The Blue Raccoon

Monday, September 03, 2007

[Image: More powerful than a locomotive: these rebelles got it goin' on for Brother Debs. Eugene V. Debs Foundation, Womens Rights]

Debs, Debs, He's Our Man...If This Red Can't
Do It, No Red Can!

Billion-eyed audience, during your trip through the little red school house, you may not have learned much about Brother Eugene Victor Debs (1855-1926) of Terre Haute, Indiana.

He was a dynamic and vital labor organizer and politician, who for supporting women's suffrage, integration, peace, and the rights of workers to a five-day work week and an eight hour day, was tossed into jail in 1920. Debs belonged to a vanished race of orators, with men of his day, like William Jennings Bryan, and dating back to Patrick Henry and Abraham Lincoln. Through the effective use of language and their powerful but unamplified voices, they delivered speeches they wrote themselves that moved minds and hearts.

He ran for president in 1900, 1904, 1908, 1912 (garnering six percent of the votre) , 1920 (campaigning from his Atlanta, Georgia, federal prison cell), as candidate of the U.S. Socialist Party. He made the whistle-stop campaign a hallmark of U.S. politics in 1908, criss-crossing the nation in the Red Special, and speaking to tens of thousands of people who were thirsty for somebody, anybody to talk to them as real people, and some sense of their lives.

[Image: Debs possibly at Canton Ohio, June 16, 1918, a few days prior to his arrest, Indiana State]

On June 20, 1918, in Canton, Ohio, Debs gave a speech in opposition to the the U.S.'s entry into the First World War -- a conflict that Southern gentleman Woodrow Wilson promised to keep the nation out of. He sent around "Four Minute Men" to run in front of audiences in movie houses, or wherever people gathered, to deliver a propaganda message for inciting crowds to support the war. Wilson also allowed the torture of women who were arrested in front of his temporary residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue because they wanted to have a say in the nation's affairs, but those are all different stories.

Debs in Ohio declared the European struggle, as were all conflicts, a rich man's war and a poor man's fight that workers were duty bound to protest. He was arrested for attempting to and sentenced to jail for 10 years.

Historian and journalist Howard Zinn describes what happened next:
In court, Debs refused to call any witnesses, declaring: "I have been accused of obstructing the war. I admit it. I abhor war. I would oppose war if I stood alone." Before sentencing, Debs spoke to judge and jury, uttering perhaps his most famous words. I was in his hometown of Terre Haute, Indiana, recently, among 200 people gathered to honor his memory, and we began the evening by reciting those words-words that moved me deeply when I first read them and move me deeply still: "While there is a lower class, I am in it. While there is a criminal element, I am of it. While there is a soul in prison, I am not free."

The "liberal" Oliver Wendell Holmes, speaking for a unanimous Supreme Court, upheld the verdict, on the ground that Debs's speech was intended to obstruct military recruiting. When the war was over, the "liberal" Woodrow Wilson turned down his Attorney General's recommendation that Debs be released, even though he was sixty-five and in poor health. Debs was in prison for thirty-two months. Finally, in 1921, the Republican Warren Harding ordered him freed on Christmas Day."

His time in jail wrecked Debs' health and though he remained active, he finally went to a convalescing home outside Chicago, where he died, October 26, 1926. Debs was but one pinnacle of the anti-establishment movement prior to World War I, that ran clear into the Depression Era, when finally Franklin Roosevelt just co-opted everybody's ideas in hope that something would work and get the nation out of economic prostration. This is why Roosevelt's opponents--and far right Republicans to this day -- accused Roosevelt of either being a traitor to his elite class or an outright Socialist.

Paul Berman wrote in 199 Village Voice Literary Supplement review of a collected set of Debs' letters, "Because he stood for a strongly ideological position without having to make the nasty little compromises that come with power, Debs enjoyed a speical advantage in immortalizing his own reputation. He got to be a living symbol of American socialism, and the symbol went through life untarnished."

The U.S. Socialist movement sunk within itself, like a watermelon rind left out in the sun, when the Communists left the movement due to the Russian Revolution. Debs didn't have much truck with communists. He sent a letter to Lenin protesting imprisonments and executions of Russian socialists. In this respect, it was similar to the Puritans hanging Quakers. Lenin was a flint-nosed revolutionist creating a new order. Debs wanted justice, for all.


Eugene Debs lectured on Monday evening, March 27, 1911, at the Richmond City Auditorium on West Cary Street (Still standing, and used as a Virginia Commonwealth University athletic center). This was his first visit to Richmond. General admission was a not inconsiderable 25 cents, and 30 cents for a reserved seat. The gallery was restricted for "colored people," as an advertisement stated.

People crowded the hall to get the Gene Debs Experience.

[Debs in full voice, perhaps Chicago, 1912. From Indiana State.]

The Richmond Times-Dispatch lead its article off with, "Like the immortal Patrick Henry and his compatriots, who were in the minority, will the Socialists, to-day empowered by the majority, come into their own; they will suppress the capitalists, revolutionise the organized religion, do away with the disease of poverty and come into Utopia. This was the rosy word-picture painted last night by Eugene V. Debs, the rice presidential candidate on the Socialist ticket...more than 1,200 men and a few women heard him and heralded him as he Sage of Milwaukee--the only city in the United States, according to the orator, free from corruption..."

"...Approval was manifested by cheers, stamping of feet and handclapping. The speaker was frequently interrupted by outbursts of applause."

