Kansas history encompasses radical activists of all stripes, including the redest
The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of expanding the conversation about how public policy affects the daily lives of people across our state. Gretchen Eick is an author, educator, and editor in Wichita.
Most Americans consider Kansas to be the reddest of the Republican “red states.” The mystery, however, is why so few Kansans — let alone the rest of the nation — know that Kansas has spawned and been home to an array of radicals from both right and left.
Since its inception, proponents of radically opposing philosophies have fought here, both figuratively and literally. The Massachusetts Free State Jayhawks fought against Missouri slavery advocates for nearly a decade before their struggle escalated into a civil war. The railroad oligarchs, who operated the railroads across the state and owned the grain elevators essential to Kansas farmers, fought against the farmers’ organizations, the Grange, and the populist party. Railroads and farmers teamed up to destroy the buffalo-based economy of Native Americans and acquire Indian lands.
In the early 20th century, a thriving Ku Klux Klan battled the NAACP, labor unions, and William Allen’s white Republicans. The John Birch Society, with three Kansans on its national board, faced the same groups in the 1950s-1970saccusing them of the almighty “C” word, communist.
Kansas radicalism took many forms. From Medicine Lodge, Carry Nation has wielded its ax of temperance against the harms of alcohol in America’s largest women’s movement.
In Girard, the Socialist Party of America published its most influential publication, Call to Reason, which carried its pro-working class analysis, and Little Blue Books of the Classics to half a million Americans. Labor organizer Eugene Debs settled in Girard in the first decade of the 20th century working on the Appeal and made two of his five campaigns for Girard’s presidency, running as the Socialist Party candidate in 1904 and 1908.
In the 1950s, young Wichitans captured national attention with counterculture poetry and art that identified America’s affliction as false prosperity, boring homogeneity and hypocrisy. . Kansas beatniks – precursors to hippies – attracted Allen Ginsberg, whose best-known anti-war poem, “Wichita Vortex Sutra” (1966), was set in Kansas.
In 1958, African-American students in Wichita staged the first successful student-led sit-in. Supported demonstration for civil rights conducted the first federal inquiry into school segregation in the Midwest.
The 21st century has introduced additional radical strategies. An anti-abortion true believer shot Dr. George Tiller in his church in 2009, Governor Sam Brownback experimented with a sweeping policy to stamp out state income tax, and the Koch brothers of Wichita donated millions of dollars to political campaigns to “blush” the face of American politics. The Kochs also pursued another strategy, working through the American Legislative Exchange Council and Americans for Prosperity to draft legislation for local, state, and federal governments to implement their agenda. We’ve seen how effective this is with state laws making it harder to register voters and model book lists that right-wing radicals besiege school boards to ban.
From Wichita, up another ‘red’
Amid all this Kansas radicalism, perhaps the best-kept secret is the story of Earl Browder, another variety of Kansas “red.”
Browder was a Wichita boy born into a farming-teacher family in 1891, when everyone believed Wichita was about to become the Chicago of the Great Plains. A dozen universities were planned. Streets were laid out on the highest area of the city, Fairmount, with names that presaged the expected greatness of the city: Vassar, Harvard, Yale and Holyoke.
A major economic depression in the 1890s dissolved these dreams, dramatically reduced property values, and propelled emigration. Even the brand new Garfield University (now Friends University), whose Proudfoot and Byrd Clock Tower building was the largest educational structure west of the Mississippi, lay abandoned, inhabited by cattle and rats. instead of students.
The Chicago of the Great Plains has become a mess nicknamed Doo-Dah.
At age 15, with only an elementary education, Browder joined the Socialist Party. At 23, he rises against the Great War in Europe. He called it the war of the rich and the fight of the poor, dragging the world into an atrocious struggle over meters of ground, with the arms industry being the sole winner.
When President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war, rescinding his campaign promise to remain neutral, guys from all over the country were drafted into military service. Browder was instead sent to Leavenworth Prison, charged under the new Espionage Act which prohibited criticism of the war or the draft.
