Willow Springs City Attorney and Socialist Leader Norris B. Wilkinson
Thu, 05/14/2020 - 12:30pm admin
It might come as a surprise to Howell County readers that a local politician and popular civic leader ran in regional and state elections on the Socialist ticket. For over a decade, Norris Brazilla Wilkinson sparred with Democrats and Republicans alike in debates and at local gatherings while maintaining a law practice covering several counties in South Central Missouri. He guided the community of Willow Springs through a formative period as a city attorney, in the establishment of their water, sewer, electric power and telephone services from the mid-1890s into the twentieth century.
Wilkinson was born on January 29, 1853, in Smyrna, Kent County, Delaware, in a family that included nine other children. In 1860, his family moved to Wisconsin, and in 1870 were living in Clifton, Wisconsin. Norris received a law degree from the University of Michigan in 1876, and that same year he was married to Delia Atwater in Clifton. Norris and family, including wife and seven children, were living in LaMoure, Dakota Territory when Delia died in 1891. In 1892, Norris married Miss Tenna Medley and moved to Willow Springs. They had an additional four children. Life in Willow Springs was interrupted by military service.
In addition to his law practice, Norris had been active in forming a Missouri State Guard unit locally. When they were called into national service, Norris mustered into Company F of the Sixth Regiment Missouri Volunteer Infantry at Jefferson Barracks, St. Louis, Missouri, on July 20, 1898, as a First Lieutenant. He and Captain William Hughes commanded this company in the Spanish-American War. Norris' son Tommy accompanied him as a bugler during the war. They served just under a year and were in Cuba when the war ended. During his service, Wilkinson was promoted to Captain, and then elevated to brigade Quartermaster. He returned to Willow Springs after mustering out at Savannah, Georgia, while his friend William Hughes of Willow Springs chose to remain in Cuba.
Norris B. Wilkinson built a successful law practice and engaged in various enterprises in Willow Springs. He was active in the Democratic Party until 1908 when he joined the Socialist Party and immediately took a regional leadership role. In August 1908, he ran for the United States Congress. The Scott County Kicker, a Southeast Missouri Newspaper, reported, "In the election this fall the voters will not have to be satisfied with 'the lesser of two evils,' in voting for a congressman, as was the case two years ago. N.B. Wilkinson, of Willow Springs, the Socialist nominee, is a man of ability. At a farmers' union picnic two weeks ago, Wilkinson was invited to speak. A correspondent to the St. Louis Labor says, 'The Democrats got a pin-head lawyer to speak against him, but he knew nothing about Socialism.' And that was about the size of it. If he had known anything about Socialism, he would not have butted in. At a three days' picnic of the Knights of Pythias at Willow Springs, there was much speaking. The Willow Springs Index, a Democratic paper, says, 'Quite a number of political speeches were made at the grounds during the three days, but it was generally conceded by most all the people present that the greatest interest and the most enthusiasm was created by the speech of N.B. Wilkinson, the Socialist candidate for Congress from this district."
Wilkinson's oratory success did not translate into votes. Then as now, third party candidates had a hard way to go, and he lost the election. Additional efforts to elevate him to political office failed, including a nomination as a Missouri Supreme Court justice.
In the latter part of his life, Norris Wilkinson turned his energies toward supporting Howell County's military men. In January 1916, the Missouri Guard appointed him an 'inspector' with the rank of Colonel. In January 1917, he was a guest of honor at a banquet welcoming Howell County's Company D of the Missouri State Guard following their deployment on the Mexican border. Later that year, he assisted a Spanish-American War comrade, Captain W.W. Durnell, in organizing the fourth company of militia raised in Howell and Texas counties who were inducted into service and saw combat in World War One.
When the American entry into the First World War occurred on April 6, 1917, the American Socialist Party took a stance against United States involvement in the war. On March 23, 1918, Socialist Rose Pastor Stokes was arrested in Willow Springs for sedition for her part in discouraging enlistment in the United States Army. Norris Wilkinson had been instrumental in arranging her appearance to speak at the Willow Springs Opera House. A split in the Socialist Party had been underway since 1917, and now Wilkinson chose to abandon his party because of Stokes' and others’ radical views on the war.
The West Plains Journal wrote on September 12, 1918, that Wilkinson was leaving the Socialist Party. It wrote, "Denouncing the recent action of the Socialist party leaders as bordering on treason to this government, Captain N.B. Wilkinson, of Willow Springs, has come out with a signed statement repudiating the Socialist party and declining to make the race for judge of the Missouri Supreme Court. Captain Wilkinson, who fought in the Cuban War of 1898, sees the error of the way of the Socialist Party leaders in refusing to do their bit and make the world safe for democracy.”
"In a letter to W.L. Garver, state secretary of the Socialist Party of Missouri, Captain Wilkinson says: 'It is with deep regret I feel, as an American citizen, compelled to send my resignation as a candidate for the supreme court. But the reasons, briefly stated, are these: That I cannot consistently remain an active member of a party that antagonizes the principles of democracy for which our county is now engaged in the world's war. At this crucial time, when all the civilized world is fighting in a death struggle for world democracy as a vital, living issue for the future centuries, it is suicidal for any political party to assume an attitude of indifference to this great adventure and to openly oppose the successful termination of this worldwide struggle for human liberty...And having been born with this religion of democracy burning in my soul, and having been inspired in my youthful days with the great battle for the destruction of human slavery in our land, I cannot for a moment look with indifference upon our party leaders sitting idly by, and taking no active part in the effort to 'make the world safe for democracy.'"
"But I am still a Socialist, as are all men who have seen the 'vision' of a world in which every social utility was collectively owned and democratically managed." Wilkinson then announced that he would "work for the Democratic Party, as it came nearer to meeting with his ideals than any other organization at this time."
The strain of all this was too much. On August 7, 1919, the Howell County Gazette announced, "The condition of N.B. Wilkinson, a prominent Willow Springs attorney, continues to be serious. He is suffering with a complication of diseases and a nervous breakdown that has been coming on for some time."
On September 29, 1919, at the age of sixty-six, Norris B. Wilkinson died at home. The West Plains Journal Gazette called him "a learned scholar and a perfect gentleman. He was loyal to his friends and true to his clients." They continued, "Perhaps no man among his many acquaintances knew him better than Judge Henry D. Green. Judge Green says of Captain Wilkinson, 'He was a good lawyer and a careful student. He was analytical in looking up and presenting his cases. He was a student, not only of the law, but his reading was general, for he studied history, science and political economy.'"
At the time of his death, his wife and eight of his children were living. His funeral was attended by a large crowd of prominent men in the court system and citizens who did not always agree with him politically but respected his integrity.
Wilkinson stood on principle, exemplified by an event following his death. Three years before his passing, Wilkinson sent a telegram to a daughter en route home via train that Western Union failed to deliver. He filed suit for $300 to punish the company when it refused to refund the cost of the telegram or apologize. He won the case in Howell County Circuit Court. The company appealed and reversed it. Wilkinson next appealed to the Springfield Court of Appeals. In the interim, Norris died, but his wife continued the suit, and with the help of local attorneys, won. According to the West Plains Journal Gazette reporting the case in 1921, the suit "established new law in the state." Norris B. Wilkinson is buried in the Willow Springs City Cemetery, and a government military stone marks his grave.