Debs characterised President William Howard Taft "as the messenger of J. Pierpont Morgan and playmate of John D. Rockefeller." Taft sent troops to the Mexican border because Morgan owns $10 million worth of interests there."

He launched into a stem-winder with, "Capital is keeping the working man -- you -- in ignorance. From the political platform you are called intelligent. I stand before you and tell you that you are ignorant, and I do that that you may become intelligent. What Republican or Democrat do you know of would stand before you and tell you that you are ignorant?

The ruling classes have always been the few and the subject classes the many, because they have been kept in ignorance. The masses are still in darkness and the victims of tradition. They do not assert themselves, for if they did and he shackles would fall from their limbs and there would be a new order of things.

You my fellow workmen, are in the overwhelming majority. If you will only use your heads instead of your hands, ou will no longer be called mill hands, mine hands, shop hands and other kinds of hands.

Rockefeller makes more in five minutes than you do in five years. You make the automobile and he rides in it -- except on election day. If you need him, keep on voting the Democratic and Republican tickets."

He called the poverty of the time "a rebuke to our Civilization" and he gave the example of wealthy Christians attending prosperous congregations while poverty and hunger exist two blocks away. "That is religion," Debs said in a dismissive manner, and there was some uneasy laughter, and applause, I'm sure.

Then, Debs, not meaning to be an alarmist, predicted...war with Japan. This is 1911, mind you, and there was such a race-based anxiety in the U.S. called The Yellow Peril that was directed for the most part toward the Chinese, but also the Japanese. But listen to him as he predicts a potential conflict with Japan because "it is getting ready as fast as she can to to take the Philippines, Hawaii and Guam. She is building great ship yards and hurrying the day when hundreds of thousands of our young men will have to go to be slaughtered.

There will be talk of patriotism, Old Glory, but it is murder. I would not kill a man to save my life. I would not go to war. 'If that be treason,' in the words of Patrick Henry, 'then make the most of it.'"

He then made a pitch to the women, and made reference to the disaster quite fresh in the minds of his audience, the Triangle Shirt Waist factory fire that just three days earlier had killed 146 women and girls who were locked in the building's upper floors, unable to escape a blaze. [See more of this below] Many jumped out of the windows. My guess is there was a feminine roar from the audience that would've been amazing and moving to hear.

"Do you suppose that the girls in the shirtwaist factory in New York would have voted for the city officers who would not require owners to equip their shops with adequate fire escapes?"


This Labor Day, just remember. Men and women fought, risked jail, and died so you can have a day off. Yes, they died: look it up. Those early 20th century labor movement participants valued labor and good work, and craftsmanship. They just didn't think you should be treated like a caged animal during your time at the shop, or at the end, be a used up worthless husk.

A scattering of some of the worst greatest hits:

July 6, 1892
The Homestead Strike. Pinkerton Guards, trying to pave the way for the introduction of scabs, opened fire on striking Carnegie mill steel-workers in Homestead, Pennsylvania. In the ensuing battle, three Pinkertons surrendered; then, unarmed, they were set upon and beaten by a mob of townspeople, most of them women. Seven guards and eleven strikers and spectators were shot to death.

The first of several bloody mining strikes at Cripple Creek, Colorado.

July 5, 1893
During a strike against the Pullman Palace Car Company, which had drastically reduced wages, the 1892 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago's Jackson Park was set ablaze, and seven buildings were reduced to ashes. The mobs raged on, burning and looting railroad cars and fighting police in the streets, until 10 July, when 14,000 federal and state troops finally succeeded in putting down the strike.

Federal troops killed 34 American Railway Union members in the Chicago area attempting to break a strike, led by Eugene Debs, against the Pullman Company. Debs and several others were imprisoned for violating injunctions, causing disintegration of the union.

September 21, 1896
The state militia was sent to Leadville, Colorado to break a miner's strike.

September 10, 1897
19 unarmed striking coal miners and mine workers were killed and 36 wounded by a posse organized by the Luzerne County sherif for refusing to disperse near Lattimer, Pennsylvania. The strikers, most of whom were shot in the back, were originally brought in as strike-breakers, but later organized themselves.

March 25, 1911
The Triangle Shirtwaist Company, occupying the top three floors of a ten-story building in New York City, was consumed by fire. One hundred and forty-seven people, mostly women and young girls working in sweatshop conditions, lost their lives. Approximately 50 died as they leapt from windows to the street; the others were burned or trampled to death as they desperately attempted to escape through stairway exits locked as a precaution against "the interruption of work". On 11 April the company's owners were indicted for manslaughter.

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At 1:05 AM, Anonymous blackpage said...

Fought and died they did.
My great grandfather was one of them.
He was a gandy dancer and a union man. He met his fate with a bullet in the back of his skull for allegedly stealing a cord of wood. Most strike stories usually end the same.
Not much has changed. Pinkerton or Blackwater, the game stays the same.

I had no idea Steinbeck had cribbed Deb's speech for Tom Joad's final monologue in the "Grapes of Wrath". Interesting bit of trivia.

Power in the Union.

At 5:15 AM, Blogger HEK said...


Steinbeck, a Union man in those days, also knew to "steal" or rather paraphrase from the best.

Taking the long view from history, one sees both how much and little has changed. Clothes and manners differ, but the world groans in its grooves much the way it always has.

Debs' words ring true because he was speaking at a time of unfettered capitalism, much as we are experiencing today.

Today's unions, unfortunately, aren't quite what Debs, Gompers and others probably wanted to evolve. And they've whithered on the vine these past few decades.


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