Oklahoma Communists say there’s no pride in McCarthyism

BY:C.J. Atkins| June 16, 2023
Oklahoma Communists say there’s no pride in McCarthyism


Citing a 1955 law that declared the Communist Party illegal in the state of Oklahoma, organizers of Oklahoma City Pride blocked local Reds from having a booth alongside other community organizations and corporate sponsors at this year’s “Pride on 39th” festival.

“We have reviewed your application and have found that Title 21, Section 1266.1 et seq. would prohibit our organization from accepting your application,” OKC Pride, Inc., President Tessa White wrote in an email to the Communist Party of Oklahoma (CPUSA), a copy of which was provided to People’s World.

Bran Jansen, a member of the Communist Party in the Sooner State, said the “McCarthyite law was founded on the falsehood” that the CPUSA advocated violent insurrection. He was referring to the anti-communist Red Scare, employment blacklists, and purges of the late 1940s and early ’50s, often associated with right-wing Sen. Joe McCarthy.

“It is disturbing that such an unconstitutional law, based on the age-old lie that the Communist Party USA is secretly plotting the violent overthrow of the government remains on the books in 2023,” Jansen told People’s World.

Oklahoma Statute Title 21, Section 1266, states, in part:

“The Communist Party of the United States, together with its component or related parts and organizations, no matter under what name known…which engage in or advocate, abet, advise, or teach…any activities intended to overthrow, destroy, or alter…the government of the United States, or of the State of Oklahoma…by force or violence, are hereby declared to be illegal and not entitled to any rights, privileges, or immunities.”

Jansen pointed out that it was “Trump and his MAGA Republicans,” rather than Communists, who recently attempted to launch a coup—namely the Jan. 6, 2021, invasion and insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

Oklahoma’s anti-communist law threatens that any organization found in violation will be dissolved and have all its funds and property seized by the state. And it’s not just party members who are on the hook; any individual who “contributes to the support of” the Communist Party in any way is also guilty and could face a fine of $20,000 and up to 20 years in the state penitentiary.

Communists need not apply

After submitting its application to join the Pride celebrations earlier in May, the Communist Party of Oklahoma received the rejection notice from White on the 31st—just three days before the festival, which took place June 2-4. Jansen replied on June 1 asking OKC Pride to reconsider its decision; he received no answer.

The CP of Oklahoma did get one further email on June 2 from Jeff Jordan, the Festival Chair of OKC Pride. The message was addressed to “Vendor” and notified the CP that it had been assigned “Booth Number 37.” It included details on where to set up and other logistical information. The email made no reference to the earlier application rejection from White.

Coming just hours before the start of the event, however, Jansen said CP members were unable to organize in time to set up a booth. They were also left confused as to whether or not the rejection by White had been reversed. Jansen requested clarity on the matter.

Telling Jordan that the CP had been “denied a booth because of a (blatantly unconstitutional) old law on the books,” Jansen inquired, “Has the decision to deny our application been reversed.” Again, he said, he got no answer.

While the spotty communication was frustrating, Jansen said the members of the Communist Party of Oklahoma are most angry that the anti-communist statute is still in force and believe that’s where the fire has to be focused.

“We have to hope they [OKC Pride] were motivated by good faith and just worried about running afoul of the law and the consequences that come with it,” Jansen told People’s World. “We don’t know if they are actually anti-communist and support the law or are simply fearful of the law; it would be great if they’d support us in overturning it.”

As for the conflicting emails from OKC Pride, he chalked it up to possibly being a case of “the left hand not talking to the right hand.” Regardless, he said the Communist Party of Oklahoma would appreciate clarification on what OKC Pride’s final decision was, whether the CP will be allowed to participate in the future, and where the organization stands on Section 1266.

People’s World made telephone calls, left voicemails, and sent an email to OKC Pride requesting comment on the matter, but as of press time, no response has been received.

Local democracy activists, however, were vocal about the Communists being kicked out of Pride—an event premised on the celebration of diversity, solidarity, and unity.

“Regardless of political party, we are all American citizens,” Marianne Smith, Tri-Chair of the Oklahoma Poor People’s Campaign, said. “This is totally unconstitutional.” She urged that Section 1226 be thrown out completely.

When farmers voted red

The Oklahoma Communist Party was a significant political force on the left and in labor during the Great Depression, building on an agrarian socialist tradition stretching back to the beginning of the early 20th century.

Made up largely of trade unionists, tenant farmers, and African Americans, the CPUSA’s Oklahoma branch had over 500 members at the time, according to the Oklahoma Historical Society.

