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Will Rogers Fights for England

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  • Corey Womack
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I have a brother. Two constants throughout my life is that my brother is older and bigger than me. No matter how I rage against these truths, they are unalterable.

There are few things a boy can’t weaponize in the ongoing war with his older brother: a baseball, a well-chosen stick, a nearby shoe. Naturally, there were injuries. Some my mother knew about. Many we thought she didn’t.

My brother and I were the worst of enemies … until one of us was injured by the other’s hand. Once there was bloodshed, we became the oldest of allies in our ongoing campaign to keep our mom ignorant of the brutality of our relationship.

My brother would come to my aid with such witticisms as, “Don’t tell mom. It only hurts till the pain goes away.”

And, so, as I grew up, it became a point of pride – the amount of pain I could endure without asking for help.

To a young boy, being “grown up” means not asking for help.

A Case of Hidden History

The story of Will Rogers’ Drought Relief Tour might be this season’s most incredible tale. It might also be the least-known. Why is the story of a traveling one-man show more impressive than that of a century-old river monster?

Because I know it’s true.

Tales of monsters and haunted bridges can lead us to truths about our world. However, when something spectacular truly happens in your own backyard, it doesn’t demand the same stretch of imagination. Truth holds a special power over us.

So, why isn’t this story more well-known?

It isn’t clear whether the England Food Riot involved 50 men or 500. A few articles imply that while some farmers gathered, a businessman stood and spoke, and everyone dispersed quickly. By all accounts, it wasn’t a particularly long or violent demonstration.

Despite this, many of the “powers that be” of 1931 Arkansas vilified the hungry farmers. Misinformation spread from government officials as well as the rioters’ own neighbors, and their actions have – historically – been swept under the rug.

As Dale Ingram said, “It became a footnote in Arkansas history.”

Why?

Truth Meets Belief

I think Ingram nails it with his description of Herbert Hoover’s initial perspective on the Great Depression:

“Hoover felt that local communities – with their local Red Cross Chapters, local churches, and neighbors – they should be the main line of response to hunger and local disasters.”

Hoover believed the solution for local communities lied with local communities.

Many people across the South shared this sentiment. Even today, Americans take a pride in a certain “rugged individualism,” (a phrase coined by Hoover, in the face of the Great Depression).

The fact is, much like my brother and I, Americans (and Southerners in particular) have historically seen asking for help as a sign of weakness.

These “up-by-your-bootstrap, do-it-yourselfers" looked to the riot with shame. They believed the farmers in England should have been more resourceful, rather than taken to the streets.

What they couldn’t see was that the Great Depression was a national problem which called for national solutions.

What they couldn’t see was the hunger in the Arkansans’ eyes.

What they refused to see was the truth.

Once Upon a Time in Arkansas Will Rogers

On Tour for Truth

Two men refused to hide behind pride: Arkansas Sen. Joe Robinson and newspaperman Will Rogers. While Robinson went to work on the Senate floor, Will Rogers went on tour.

Rogers’ visit with Hoover was one of the only times he took a political stance. He was quickly laughed away a a simple newspaper columnist. Still, he knew he had the spotlight and the England farmers needed it, so he went to work, raising approximately $350,000 for hungry Americans in under a month.

But there’s something more: Rogers put the true face of the Great Depression center stage. While people like Herbert Hoover and Arkansas Gov. Harvey Parnell insisted, “It’s fine. It only hurts till the pain goes away,” Rogers lent help to those who were asking for it.

The following year, Franklin Roosevelt defeated Hoover for the presidency.

Over the next four years, Roosevelt worked with Robinson to enact The New Deal – a series of Federal programs to help fight poverty and hunger across the country.

Many of these programs (or similar iterations) are still active today.

Once Upon a Time in Arkansas: Will Rogers Fights for England

The Painful Truth of Growing Up

My brother and I eventually grew up.  At one point (to my mother’s dismay), I was living in Los Angeles and he was in Durham, North Carolina. We couldn’t have been further apart.

Being a starving artist isn’t nearly as romantic as the movies have you believe. To survive, I relied on roommates, bosses and my family, and most days I felt about three inches tall.

Back in Arkansas, when I started teaching, one of my biggest frustrations was seeing a student fail my class. What’s more, many of them did so without ever asking for help.

Why?

They were too proud.

The students who succeeded – the ones who really got the most from the material – were the ones mature enough to understand where their abilities ran out and when they needed help.

I felt sheepish as I saw myself in that first group of prideful kids.

With age came the realization that asking for help from those who could give it was the most grown-up thing I could do.

The Power of Truth

We all know the story of the inspirational pride of Bernie Babcock. Despite the rejection of the Smithsonian, Bernie believed in the legacy of King Crowley. She didn’t care about the truth. She had something more powerful: the belief that Arkansas was worth celebrating.

Herbert Hoover is an example of what happens when pride fails you. Hoover was proud of being an American, and he believed Americans shouldn’t ask for help – so much so that he was willing to ignore the Great Depression.

Will Rogers is the only person this season to face-down a belief armed only with the truth. Arkansans needed help, and he gave it.

We live in a time of party lines, misinformation and “fake news.” Even today, people take to the streets and demand better lives from their governments. The England Food Riots were 89 years ago, but a lot can still be learned from those small-town farmers.

Pride is a powerful kind of belief, but it can quickly become useless in the face of truth.

Truth is as powerful today as it was in the winter of 1931.

You just have to see it as it is.

LEARN MORE:

“Once Upon a Time in Arkansas”