Oklahoma City and the Protest Movement

The canal in Bricktown OKC is lined with bars and restaurants.
The canal in Bricktown OKC is lined with bars and restaurants.

Protestors Don’t Sing Anymore – Except in Oklahoma

By Rich Grant
Senior Writer

It sounds hopelessly naive today, but not long ago, until the 1960s, protestors sang songs. Of course, there was also the occasional whiff of tear gas; dogs turned on humans, batons, and blood. But there was also a time when people fighting for worker’s rights, civil rights, and against war, hatred, and fascism would all join together and sing a song in the hope that somehow, that song would bring change.

Woody Guthrie Center, Tulsa OK. Woody painted "This Machine Kills Fascists" on his guitar.
Woody Guthrie Center, Tulsa OK. Woody painted “This Machine Kills Fascists” on his guitar.

I experienced it myself in Washington D.C., on a cold, bitter October afternoon in 1969, when a quarter million people came to the Capitol to protest the war in Vietnam. We were all singing – an army of voices – thousands, as far as the eye could see, all singing the same song. John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance.”

Well, that didn’t work.

The next time I was in Washington protesting, they teargassed us and arrested so many thousands they had to lock them up in a football stadium.

But that optimistic era of protest songs lives on in Oklahoma. In Tulsa, side-by-side on a quiet tree-shaded street, are the Woody Guthrie Center and the Bob Dylan Center, places that celebrate the power of song.

A 119 miles away in Oklahoma City, at the new First Americans Museum you can hear in more than three dozen languages the first songs of protest sung on our continent.

The songs are about people from 39 tribes who were ripped from their homes centuries ago and forced to relocate. Many of their protest songs were never written down, but were passed from mouth to mouth, from generation to generation.

On a much darker side, in Oklahoma, you can also see what happens when people stop singing in protest. And instead, plant bombs.

Few places have as sad a history as Oklahoma, but today a revitalized and energized Oklahoma is embracing their history (good and bad). A weekend in Tulsa and Oklahoma City and the drive between the two cities will open your mind to many new things. And some old ones.

This Land is Your Land…until We Decide to Take it Back

To understand Oklahoma, you have to go back to Virginia in 1609. The first colonists migrating from Europe to America had a problem. There were already people living here! Maybe as many as seven to 10 million people.   What to do with them?

Well, European diseases and advanced weapons eliminated many native inhabitants, but then under President Andrew Jackson, Congress passed the 1830 Indian Removal Act and between 1830 and 1850, the U.S. government used forced treaties and the U.S. Army to grab about 100,000 American Indians living east of the Mississippi River, and force them westward to what was called Indian Territory and is now known by the Choctaw words of “Okla” and “Homma,” which means “red people.”

The First American's Museum in OKC features exhibits, songs and dance of the 39 tribes that were relocated to Oklahoma.
The First American’s Museum in OKC features exhibits, songs and dance of the 39 tribes that were relocated to Oklahoma.

Among the 39 relocated tribes were the “big five,” Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole, but other tribes from the far west were also forced here and given new land for perpetuity. Or at least until oil was discovered and some white people wanted it back.

First Americans Museum

Opened in 2019, there is now one museum where visitors can experience the collective histories of the 39 First American Nations that were forced to Oklahoma. It’s a daunting task. 

Each of the tribes had different languages, religions, and customs. There are more languages of First Americans in Oklahoma than there are in all of Europe. Imagine trying to put all of European history into one museum without offending someone?

Well, first steps. The museum is trying to share the histories of the tribes through an immersive experience with live programming, exhibitions, art, food, music, dance and of course, song.

Soon to come will be a hotel and full resort atmosphere where people can stay and learn about the various cultures. But for now, you can still hear the oldest songs of protest sung in North America. But they were not to be the last.

The impressive entrance to the First Americans Museum in OKC, which features exhibits, songs and dance of the 39 tribes that were relocated to Oklahoma.
The impressive entrance to the First Americans Museum in OKC, which features exhibits, songs and dance of the 39 tribes that were relocated to Oklahoma.

The Black Blizzards and Ballads of the Dust Bowl

In the 1830s, the First Americans were dragged to Oklahoma, but a century later in the 1930s, everyone wanted to leave.

