Kansas history encompasses radical activists of all stripes, including the reddest

March 13, 2022 3:33 am

Earl Browder, general secretary of the U.S. Communist Party from 1934 to 1945, delivers a speech circa 1935. (FPG/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Gretchen Eick is an author, educator and publisher in Wichita.

Most Americans view Kansas as the reddest of Republican “red states.” The mystery, however, is why so few Kansans — much less the rest of the nation — know that Kansas has birthed and housed an array of radicals on both the right and left.

From its inception, advocates of radically opposed philosophies have battled here, figuratively and literally. Free State Jayhawks from Massachusetts battled with proslavery advocates from Missouri for nearly a decade before their struggle escalated into the Civil War. Railroad oligarchs, who ran track across the state and owned the grain elevators essential to Kansas farmers, battled farmers’ organizations, the Grange and the Populist Party. Railroads and farmers joined to destroy Native Americans’ buffalo-based economy and acquire Indian land.

Members of the Ku Klux Klan carry a flag at a gathering in the 1920s. (KansasMemory.org/Kansas State Historical Society)

In the early 20th century, a thriving Ku Klux Klan fought the NAACP, unions, and William Allen White Republicans. The John Birch Society, with three Kansans on its national board, took on the same groups in the 1950s-1970s, charging them with the all-powerful “C” word, communist.

Kansas radicalism took many forms. From Medicine Lodge, Carry Nation wielded her temperance hatchet against the evils of alcohol in the largest movement of American women.

In Girard, the Socialist Party of America issued its most influential publication, Appeal 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 made his home in Girard during the first decade of the 20th century working on the Appeal and made two of his five campaigns for president from Girard, running as the Socialist Party candidate in 1904 and 1908.

By the 1950s, young Wichitans drew national notice with counter-culture poetry and art that identified America’s affliction as fake 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, Wichita African American students conducted the country’s first successful, student-led sit-in. Sustained civil rights protest brought the first federal investigation of school segregation in the Midwest.

The 21st century introduced additional radical strategies. An anti-abortion true believer gunned down Dr. George Tiller in his church in 2009, Gov. Sam Brownback experimented with a radical policy aimed at eradicating the state income tax and Wichita’s Koch brothers donated millions of dollars to political campaigns to “redden” the face of American politics. The Kochs pursued another strategy too, 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 was through state laws making voter registration more difficult and template lists of books that rightwing radicals are besieging school boards to ban.


From Wichita, rise of another ‘red’

Amidst 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 to a school teacher-farmer family in 1891, when everyone who was anyone believed Wichita was about to become the Chicago of the Great Plains. A dozen universities were planned. Streets were plotted on the city’s highest area, Fairmount, with names that were harbingers of the city’s anticipated greatness: Vassar, Harvard, Yale and Holyoke.

The first passenger train arrived in Wichita in 1872. The last departed in 1979. The Santa Fe depot at the Old Cowtown Museum, in this 2017 file photo, was originally at Anness, an unincorporated community in Sedgwick County. (Max McCoy/Kansas Reflector)

A major economic depression in the 1890s dissolved those dreams, dramatically reduced property values and propelled out-migration. Even the brand new Garfield University (today Friends University), whose Proudfoot and Byrd clock tower building was the largest educational structure west of the Mississippi, stood abandoned, inhabited by livestock and rats instead of students.

The Chicago of the Great Plains became a boondoggle nicknamed Doo-Dah.

At 15, with only an elementary education, Browder joined the Socialist Party. By 23 he was speaking out against the Great War in Europe. He called it a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight, sucking the world into a ghastly struggle over meters of land, with the armaments industry the only winners.

When President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war, reversing his campaign pledge to remain neutral, lads from across the nation were drafted into military service. Browder was sent instead to Leavenworth prison, charged under the new Espionage Act that forbade criticism of the war or the draft.

When he got out at the end of the war, Browder joined others whom the government had prosecuted for their exercise of free speech. Together, they formed the American Communist Party in 1919. It grew to 60,000 members in its first year.

Browder was a Kansas boy, soft spoken. People said he connected the best of America’s past with the economic changes the Communist Party sought, and he made sense. His passion for “the underserved” was evident from an early age.

“In school … he was always insisting upon the rights of students who were discriminated against by their teachers. … He was the vocal friend of all underdogs in school,” wrote journalist Cliff Stratton in the Topeka Capital in September 1936.

