In the 1930s on the West Coast, especially California, the term came to symbolize a migrant who left the South-central, Midwest and sometimes, Southeast United States to settle in masses to restart their lives in the region's agriculture and manufacturing industries. Most worked on farms, and in the shipyards and defense factories leading up to and following World War II. The Dust Bowl as well as a federal program which took farm land out of production caused many to lose or leave their homes.
Rural caucasian and American Indian farmers of Oklahoma, and from the Southern and Central states relocated to the Northeast and west coast since the 1850s, but the "Okie" migration of the 1930s brought in over a million new displaced residents to California's Central valley and major cities bucked the trend.
In the 1930s, during the Dust Bowl era, large numbers of farmers fleeing ecological disaster and the Great Depression migrated from the Great Plains and Southwest regions to California mostly along historic U.S. Route 66. More of the migrants were from Oklahoma than any other state, and a total of approximately 15% of the Oklahoma population left for California.
Ben Reddick, a free-lance journalist and later publisher of the Paso Robles Daily Press, is credited with first using the term Okie, in the mid-1930s, to identify migrant farm workers. He noticed the "OK" abbreviation (for Oklahoma) on many of the migrant’s license plates and referred to them in his article as "Okies." Californians began calling all migrants "Okies," regardless of whether they were actually from Oklahoma.
Many West Coast residents and some politically motivated writers used Reddick's term to disparage these poor, white (including those of mixed American Indian ancestry, the largest tribal group being Cherokees), migrant workers and their families. The term was made famous nationwide by John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath.
In the later half of the twentieth century, there became increasing evidence that any pejorative meaning of the term "Okie" was changing; former and present "Okies" began to apply the label as a badge of honor and symbol of the Okie survivor attitude.
In one example, Republican Oklahoma Governor Dewey F. Bartlett launched a campaign in the 1960s to popularize Okie as a positive term for Oklahomans; however, the Democrats used the campaign, and the fact that Bartlett was born in Ohio, as a political tool against him, and further degraded the term for a time.
However, in 1968, Governor Bartlett made Reddick, the originator of the California usage, an honorary Okie. And in the early 1970s, Merle Haggard's country song Okie from Muskogee was a hit on national airwaves.
Also during the 1970s, the term Okie became familiar to most Californians as a prototype of a subcultural group, just like the resurgence of Southern American regionalism and renewal of ethnic American (Irish American, Italian American or Polish American ) identities in the Northeast and Midwest states at the time. However, in the early 1990's the California Department of Transportation refused to allow the name of the "Okie Girl" restaurant to appear on a roadside sign on Interstate 5, arguing that the restaurant's name insulted Oklahomans; only after protracted controversy (and a letter from the Governor of Oklahoma) did the agency relent.
Since the 1990s, the children and grandchildren of Okies in California changed the very meaning of Okie to a self-title of pride in obtaining success, as well to challenge what they felt was "snobbery" or "the last group to make fun of" in the state's urban area cultures.
Oklahomans usually use Okie without prejudice, but it is often used jocularly too; similar to the use of Hoosier by Indianans, Yankee by New Englanders, or Canuck by Canadians, none of whom consider their terms for themselves particularly denigrating.
In the Cities in Flight series of science fiction novels (1956-1962) by James Blish, the term "Okie" was applied in a similar context to entire cities that, thanks to an anti-gravity device, took flight to the stars in order to escape the Earth's economic collapse. Working as a migrant labor force, these cities came to act as cultural pollinators, spreading technology and knowledge throughout the expanding human civilization. The later novels focus on the travels of New York City as one such Okie city, though there are hundreds more.
In On the Road, the road novel by Jack Kerouac - written between 1948 and 1949, although not published until 1957 - the term appears to refer to some of the people the main character, a worker on a cotton plantation in California, meets during his trips around the states.
Okie given 60 years for 'unfathomable' killings ; The 22-year-old will be at least 72 before he finishes his sentence for slaying his father and an ex-girlfriend.
Jan 31, 2009; Portland Press Herald (Maine) 01-31-2009 Okie given 60 years for 'unfathomable' killings ; The 22-year-old will be at...
Okie trial focuses on father's killing ; The murder defendant's mother told a dispatcher that her son and husband had been in an argument.
Dec 10, 2008; Portland Press Herald (Maine) 12-10-2008 Okie trial focuses on father's killing ; The murder defendant's mother told a...
Okie's capacity to tell right from wrong at issue in trial ; Psychologists disagree whether the double-murder suspect was lying about being delusional.
Dec 19, 2008; Portland Press Herald (Maine) 12-19-2008 Okie's capacity to tell right from wrong at issue in trial ; Psychologists...
Okie convicted of murdering his father, former girlfriend ; The jury takes just 90 minutes to decide that he was criminally responsible in the July 2007 killings.
Dec 20, 2008; Portland Press Herald (Maine) 12-20-2008 Okie convicted of murdering his father, former girlfriend ; The jury takes just...
Mother describes Okie's descent into delusion ; Prosecutors say he knew what he was doing when he killed his father and a former classmate in 2007.
Dec 17, 2008; Anonymous By BETTY ADAMS Kennebec Journal -- Portland Press Herald (Maine) 12-17-2008 Mother describes Okie's descent into...