camp out for, you know, before harvest for a month.  All these speakers come in like Mother Jones, you know, famous speakers.  And they had very positive visions of what they wanted to build, direct democracy; institutions that were more democratic.

The Socialist Party was a regular political party that ran candidates for office at every level.  My grandfather ran for insurance commissioner.  Emmett Victor Dunbar was my grandfather.  He was very much a grassroots organizer.  He organized the wheat thrashers who came through every summer; they’re following the crops.  These, you know, young men, actually a few women too.  He talked to them about the IWW and get them to sign up, and then you know, give them some contacts and the next place they were going to go if they had any needs or anything, or medical needs.  In our town, it was the Ku Klux Klan that crushed the organizing that my grandfather and others were doing in the whole county.  My grandfather came to be the head of the school board.  They were having a school board meeting and the Klan came with guns and then white robes riding horses and they had a firefight.  We, kind of, mystify the Klan as a very exotic organization, when they’re just death squads.

My grandfather renounced them.  There was a scene that my father used to tell me his proudest moment, proudest of his father.  And there was a community meeting taking place in Piedmont.  Everyone was gathered in the back of general store.  The mayor was talking and these Klansman in their, you know, in their sheets and their faces covered, came marching in, you know, military style and marched up to the front and stood in front of the mayor and confronted the whole crowd and started bullying and threatening people.  So, my grandfather who was there with my grandmother and all of their children sitting on the front row, got up, and walked out.

They were the only ones to walk out.  You know, the Klan had pretty well captured the community with threats.  It was really the downfall of the IWW and the Socialist Party under that repression.

I’m Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and I grew up in Piedmont, Oklahoma.  I have a doctorate in history from UCLA in Los Angeles.  And I – when I took Oklahoma History in the 6th Grade or whenever they start teaching it, there was nothing in there about any of these things that my father had told me.  So, this is a heritage that’s very precious that they don’t even know about.