When he came out at the end of the war, Browder joined others the government had prosecuted for their exercise of free speech. Together they formed the Communist Party of America in 1919. It grew to 60,000 members in its first year.
Browder was a soft-spoken Kansas boy. People said it connected the best of America’s past to the economic changes sought by the Communist Party, and it made sense. His passion for “the underserved” was evident from an early age.
“At school…he always insisted on the rights of students who were discriminated against by their teachers. … He was the vocal friend of all the underdogs at school,” writes journalist Cliff Stratton in the capital of Topeka in September 1936.
That year, Browder was the Communist Party of America’s candidate for president, running against Franklin Roosevelt. He told Stratton: “Today the choice is rather this: should all progressive forces in the country come together to keep the fascist men of Wall Street out of power, protect our democratic rights and improve our standard of living, or should we go to Landon, Hearst and the Liberty League?
He won 79,315 votes and ran again in 1940, this time from prison where he was sentenced to four years plus a $2,000 fine for passport fraud, after traveling to the Soviet Union, which was illegal (The Kansas City Times, January 23, 1940). Between these two elections, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin made a secret pact with Nazi leader Adolph Hitler to allow the Germans to pass through the Baltic states that the Soviets had taken by force and incorporated into the USSR.
On December 8, 1941, when the United States entered World War II, the Soviets were allies of the United States. Browder was released from prison a year early for good behavior.
Proposed changes meet fierce backlash
When World War II ended in August 1945, Browder, who had led the party for 15 years, proposed that the Communist Party of America be transformed from a political party to a Marxist educational organization, the Communist Political Association.
He wanted to Americanize the party, sever its close ties with the Soviet Union, and base it more on Jeffersonian ideas and less on Marxist dogma, according to a March 15, 1960 Kansas City Times article. He believed that communists and capitalists could collaborate and compete, without needing to fight.
These views were similar to those expressed by Wendell Wilkie, the Republican presidential candidate in 1940, in his book One World. But Browder’s ideas were heresy to Stalin, and Stalin’s proteges in the American party vigorously attacked Browder.
He was expelled from the leadership of the Communist Party of America in 1945 and from party membership a year later.
No longer officially a “Communist”, he was called to Washington in 1951 for questioning by Senator Joseph McCarthy, as part of the hunt for McCarthy “reds” in American institutions. Browder was a cooperative witness, but he declined to identify any other communists. Tried in federal court for contempt of Congress, the judge acquitted him, according to Topeka Capital (March 9, 1951).
In March 1960, he wrote an article published in Harper’s to explain his break with the Communist Party. He wrote: “American Communists had flourished as champions of domestic reform. But when the Communists abandoned reforms and championed a Soviet Union that was openly contemptuous of America while predicting its rapid collapse, the same party lost all of its hard-won influence. It just became a bad word in the American language.
He wrote that his “break with the Russians had led me to a fundamental re-examination of Marxist theory. … Since then, I have opposed the Cold War communist line, both through public statements and through private aid to trade unionists breaking free from communist influence. … I do not consider myself a Communist, or even a Marxist in the dogmatic sense,” ever since.
“What remains constant for me, over the past 15 years, is the conviction that the cold war was a calamity for the whole world, and that it cannot be justified by any theoretical consideration, nor by any alleged national interest.” he wrote. “I can only hope that Khrushchev’s new line of speech portends a new line of action to which America can respond in the same way. Such hopes, however, are tempered by years of disappointing memories, which remind us all that it takes two sides to make peace.
Browder was a Kansas Radical and a “red” independent thinker who found himself shunned and pilloried by radicals on the right and left for his refusal to blindly obey a political party.
Today, incapacitated by dogmatic wars, threats of civil war, and a pandemic, Kansas radicals continue to fight for the future of the state and the nation. Today’s ‘red state’ leaders are a far cry from Browder, but they could learn from him and Wilkie, the Republican presidential candidate, the importance of rejecting allegiance to one-sided thinking unique.
How will Kansas navigate the deep disaffections of the present, and what kind of “red” will our leadership be?
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