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Divisive Concept: SD Historical Society Press Publishing Book That Says Leftism Good for Rural America

Oh, hey, I found some of those “divisive concepts” Governor Noem now won’t tell us about!

The South Dakota Historical Society Press today announced the publication and impending release (August 9) of After Populism: The Agrarian Left on the Northern Plains, 1900–1960, University of Nebraska–Omaha professor emeritus William C. Pratt’s book of essays on how left-wing farm movements improved farmers’ lives:

Historians have given a great deal of attention to the rise of Populism, a farmer-led movement calling for sweeping economic reforms that become a major political force in several corners of the nation during the 1890s. While the heyday of Populism was seemingly brief, its core ideas remained popular in communities in North and South Dakota, Montana, Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa and Canada’s prairie provinces well into the following century.

After Populism reveals how a diverse range of voices pushed to improve conditions for farmers and rural communities on the plains during decades of significant political transition. Pratt explores farmers’ relationships to Socialist groups; the persistence of radicalism in isolated plains communities; agrarian radicals’ involvement in local affairs; women’s roles in radical farm groups; the importance of the Farmers Union in regional and national politics; repeated, unsuccessful attempts at third-party organizing; and the gradual decline of progressive farm protest in the late twentieth century [South Dakota Historical Society Press, press release, 2022.07.25].

The South Dakota State Historical Society is part of the Department of Education. On April 5, Governor Noem ordered the Department of Education to identify and remove all “materials produced by the Department” that “promote or endorse inherently divisive concepts” by October 1. That April 5 order defines “inherently divisive concepts” as “advancing any ideas in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964…”. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Equal Employment Opportunity title, excludes Communists and other dangerous fellow-traveling Red dupes. Advancing Communism thus appears to violate the Civil Rights Act. Dr. Pratt has previously documented the influence of Communists on Northern Plains agriculture and protest movements.

This new book published by the South Dakota Historical Society Press thus appears to promote an inherently divisive concept, that leftists—Communists!—have done some good in farm country. The Department of Education is thus obliged by the Governor’s order to “remove” (stop the presses? burn?this book.


  1. mike from iowa 2022-07-25 18:34

    Ban/burn the bible in all its various forms.

  2. Mark Anderson 2022-07-25 18:54

    Well, North Dakota was the first socialist state in the world. They kept the banks set up by them and they love them. I like to just tell them the truth but all they seem to concern themselves these days are NDSU football. Is this a Roman thing?

  3. grudznick 2022-07-25 19:10

    What Mr. mike, who is from Iowa, said.

  4. P. Aitch 2022-07-25 19:51

    Why “Divisive Concepts” Proposals are Having a Detrimental Impact on Education by Jonathan Greenblatt of the Anti-Defamation League

    “We see legislative proposals circulating today, already adopted in some states and pending in others, that would place serious limitations on how teachers can talk about racism, antisemitism, and other forms of discrimination in our children’s schools. These laws, broadly labeling programs like anti-bias education as “divisive concepts,” threaten to overly restrict both open dialogue in schools around issues of diversity, and the freedom of educators to guide their students’ learning disconnected from partisan debate.

  5. DaveFN 2022-07-25 20:20

    “Red” Emma Goldman visited my great grandparents’ farm–Sam Austin and Kate Cooper Austin—in Caplinger Mills, Missouri late October 1897. Goldman and Kate were anarchists. Kate published widely in many anarchist publications. Here is Goldman’s recollection from “Living My Life.”

    “On my way to Denver I made a side trip to Caplinger Mills, an agricultural district in south-western Missouri. My only previous contact with farm life in the United States had been years before when I had canvased Massachusetts farmers for orders to enlarge the pictures of their worthy ancestors. I had found them so dull, so rooted in old social traditions, that I did not even care to tell them what I stood for. I was sure they would think me possessed of the devil. It very much surprised me, therefore, to receive an invitation from Caplinger Mills to lecture there. The comrade who wrote that she had arranged my meetings was Kate Austen, whose articles I had read in Free Society and other radical publications. Her writings showed her to be a logical thinker, well-informed, and of revolutionary fiber, while her letters to me indicated an affectionate, sensitive being.

