Pictured: Gov. William H. Murray
William H. Murray He was certainly Colorful
By Steve ByasWhatever else one has to say about William Henry David Murray, the governor of Oklahoma from 1931-1935, he was certainly “colorful.”
Born in Toadsuck, Texas, he moved to Oklahoma as a young man, and married the niece of the chief of the Chickasaw Nation. This gave the young lawyer a steady source of income handling much of the legal business for the tribe. In 1905, when the Five Civilized Tribes attempted to create an Indian-dominated state in what is now eastern Oklahoma, in the Sequoyah Statehood Convention, Murray represented the tribe.
Congress rejected the idea, insisting that Indian Territory and Oklahoma Territory enter as one state, and the next year Murray presided over the convention that created the constitution for the state of Oklahoma.
Murray was the first speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives, served in Congress from Oklahoma, but proved unable to get elected governor, leading him to set up a colony of Oklahomans in South America. When that failed, he returned to Oklahoma just in time for the Great Depression.
Practically destitute, he announced a run for governor in 1930, and most of the Oklahoma political establishment ridiculed the idea. He traveled the state in an old worn-out suit or overhauls, and was even pictured sitting on a street corner in Oklahoma City eating cheese and crackers – a campaign contribution.
The Daily Oklahoman newspaper was supporting an oilman, Frank Buttram, while the Tulsa World backed a former congressman, E. B. Howard. In what is the greatest political upset in state history, Murray defeated a crowded field of candidates to win the Democratic Party nomination, then tantamount to election in Oklahoma.
Appalled at the number of farmers losing their land because they could not pay their property taxes, he was able to get the Oklahoma Legislature to cut the tax by one-fourth.
Soon enough, Oklahoma’s eccentric governor emerged as a national political figure when he contested Texas concerning a bridge crossing the Red River. Oklahoma and Texas had built three bridges across the Red River to replace the toll bridges then in operation. The owners of the toll bridge between Durant, Oklahoma, and Dennison, Texas were understandably upset and were able to get a federal judge to shut down the free bridges.
While Texas and its governor, Ross Sterling, meekly complied with the court’s directive, Murray did not. First, he called out the Oklahoma National Guard, which drove the Texas Rangers from their posts on the Texas side of the “free” bridges (of course, they were free for those who would have used them, but the taxpayers were paying for them). Secondly, he appealed the court decision on the grounds that it violated the 11th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The 11th Amendment stipulated that a person could not sue another state in federal court, but had to file their case in the courts of the state being sued. This was the last amendment to the Constitution that enhanced the sovereignty of the states. All the other amendments – whatever their other qualities – have tended to increase the power of the U.S. government at the expense of the states.
Murray won out, because clearly the 11th Amendment had been violated.
This victory inspired Murray to seek higher office, and he entered the contest to win the Democratic Party nomination for president in 1932. But that is a story for another day.
Steve Byas is a professor of history and government at Randall University in Moore, Oklahoma.