Taking a cursory look at the career of Jack C. Walton (1881-1949) it isn’t hard to reach the following conclusion: he bravely tried to fight the KKK in Oklahoma, a state in which its reign of terror was one of the worst and numerous politicians were members, and his fall was a result of their political influence. This only tells part of the story…the part that Walton himself would have wanted you to hear.
A civil engineer by trade, running in 1917 for the Oklahoma City Commissioner of Public Works was an ideal start for Walton. He was successful in first office, and this led to him being elected mayor of Oklahoma City in 1919.
Mayor of Oklahoma City
Walton proved a staunch progressive as Oklahoma City’s mayor. He was even thought to be unusually racially tolerant for his time and place. When the city’s meatpackers went on strike, Walton openly favored the strikers by providing them with food while refusing to extend police protection to owners and their property (Langeveld). The most significant incident of labor violence to come out of this was the shooting and hanging of a black worker who crossed the picket line, in which the union member perpetrators made it look like a Klan attack. Walton during this time would accuse the city’s chamber of commerce of “killing the city by their promotion of labor strife, and wanting to finish the job by declaring martial law” (O’Dell). This would come back to haunt him.
The 1922 Gubernatorial Election
Walton ran for governor as a progressive, opposing the death penalty, supporting aid for farmers, and backing public ownership of utilities. Oklahoma was a different state one hundred years ago than it is now as progressivism was quite popular there and the state even had one of the most successful state socialist parties in the decade prior. They were Christians who framed socialism as consistent with the ideals of the Founding Fathers and regarded capitalism as inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus Christ. Many people who had been in the Socialist Party moved into the Farmer Labor Reconstruction League, a key progressive support group for Walton’s campaign. Walton was highly supportive of this group and enthusiastically embraced their goals. Although the GOP had a temporary surge in 1920, the 1922 midterms moved the needle in the Democratic direction, with Walton winning by about ten points despite Democrats of the anti-Walton “Constitutional Democratic Club” opting to back Republican John Fields. His agenda was initially assisted by a landslide Democratic win of the state House as well, with many of its members in agreement with Walton and the agenda of the Farmer Labor Reconstruction League.
His administration started with a giant BBQ cookout, which would turn out to be the only campaign promise he would manage to keep. Despite an overwhelmingly Democratic legislature, what passed was more modest legislation than initially promised on the campaign, but this did include strengthening workers’ comp, expanding farm cooperatives, increasing funding for education, increasing welfare funding, and generally spending big. Walton was an ambitious figure who was thought to have goals beyond being Oklahoma’s governor, including running for the Senate or even the presidency. However, Walton was careening towards catastrophe.
Starting in 1920, the Ku Klux Klan experienced tremendous growth in Oklahoma. It was one of the states in which the organization had the most influence and was also one of the most violent state Klans. Racial violence, pushed on by anxieties over shifting demographics, urbanization, and rising crime culminated in the horrific anti-black Tulsa Race Riot in 1921, which lasted two days and resulted in 39 confirmed dead (26 black, 13 white) although many more may have been killed, and the destruction of the Greenwood district, a black middle-class neighborhood. Governor Walton did not start out against the Klan, indeed he even initially joined the organization, taking the oath administered by Cyclops W.T. Tilly (O’Dell). He also appointed some of its members to state government and indeed he appointed many people to state government as a way of winning support and it would later be used against him.
Walton also attempted to appeal to both conservatives and the Farmer-Labor Reconstruction League through appointments as well as vacillating on policy. He would go on to interfere with the university board of regents, who he lacked support from, and in one instance he fired Dr. James B. Eskridge as president of Oklahoma A&M College, appointing in his place Farmer-Labor Reconstruction League head George Wilson, who was unqualified for the post and ultimately served only a few months as his appointment proved unpopular. Walton also vigorously enforced Prohibition, stepping in when local authorities were lax. Yet, his approach to criminal justice could be shockingly loose. Governor Walton was liberal in his use of executive pardons, doing so for 253 people, 29 who had been convicted of murder. Although he was accused of being bribed for pardons, this was never proven. He would also pursue the Klan for reasons both political and out of a sense of disgust for their violence.
