- Prairie Power: Student Activism, Counterculture, and Backlash in Oklahoma, 1962–1972 by Sarah Eppler Janda
By Sarah Eppler Janda. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2018. ix + 208 pp. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. $29.95 paper.
This fine book makes clear that social justice movements of the 1960s were not limited to the coasts or the more familiar sites of student protests in Ann Arbor, Boulder, or Austin. They could be found in Oklahoma as well. The forces of fear and reaction, determined to suppress justice, were also there. Prairie Power underscores how both threads run deep—and wide—across America. That is both encouraging and depressing.
Janda’s study starts on the University of Oklahoma campus, with student support for civil rights and free speech and opposition to in loco parentis policies. Underlying it was a search for authenticity. Ties to broader national currents, such as the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), existed, but so too did particular Oklahoma elements, including ties to religion and early twentieth-century support for socialism and pacifism. A very small cluster of students published the short-lived underground Free Press, followed one year later by creation [End Page 220] of a tiny SDS chapter. Reaction was swift. Governor Henry Bellman expressed concern about these developments, but University of Oklahoma president George Cross preferred “containment” to repression, upholding students’ civil liberties rather than violating them.
Oklahoma State University student efforts to invite potentially controversial speakers to their campus met with a harsher hand. In 1967 President Robert Kamm pressured a student group to disinvite radical Christian Thomas Altizer. The following year the regents codified a repressive speaker policy that sparked a demonstration attended by 400 students and faculty. The entire Sociology Department faculty, with one exception, resigned. Public support for the administration, however, was enormous, and censorship continued.
Opposition to the Vietnam War ratcheted up the most astounding backlash. Protestors became targets of intensive and widespread surveillance carried on by the United States Army, the FBI, police departments, and the Oklahoma Office of Interagency Coordination, a particularly pernicious secret agency. It was a “mind-boggling” effort, especially considering the low-level threats to American security posed by Oklahoma activists. Nevertheless, fear and hysteria overruled reason.
Janda notes the overlap between student activists and hippies, but she focuses her attention on counterculture people who avoided political activism. The hippie aspect of the study is comparatively thin, depending on interviews with her own parents and their friends. Janda makes an interesting point that evangelical Christianity shaped the Oklahoma counterculture. A wider sample would have helped. One disappointment is the absence of discussion about interactions with Native Americans. Given the large number of Indians in Oklahoma and their attractiveness to hippies, the absence of examples or analysis seems like a lost opportunity.
There is, however, much value in this book. It adds to our understanding of the 1960s in the heartland. It is also a timely reminder that demands for social justice and consequent efforts to silence them are not new. They are hard-core, enduring American traditions. [End Page 221]
Southern Methodist University