    At the station I was met by Sam Austen, Kate’s husband, who announced that Caplinger Mills was twenty-two miles distant from the railroad. “The roads are very bad,” he said; “I’m afraid I’ll have to tie you to the seat of my wagon, else you may be shaken out.” I soon found he had not been exaggerating. We had hardly covered half the way when there came a violent jolt and the cracking of wheels. Sam landed in a ditch, and when I attempted to get up, I felt sore all over. He lifted me out of the wagon and set me down by the wayside. Waiting and rubbing my aching joints, I tried to smile to encourage Sam…

    At last we arrived in Caplinger Mills at the Austen farm. “Put her to bed right away and give her a hot drink,” Sam directed, “else she’ll hate us for the rest of her life for having taken her over that road.” After a hot bath and a good massage I felt much refreshed, though still aching in every joint.

    My week with the Austens showed me new angles of the small American farmer’s life. It made me see that we had been wrong to regard the farmer in the States as belonging to the bourgeoisie. Kate said it was true only of the very rich landowner who raised everything on a large scale; the vast mass of farmers in America were even more dependent than the city workers. They were at the mercy of the bankers and the railroads, not to speak of their natural enemies, storm and drought. To combat the latter and nourish the leeches who sap the farmer he must slave endless hours in every kind of weather and live almost on the edge of penury. It is his toilsome lot that makes him hard and close-fisted, Kate thought. She lamented especially the drab existence of the farmer’s wife. “The womenfolk have nothing but cares, drudgery, and frequent child-bearing.”

    Kate had come to Caplinger only after her marriage. Before that she had lived in small towns and villages. Left in charge of eight brothers and sisters at her mother’s death, when she herself was only eleven years old, she had had no time for much study. Two years in a district school was all the learning her father had been able to afford for her. I wondered how she had managed to gain so much knowledge as her numerous articles implied. “From reading,” she informed me. Her father had been a constant reader, at first of Ingersoll’s works, later of Lucifer and other radical publications. The events in Chicago in 1887 had exerted upon her, as also upon me, the greatest influence. Since then she had closely followed the social struggle and had studied everything she could get hold of. The range of her reading, judging by the books I found in the Austen household, was very wide. Works on philosophy, on social and economic questions, and on sex were side by side with the best in poetry and fiction. They had been her school. She was thoroughly informed, besides possessing an enthusiasm extraordinary in a woman who had hardly come in contact with life.

    “How can a woman of your brains and abilities go on living in such a dull and limited sphere?” I inquired.

    “Well, there is Sam,” she replied, “who shares everything with me and whom I love, and the children. And there are my neighbors who need me. One can do much even here.”

    The attendance at my three meetings testified to Kate’s influence. From a radius of many miles the farmers came, on foot, in wagons, and on horseback. Two lectures I gave in the little country schoolhouse, the third in a large grove. It was a most picturesque gathering, with the faces of my listeners lit up by lanterns they had brought with them. From the questions some of the men asked, which centered mainly on the right to the land under anarchism, I could see that at least some of them had not come out of mere curiosity, and that Kate had awakened them to the realization that their own difficulties were part of the larger problems of society.

    The whole Austen family dedicated itself to me during my stay. Sam took me over the fields on horseback, having given me a sober old mare to ride. The children fulfilled my wishes almost before I had a chance to express them, and Kate was all affectionate devotion. We were much alone together, which gave her a chance to tell me about herself and her surroundings. The greatest objection some of her neighbors had to her was her stand on the sex question. “What would you do if your husband fell in love with another woman?” a farmer’s wife had once asked her. “Wouldn’t you leave him?” “Not if he still loved me,” Kate had promptly replied. “And shouldn’t you hate the woman?” “Not if she were a fine person and really loved Sam.” Her neighbor had said that if she didn’t know Kate so well, she would consider her immoral or crazy; even as it was, she was sure Kate could not possibly love her husband or she would never consent to share him with anybody else. “The joke of it is,” Kate added, that the husband of this neighbor is known to be after every skirt, and she is not aware of it. You have no idea what the sexual practices of these farmers are. But it is the result mostly of their dreary existence, she hastened to add; “no other outlet, no distraction, no color of any sort in their lives. It is different in the city even the poorest working-man there can sometimes go to a show or a lecture, or find some interest in his union. The farmer has nothing but long and arduous toil in the summer, and empty days in the winter. Sex is all they have. How should these people understand sex in its finer expressions, or love that cannot be sold or bound? It’s an uphill fight, but we must strive on,” my dear comrade concluded.”