Unprecedented drought and poor farming practices created what was called the Dust Bowl – the worst manmade ecological disaster in the history of planet Earth.

In 1935 alone, more than 850 million tons of topsoil were blown away by winds from overused fields — 8 tons for every resident in the U.S.

Storms created “Black Blizzards” of dust where visibility could be reduced to three feet and cause lethal health problems.

“Black Sunday,” April 14, 1935, was the single worst day. You can get some idea of what it was like in a virtual reality exhibit at the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa.

Wearing a virtual reality helmet, you find yourself sitting on the porch of an Oklahoma farmhouse, listening to crickets on a peaceful afternoon. But then in the distance, a black cloud begins to form. And come closer.

First come jack rabbits and deer, running for their lives past your farm on all sides in terror, trying to outrace the storm. Then the cloud comes closer.

Unlike a tornado that is destructive in just a small area, the Black Sunday storm packed the power of a tornado, but was 200 miles wide with winds blowing at 65 mph. Shingles start to fly off the roof above you, trees and brush are blown on to the porch and then… oblivion!

Some 2.5 million people in mid-west states lost everything they owned and had to relocate, 440,000 of them from Oklahoma alone. Many of the “Okies,” as they were called, tried to flee to California. Where nobody wanted them. California police formed “Bum Blockades” at the borders that beat poor people and turned them away. John Steinbeck chronicled the situation in his famous novel, “The Grapes of Wrath.”

Woody Guthrie of Oklahoma

Oklahoma City protesters.
Oklahoma City.

Another champion of Okies was a former Oklahoman named Woody Guthrie.  He survived Black Sunday and fled to California, where he began singing on radio station KFVD with songs about fighting for the rights of all people against tyranny, oppression, and bigotry.

He painted on his guitar, “This machine kills fascists,” and his songs were called the “Dust Bowl Ballads.” You can still hear them and many of the other 3,000 songs he wrote in the Woody Guthrie Center.

No one would be more surprised by this new high-tech museum devoted to Woody Guthrie than Woody Guthrie. For one thing, there’s no evidence he ever went to Tulsa.

For another, Woody never achieved this kind of fame in his lifetime, which was spent mostly in New York and California, but always fighting and singing about the disenfranchised.

He wrote,  “I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world and that if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter what color, what size you are, how you are built. 

I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work.” Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga and Madona and others could not have said it better and have picked up the mantle of singing songs to make people feel better about themselves.

Woody’s songs, to be honest, at least to my 21st century ears, are hard to identify with and involve a style of music we might today call “hillbilly” singing. Listen to his rendition of House of the Rising Sun and it sounds strange to modern listeners. 

But the museum brings the songs and Woody’s life together into a variety of multi-media experiences, and at least if you can’t identify directly with the music, you can certainly identify with the thoughts he expressed and the musicians he influenced.

Bob Dylan Center, Tulsa OK
Bob Dylan Center, Tulsa OK

One of them was a 19-year-old kid living in Greenwich Village, NY, who would take a bus out to New Jersey to the state hospital where Woody was dying at age 55. The kid would go just to talk to him, play his songs, and learn from him. That kid was Bob Dylan, and that’s why the Bob Dylan Center is in Tulsa, next to Woody’s.

I n his autobiography, “Chronicles, Volume One,”

Bob Dylan Center, Tulsa OK
Bob Dylan Center, Tulsa OK

 Bob Dylan said that he wrote his first song in 1959 as “an homage in lyric and melody to the man who’d pointed out the starting place for my identity and destiny – the great Woody Guthrie.

I wrote the song with him in mind…having no idea that it would be the first of maybe a thousand songs that I would write. My life had never been the same since I’d first heard Woody on a record player…When I first heard him it was like a million-megaton bomb had dropped.”

How you relate to the Bob Dylan Center will probably depend on what you think and know of Bob Dylan. If, like me, you think he is the greatest singer-songwriter in American history, it will be a monumental experience.

It is done perfectly. Here are the notebooks, where in incredibly tiny penmanship, Dylan wrote the lyrics of some of his most famous songs.