That year Browder was the American Communist Party’s candidate for president, running against Franklin Roosevelt. He told Stratton, “Today the choice is more like this: Shall all the progressive forces in the country join hands together to keep the Fascist-minded men of Wall Street out of power, protect our democratic rights and improve our living standards, or shall we surrender 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, having traveled to the Soviet Union, which was illegal (The Kansas City Times, Jan. 23, 1940). Between these two elections, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin made a secret pact with Nazi leader Adolph Hitler to allow the Germans to march through the Baltic states that the Soviets had taken by force and incorporated into the U.S.S.R.

By Dec. 8, 1941, when the U.S. entered World War II, the Soviets were U.S. allies. Browder was released from prison a year early for good behavior.


Proposed changes meet with fierce backlash

When World War II ended in August 1945, Browder, who had led the party for 15 years, proposed that the U.S. Communist Party change from a political party to a Marxist educational organization, the Communist Political Association.

He wanted to Americanize the party, break its close ties to the Soviet Union and base it more on Jefferson’s ideas and less on Marxist dogma, according to a March 15, 1960, article in the Kansas City Times. He believed communists and capitalists could collaborate and compete, with no need to fight each other.

These views were similar to those expressed by Wendell Wilkie, the Republican candidate for president in 1940, in his book One World. But Browder’s ideas were heresy to Stalin, and Stalin’s protégés in the U.S. party attacked Browder vigorously.

Earl Browder was questioned in 1951 by Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin (left), shown here with lawyer Roy Cohn. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs division)

He was expelled from leadership of the American Communist Party in 1945 and from membership in the party a year later.

No longer officially a “communist,” he was called to Washington in 1951 to be interrogated by Sen. Joseph McCarthy, part of McCarthy’s hunt for “reds” in U.S. institutions. Browder was a cooperative witness, but he refused to identify other communists. Tried in federal court for Contempt of Congress, the judge acquitted him, according to the 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: “The American Communists had thrived as champions of domestic reform. But when the Communists abandoned reforms and championed a Soviet Union openly contemptuous of America while predicting its quick collapse, the same party lost all its hard-won influence. It became merely a bad word in the American language.”

He wrote that his “break with the Russians had led me into a basic re-examination of Marxist theory. … I have opposed the Communist cold war line ever since, both by public utterance and by private help to trade unionists breaking free from the Communist influence. … I have not considered myself a Communist, nor even a Marxist in the dogmatic sense,” since then.

“What remains constant for me, during the last 15 years, has been the conviction that the cold war was a calamity for the entire world, and that it can be justified by no consideration of theory, nor by any supposed national interest,” he wrote. “I can only hope that Khrushchev’s new line of talk portends a new line of action to which America can respond in kind. Such hopes are, however, tempered by years of disillusioning memories, which remind us all that it takes two sides to make a peace.”

Browder was a Kansas radical and a “red” independent thinker who found himself rejected and pilloried by radicals on the right and left for his rejection of blind obedience to a political party.

Today, incapacitated by dogma wars, threats of civil war, and a pandemic, Kansas radicals continue to battle over the future of the state and 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 lockstep allegiance to one-way thinking.

How will Kansas navigate the profound disaffections of the present, and what kind of “red” will our leadership be?

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Gretchen Eick
Gretchen Eick

After 14 years as a foreign and military policy lobbyist in Washington, D.C., Gretchen Eick earned a Ph.D. from the University of Kansas and became a professor of history at Friends University. Awarded two Fulbright Scholar awards (to Latvia and Bosnia and Herzegovina) and a Fulbright Hays travel grant to South Africa, she is the author of seven books, two scholarly histories, four novels and a book of short stories. Her book on the civil rights movement, "Dissent in Wichita: The Civil Rights Movement in the Midwest, 1954-1972" (University of Illinois Press, 2001/2007) won three awards, resulted in two museum exhibits, and in 2009 a Telly-winning documentary film about the first successful student-led sit-in, the 1958 Dockum Drug Store Sit-in in Wichita. Eick’s 2020 book, "They Met at Wounded Knee: The Eastmans’ Story" (University of Nevada Press) is a history of U.S. policy toward Indigenous Americans and a double biography of the Dakota physician/writer/activist Charles Ohiyesa Eastman and his Anglo wife, Elaine Goodale Eastman, also a writer and activist. The Eastmans spent their lives working to reform Indian policy. From 2017 to 2020 she taught half a year in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, living the other half in Wichita, Kansas, where she and her husband, Mike Poage, run an independent press, Blue Cedar Press, publishing fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.