  6. O 2022-07-25 20:21

    It is clear that those shouting “decisive concepts” are the very ones preaching th divisive concepts. Going against truth, going against reality, going against the common good: THOSE are the device concepts of the Right/GOP/MAGA crowd. Continuing page one of their distraction playbook, they accuse the opposition of the thing they are guilty.

  7. Arlo Blundt 2022-07-26 00:40

    The Historical Society Press does a very good job of printing and reviewing midwestern and mountain west books of wide interest. They’ve made an unexpected pile of money off of Laura Ingalls Wilder books and studies but have put that money into continued improvement of the publishing house. The Societies Journal is an excellent source of serious historical study of South Dakota and its people. To this point, it has not shown any publishing bias toward any particular interpretation of the dynamics of settlement in this state and produces serious, scholarly studies of the Native American experience in our history. They have recently had some retirements of experienced staff but indications are it will continue with the tradition of being a very solid resource.Their leadership has also had a spin off effect on the publishing of other historical works by authors in the state by other publishers including the Center for Western Studies at Augustana. South Dakota Magazine has experienced success by being a forum for interesting, general interest writing on our history, settlement and governance. All this productivity is great for the history wonks among us and produces a healthy dialog about where we have been and where we are going.

  8. All Mammal 2022-07-26 11:31

    Thanks so much, DaveFN. What’s not to love about a lady anarchist trailblazing the USA in the 1800’s? Like Abraham Joshua Heschel’s assertion that nothing pleases God more than seeing mankind’s variety of religions and endless interpretations and reciprocity of love with an almighty, I apply that concept for the main tenet of our United States: The more variety-the more American. I like to think of the forefathers delighting in our people’s government consisting of endless ideals. Anarchists, communists, socialists, spenders, savers, grouches, clowns, hermits, globalists, old school, new school, speakers, listeners, scholars, self-taught, office dwellers, grunts, progressives, moderates, orthodox, etc, etc. The art of debate should flourish in healthy governments and in healthy classrooms.

    Where ya at, Mr. Kurtz? Hope you are well. Miss your voice…

  9. larry kurtz 2022-07-26 11:36

    Let’s see: Brookings owns a research park, the hospital, the liquor store, the water, the phone company, the power company, an entertainment venue, the golf course, it’s home to South Dakota’s largest public university and a federally subsidized cheese and dairy industry. Socialism, right?

    Despite the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851 President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act in 1862 that distributed unceded lands in the public domain to raise funds for colleges. The Morrill Land-Grant Acts are directly linked to the Native American Genocide and SDSU is just one of those offenders.

  10. Arlo Blundt 2022-07-26 20:44

    DaveFN–I believe its Emma’s boyfriend who shoots Andrew Carnegie’s Manager of the Homestead Steel Works in the face and stabs him a few times…He got the chair and Emma fled to Europe…she was present in St. Petersburg during the October Revolution. She’s a great figure in Labor History. She lived out her life in Chicago, I believe.

  11. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2022-07-26 21:09

    Dave—yes, I second the thanks and interest expressed in the history you share! The chapter from which Dave’s account is excerpted, as well as Goldman’s whole book, is available online at

    Curious: Goldman observes that only a few farmers at the time were members of the bourgeoisie, that most were in the economic underclass, and thus, we would assume, likely fellow travelers who would be inclined to support Goldman’s fight for workers against capital. To what extent has that situation changed? If Goldman visited Caplinger Mills or Armour or Redfield today, would she conclude that the majority of farmers are bourgeoisie—very rich landowners who raise everything on a large scale—and thus enemies of her cause?

  12. TGA 2022-07-27 00:06

    DaveFN: I’ve seen your grandmother Kate’s grave and have pictures of it as well as some of her children’s graves. My husband’s family farm is close to Humansville, MO, about 15 miles east of Caplinger Mills. I’ve read some of Kate’s and Emma’s works (and other anarchist’s works) and have imagined Emma standing by the Sac /River talking to the crowds. Thanks for sharing.

    Cory’s question: would Emma consider today’s farmer’s bourgeoisie – I think she would. 1897 farmers did not receive government supports; direct payments, crop insurance, crop loans, etc., began in 1933 (Roosevelt, New Deal). A socialist program treated like capitalism. Public debt for private gain.

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