Citing Klan violence, Governor Walton declared martial law in Okmulgee County on June 26, 1923. County Sheriff John Russell claimed this act was retaliation for the arrests of two men with commissions from the governor, and it ultimately lasted three days and resulted in several arrests (Langeveld). On August 14th, he placed Tulsa County under martial law, the immediate triggering incident being KKK members severely beating several Jewish men accused of selling drugs and he would follow this up with “absolute martial law”, which included a suspension of habeas corpus. Klan terror was high in Tulsa County and numerous cases were exposed, but the suspension of habeas corpus is explicitly prohibited in the Oklahoma Constitution. After The Tulsa Tribune called for Klan members to resist martial law, Governor Walton assigned a censor to the paper (O’Dell). The suspension of habeas corpus triggered a grand jury investigation into Governor Walton’s actions, and in response, he escalated.
On September 15th, Walton placed the entire state under martial law, resulting in a halting of the legal proceedings against him and placed Oklahoma City under “absolute martial law”, forbidding the state legislature from meeting with him claiming that 68 of their members were Klansmen. To add fuel to the fire, he canceled the Oklahoma State Fair. Calls for impeachment of Walton grew and grew. Despite Governor Walton’s efforts to block the legislature from acting against him, his opposition got a voter petition on the ballot permitting a special session of the legislature, which passed on October 2nd by a three to one margin.
The state legislature started Walton’s impeachment trial, with future Congressman Wesley E. Disney of Muskogee acting as prosecutor. Walton counter-offered for the legislature to specially convene to pass anti-Klan legislation, after which he would resign, but the legislature refused, holding that it would address the Klan issue after impeaching him. Although initially six charges were included related to Walton’ s anti-Klan actions, the prospect of him calling in witnesses to testify on Klan violence caused the legislature to drop them. He declined to defend himself as he considered the trial unfair, stating “I don’t wish to criticize any of these honorable members; some of them no doubt want to have a fair trial. But I have reached the conclusion that I cannot have a fair trial in this court. Knowing that, I am withdrawing from this room. I don’t care to withstand this humiliation any longer for myself, my family, or my honorable attorneys. You may proceed as you see best” (Langeveld). Walton was convicted on November 19th of eleven of twenty-two charges filed, and on some of them the vote was unanimous. These included his suspension of habeas corpus, his overuse of pardons, appointing too many people to government, and using the National Guard to prevent the meeting of a grand jury (Langeveld). Despite Representative Wesley Disney’s call for a strong anti-mask law to combat the Klan, the legislature passed a somewhat watered-down version, as indeed some of their members, such as future Louisiana Congressman George S. Long (Huey’s brother), were in the Klan.
1924: An Attempted Comeback
The Democratic primary for the Senate race in Oklahoma in 1924 was a crowded one to succeed retiring Robert L. Owen, and despite his lack of popularity Walton had enough of a coalition to pull off a win as he was the only figure in the Democratic field to denounce the Klan. That year he went up against Republican William B. Pine, who by default got not only Klan support but backing from many who had regarded Walton as a tyrant during his tenure. Walton did not help himself when he suggested that 95% of protestant ministers in Oklahoma were Klansmen and “lower than skunks” (Langeveld). The issue of his pardons came up again that year, with Vice Presidential candidate Charles G. Dawes suggesting that such actions inspired people to resort to joining the Klan. He stated, “If there could be an excuse for law-abiding citizens to band themselves together in secret organizations for law enforcement, it existed in Oklahoma and the Klan became a powerful organization” (Langeveld). Walton’s loss to Pine was not attributable to the Klan, but the degree of loss certainly was helped by them, as he lost by 26 points while Democrat John W. Davis won the state in the presidential election, other Democrats won statewide elections in Oklahoma, and Republicans gained only one House seat (Tulsa) from Oklahoma that year.
Walton attempted more comebacks but didn’t succeed until he won a seat on the Oklahoma Corporation Commission in 1932, where he served until 1939. He once again ran for the gubernatorial nomination in 1934, but lost to Congressman Ernest W. Marland and tried one more time in 1938. Walton died in Oklahoma City three weeks after suffering a stroke on November 25, 1949.
Bissett, J. Socialist Party. The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture.
Langeveld, D. (2016, January 3). Jack C. Walton: general incompetence versus Invisible Empire. The Downfall Dictionary.
O’Dell, L. Walton, John Calloway (1881-1949). The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History.