With fears of an invasion which would cause disease outbreaks, school over-crowding, crime and wage deflation, the borders of California were sealed in 1936. In the preceding years of Depression California had already absorbed hundreds of thousands of migrants. Officers of the Los Anglese Police Department were deployed to reinforce state police at common points of entry to the state. In this year the ‘invaders,’ were U.S. citizens, Dust Bowl refugees who were called ‘Okies,’ regardless of their state of origin. “Police at the port of entry say,” Woody Guthrie cautioned the travelers, “You’re number fourteen-thousand for today.” With no-where else to go the migrants camped rough alongside the road or on any available public property.
The Chief of the LAPD referred to the Okies as “Thieves and thugs,” and predicted millions of dollars would be saved in incarceration costs and state aid by denying them entry. When those policing this border were accused of rough treatment of the Okies the Los Angeles Times editorialized, “Let’s have more outrages,” to keep, “Imported criminals, radicals and troublemakers,” out of the state.
Contrary to John Steinbeck’s depiction in ‘Grapes of Wrath,’ the majority of the Okies were not hillbillies and Ozarkia substinence farmers before their flight, but high plains industrial agriculturists who had prospered growing wheat and corn and lived in or nearby functional small towns. Liquidated by weather catastrophe and the Depression collapse of commodity prices they had gone bankrupt en masse driven west with their personal possessions in cars and trucks.
By the new year of 1937 lawsuits and court orders had re-opened the borders, and by that spring many of the Okies were working as agricultural laborers and living in migrant camps near the fields they tended or in shantytown ‘Hoovervilles.’
More fortunate than most Merle Haggard’s father found a good railroad job, his family never lived in the camps but they often went to visit relatives who did. But they shared some of the stigma, Merle remembered decades later, “They used the word ‘Okie,’ the same way they used the word, ‘Nigger.’
When the U.S. entered the war in 1941 the Okies were suddenly in demand, in the shipyards, aircraft production facilities and vast industrial works that sprung up in Los Angeles as part of the war effort. They worked hard and played hard and by 1945 dozens of honky-tonks featuring country music and western swing were scattered throughout the city.
The dark, humiliating years for the Okies (1935-1941) were quickly forgotten, or glossed over as they vaulted over the long-term Hispanic population of California and enjoyed the glory years of American industrialization as a part of the labor aristocracy. In the 1960s Hunter S. Thompson and others commented on how many officers of the LAPD and California Highway Patrol were from Okie families. Tough, and not prone to excessive empathy it’s easy to imagine they were often big fans of Merle Haggard’s ‘Okie From Muskogee,’ shtick and in the 70s Merle was performing and recording an album at Anaheim Stadium, the first country musician to perform stadium shows in California.
Earlier, in 1972, Haggard had written ‘They’re Tearing the Labor Camps Down,’ in the song he bemoans how the world of his youth had changed, or completely disappeared and he confesses, “A little sentimental shame/Where can a hungry man live in this town?/Now that they’re tearing the labor camps down.” The Okies were now decades removed from agricultural labor but Haggard was more curious and empathetic than his contemporaries in the CHP, “I couldn’t help but wonder what’s gonna happen to the farm workers and fruit pickers that move from town to town,” he explained in the song’s intro, and on another occasion he explained he wrote the song because he feared, “People would forget we were ever here.”
And forget they have. If the descendents of the Okie families in California, (and by now there must be millions of them) maintain family lore about their ancestor’s days in labor camps and cotton fields somehow it does not translate into identifying with the plight of today’s migrant labor and rough sleepers. Or maybe it does, and remembering how they replaced others before, they could be themselves replaced?