They included famed musician and organizer Agnes “Sis” Cunningham, known for founding Broadside magazine and penning the Dust Bowl song, “My Oklahoma Home.” Also adjacent to the Red ranks was another Oklahoman, folksinger Woody Guthrie, who wrote a regular column in People’s World.

The Oklahoma Communist Party was the target of severe repression in the years leading up to and during World War II. In 1940, the Progressive Bookstore in Oklahoma City was raided and its four proprietors—all members of the Young Communist League—were arrested, along with more than a dozen customers. The incident led to the infamous “Oklahoma Book Trials.”

Charged with violating the state’s “criminal syndicalism” law for distributing Marxist books and pamphlets, the booksellers were convicted and sentenced to ten years in prison. Though their convictions were eventually overturned on appeal, the damage to Oklahoma radicalism was irreversible. Anti-communist witch-hunts and purges of the state government and public universities ensued.

“The communist-baiting of the Joseph McCarthy era and the actions of groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and the Oklahoma League Against Communism…helped eradicate the Communist element from the state,” according to historian Larry O’Dell of the Oklahoma Historical Society. People like Sis Cunningham and others fled in order to continue their activism.

By the time Section 1266 was passed in 1955, the Oklahoma Communist Party had, for all intents and purposes, already been destroyed. Efforts at reorganizing in the state were attempted at various times in the decades that followed, with little long-lasting success. The current Communist Party of Oklahoma (CPUSA) is a recently-established but growing club.

Anti-communist laws part of unconstitutional tradition

Statutes like Section 1266, so-called “anti-subversive laws,” and “loyalty oath” requirements remain on the books in several U.S. states, despite a number of Supreme Court decisions declaring them unconstitutional.

Alabama, Arizona, California, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, and Washington, among others, all have some variety of regulation restricting political beliefs and freedom of association.

Oklahoma’s neighbor, Arkansas, repealed its anti-communist statute in 2003, with lawmakers quietly admitting it was of “dubious validity under the First Amendment.”

Historian Anthony Newkirk, formerly a professor at Philander Smith College, an HBCU in Arkansas, says that such anti-communist statutes “belong to a tradition of curtailing civil liberties and civil rights…usually based on race or religion.” Similar laws targeting groups like the NAACP and anti-segregation organizations were passed around the same time.

Anti-communist measures were “not simply…isolated Cold War laws,” according to Newkirk. They “laid the groundwork for measures explicitly drafted in opposition to Black civil rights” and were part of a general attack on democracy and political liberties.

Asked about the situation facing the Communists in Oklahoma, the CPUSA’s national co-chair Joe Sims looked to lessons of the Civil Rights Movement. “Martin Luther King, Jr., used to say that we are caught up in an invisible web of mutuality: the rights of each affect the rights of all,” Sims told People’s World.

“We’ve learned that lesson the hard way. Martin also taught us that we’re not bound to uphold unjust laws. Rather, we must protest them and get ourselves in some ‘good trouble’ as John Lewis would call it. Hopefully, our LGBTQ siblings in Oklahoma will come to realize this.”

Like Jansen, Sims also urged OKC Pride to join in a campaign to overturn the unconstitutional Section 1266. “Let’s stand together and get these anti-communist laws off the books. They’re downright un-American.”

Images: Background photo: Gay pride 140 – Marche des fiertés Toulouse 2011 by Guillaume Paumier (CC BY 2.0) / Rainbow flag illustration: People’s World; email from OKC Pride, Inc. provided by Brad Jansen via People’s World; photo courtesy of Brad Jansen via People’s World


    C.J. Atkins is the managing editor at People's World. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from York University in Toronto and has a research and teaching background in political economy and the politics and ideas of the American left. In addition to his work at People's World, C.J. currently serves as the Deputy Executive Director of ProudPolitics.

Related Articles

For democracy. For equality. For socialism. For a sustainable future and a world that puts people before profits. Join the Communist Party USA today.

Join Now

We are a political party of the working class, for the working class, with no corporate sponsors or billionaire backers. Join the generations of workers whose generosity and solidarity sustains the fight for justice.

Donate Now

CPUSA Mailbag

If you have any questions related to CPUSA, you can ask our experts
  • QHow does the CPUSA feel about the current American foreign...
  • AThanks for a great question, Conlan.  CPUSA stands for peace and international solidarity, and has a long history of involvement...
Read More
Ask a question
See all Answer