- Prairie Power: Student Activism, Counterculture, and Backlash in Oklahoma, 1962-1972 by Sarah Eppler Janda
If the 1960s youth revolt really shook the entire nation, then its effects should have been felt far from such hotbeds of student radicalism as Berkeley, California. Thus studies of campuses below the Mason-Dixon Line are so important, as they enable us to see whether the decade's Left-led student movements mattered in the South, which has historically been the most conservative region in the United States. The pioneering studies of 1960s student protest such as Douglas Rossinow's The Politics of Authenticity: Liberalism, Christianity, and the New Left in America (New York, 1998), which is a case study of the University of Texas, Joy Ann Williamson's Radicalizing The Ebony Tower: Black Colleges and the Black Freedom Struggle in Mississippi (New York, 2008), and the essays by a new generation of 1960s historians in Rebellion in Black and White: Southern Student Activism in the 1960s (Baltimore, 2013), which I edited with David J. Snyder, all attest that campuses in the 1960s South did become centers of Left political dissent and cultural ferment. Sarah Eppler Janda's new study, Prairie Power: Student Activism, Counterculture, and Backlash in Oklahoma, 1962-1972, shows that before the long 1960s were over, some campuses in Oklahoma witnessed Berkeley-style scenes of antiwar and free speech protest; battles over the counterculture, drug use, and obscenity; the advent of an underground press; and harassment of the movement by police, the FBI, and even a covert state intelligence unit.
As the daughter of two Sooner countercultural rebels, Janda has the connections to have interviewed more than fifty veterans of Oklahoma youth rebellion. These oral histories are the strongest part of the book, offering vivid and personal accounts of the struggle for political and cultural change in a state that was not merely conservative but also aggressively intolerant of most forms of youthful Left or even liberal dissidence, even when such dissent was expressed lawfully and nonviolently. Indeed, the armies of hyperbolic op-ed columnists who think free speech on campus today is undergoing an unprecedented crisis should have a look at Janda's powerful account of the frequent and oppressive speaker bans that Oklahoma State University president Robert B. Kamm imposed to bar cultural rebels and left-of-center speakers from addressing audiences on his campus in the 1960s.
Prairie Power's focus is, unfortunately, far more narrow than its title indicates. This book is not a statewide study of Oklahoma student activism but is mostly a study of activism on two of its leading campuses, the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University. Other campuses, such as the University of Tulsa, Oklahoma City University, and the University of Central Oklahoma, are barely mentioned until late in the book, so one rarely gets even a peek at the impact of the 1960s on these and most of the colleges and universities in the state. The book is weak on race, neglecting Langston University, the state's only historically black college or university, which is accorded only two pages despite the fact that some of the state's leading civil rights activists were Langston alumni. It was disappointing to see so little attention accorded to Native Americans in a state that has such a sizable Indian population. [End Page 222]
Part of the problem here is that Janda's white New Left and counterculture focus ("prairie power" is itself a term of the white New Left, denoting a second generation of Students for a Democratic Society organizers who were less intellectual and more countercultural than the founding generation) is not capacious enough to capture her subject, student activism, in a state as multiracial as Oklahoma.
The book lacks an analytical edge when it comes to chronology. Though Janda rarely includes numerical assessments, the reader senses that the Left in Oklahoma consisted of a dissident few until the late 1960s, when the Vietnam War escalated...