This is not a Hard Rock Café or an Elvis Graceland museum with just guitars and outfits, but rather a thoughtful examination through videos, photos, interviews and writing that follows the trajectory of one of the most influential musicians of history, looking at what he was trying to say, and how he interacted with and changed history. 

Bob Dylan Center Oklahoma CityAround the outer walls, panels follow his career and changes in music styles, while in the center there are panels that deal with individual songs, people he was influenced by, and the people he influenced, which is just about everybody in folk and rock ‘n roll.

Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial. Each chair denotes one of the 168 killed.
Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial. Each chair denotes one of the 168 killed.

When the Singing Stopped

No trip to Oklahoma is complete without visiting the Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial — a place where protest by singing stopped. On April 19, 1995, a madman named Timothy McVeigh parked a Ryder rental truck full of explosives, set the fuse and walked away. It exploded at 9:02 a.m. killing 168 people, including 19 children. The bomb injured another 680 people, destroyed or damaged 325 buildings and burned 86 cars in what was, and still is, the worst act of domestic terrorism in American history.

Today, the memorial is a peaceful reflection pool with huge entrance gates on either side that are labeled 9:01 a.m. at one end – a place where the nation was still peace, and 9:03 a.m. at the other end – a time where everything had changed.

National Park rangers can show you where the truck and building were located, they can talk about the casualties and point out the trees and sculptures and memorial reflecting pool. The one thing they can’t tell you is, why? Perhaps, just perhaps, it’s because people stopped singing in protest. Except in Oklahoma.

The canal in Bricktown OKC is lined with bars and restaurants.
The canal in Bricktown OKC is lined with bars and restaurants.

Oklahoma Bound? 

Oklahoma City and Tulsa are exciting and booming cities. Tulsa has the third highest number of Art Deco buildings in the U.S. and many of them have been turned into hip hotels, restaurants, bars, and breweries – all in a fun downtown walkable area that includes the Dylan and Guthrie centers.

The new, free, Botanic Gardens in downtown OKC.
The new, free, Botanic Gardens in downtown OKC.

OKC is in the midst of a revival with a canal lined with bars and cafes, a free downtown botanic garden, and fun restored old hotels and bars. Everywhere, there are innovative young people doing cool things.

My friend, travel photographer Matt Payne, turned an abandoned downtown convention center into a movie studio where the $176 million “Twister 2” is being filmed. That’s the new spirit of Oklahoma City.

It would be cheapest and easiest to fly to OKC, rent a car there, and drive to Tulsa on the fun, historic Route 66. What a road! In 1927, almost every town in America had paved their main street for a few blocks to keep out mud and dirt, but all paved streets ended at the edge of town.

That’s when Cyrus Avery of Tulsa Oklahoma proposed an idea — the U.S. government could create a highway from Chicago to Los Angeles simply by paving the dirt road sections between each town, creating one long paved “main street” that would run for 2,448 miles.

Along Route 66 in Oklahoma.
Along Route 66 in Oklahoma.

How Route 66 Was Created

Of course, it was not that simple, but basically that’s how Route 66 was created, and while certainly much of it has changed, the 119 miles of the old Route 66 between Oklahoma City and Tulsa are identified and marked as a scenic highway. 

Driving it is a hoot of following signs, getting off highways and passing through old downtowns (most of them dying) filled with kitsch diners, old abandoned service stations, motor courts, 1930s murals, railroad stations, and rolling hills of grass.

Northeast Oklahoma countryside today is green and beautiful…not like it was in Woody’s Dust Bowl of 1930-1940.

And everything else in Oklahoma is different too. If you have never been, you would be hard pressed to find two cities so close and so fun for a weekend visit as OKC and Tulsa.

Find out more www.visitokc.com/

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2 thoughts on “Oklahoma City and the Protest Movement

  1. Rich- Broad piece packed with data that also entices. My husband was in that protest in DC and ended up arrested and in the stadium. One of the highlights of his university days. And we’ve done deep dives into Tulsa history. But I learned from your piece. Now I want to stop en route to Texas in March for more! Printing this out when I get home (in Panama until March.)
    And, yes, we did sing!!!!!!!!!

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