Years ago I recognized my kinship with all living things, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on the earth. I said then and I say now, that 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.
Labor leader, writer, radical, Socialist, and presidential candidate, Eugene Victor Debs was an American original. An impassioned fighter for economic and social justice, he fought not only for the rights of workers, but for women's suffrage, workmen's compensation, child labor laws, pensions, social security, and the rights of African Americans -- all commonplace today. Half of Debs' adult life would be spent as a union leader and the remaining half attempting to advance workers' rights through politics. Five times the Socialist Party of America's candidate for president, his last campaign was run from a federal prison - and he received almost a million votes. Debs had been imprisoned for speaking out against World War I under the infamous Espionage Act of 1917.
Debs, the son of immigrant parents, quit school at age 14, but despite his lack of formal education he was well read. His favorite work of literature was Les Miserables. It was from Victor Hugo that his parents gave him his middle name. They must have been prescient, for inspired by such ideals, Debs became a lifelong advocate for the rights of all Americans. His humanistic bent also led him to become an outspoken peace advocate.
Born in Terre Haute, Indiana, Debs quit school to scrape paint off of railroad cars. He quickly became a locomotive fireman, but quit this highly dangerous work at the behest of his mother. Working as a billing clerk for a grocery, he kept his ties to the railroad workers through union work. In 1875 he became a charter member and the first secretary of the Terre Haute chapter of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen - and was appointed editor of the BLF Magazine. His writing made it a widely read and influential voice for labor. Later the same year he became president of the Occidental Literary Club of Terre Haute. As such he brought such luminaries as Col. Robert Ingersoll, James Whitcomb Riley, and Susan B. Anthony to Terre Haute.
While working for the union on the one hand, at the same time Debs was moving into politics. In 1879 he was elected to the first of two terms as City Clerk of Terre Haute as a Democrat. As city clerk he shocked the morality of citizens by refusing to assess fines on prostitutes, since the police were not bringing in the pimps or the customers of the women. Despite his radical views, Debs was and remained respected and beloved in his hometown.
While the overwhelming majority of the people here are opposed to the social and economic theories of Mr. Debs, there is not perhaps a single man in this city who enjoys to a greater degree than Mr. Debs the affection, love, and profound respect of the entire community. - the Mayor of Terre Haute, 1907
In 1884 Debs was elected state representative to the Indiana General Assembly
as a Democrat representing Terre Haute and Vigo counties. Debs' was disillusioned by his experience as a legislator, disturbed by both the lack of interest shown in his ideas for railroad reform and the callous process of political compromise
. In June of 1885, while serving his term as state representative, he married Kate Metzel
-- whom he loved and cherished until his death. The couple would have no children.
Debs was also becoming frustrated over the ineffectiveness of the railroad unions. Organized along craft lines, with separate brotherhoods for brakemen, firemen, telegraphers, switchmen and so on, the owners easily could break a strike of one brotherhood by hiring replacement workers. Debs saw the need for an industry-wide union which would unite all the workers on the railroads. So, he resigned from the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and in 1893 founded the American Railway Union - which sought to organize all railroad workers into a single union regardless of craft or skill. Due largely to Debs' reputation and widespread recognition among workers the ARU achieved phenomenal organizing success and its membership expanded rapidly at a time when other labor unions were struggling just to stay alive. Despite his disdain for "leaders" - Eugene V. Debs had become one of the leaders of America's working men and women.
I am not a labor leader. I don't want you to follow me or anyone else. If you are looking for a Moses to lead you out of the capitalist wilderness you will stay right where you are. I would not lead you into this promised land if I could, because if I could lead you in, someone else could lead you out.
In April of 1894 the American Railway Union struck James Hill's Great Northern Railway
. For 18 days not a wheel moved on the Great Northern. The striking workers won a great victory as the railway gave in and granted most of their demands. The next month, when workers at the Pullman Sleeping Car Company went on strike
to protest wage cuts in the middle of a severe depression
, the ARU went on a sympathy strike to support Pullman workers and to publicize the idea of a single unified railroad union. ARU unionists refused to handle trains carrying Pullman sleeping cars; national railroad traffic ground to a halt. President Grover Cleveland
, on the advice of Attorney General (and former railroad attorney) Richard Olney, called in federal troops to break the strike; dozens died in the ensuing violence. Though the strike failed in the short term, it was instrumental in creating the atmosphere of reform that was to follow. For his role in the strike, Debs was prosecuted for obstructing the mails and contempt of court
. He was convicted on the second charge and spent six months in jail.
Debs emerged from jail a national figure and a hero of the American Left. No longer a Democrat, he supported the Populists in 1896 and campaigned for William Jennings Bryan. Having long resisted the label, in January of 1897 he officially declared himself a Socialist and in 1900 he ran for President on the ticket of the Socialist Party. The Socialist Party put a number of issues on the national agenda and advanced by decades the reform legislation for the benefit of working class America. Ideas such as voting rights for women, restrictions on child labor, workplace safety, and workers' right to organize unions. Debs also played a role in founding the Industrial Workers of the World in 1905, the most radical American union of the early twentieth century. The IWW was committed to the idea of a single union for all workers regardless of skill, craft, or occupation; this was an explicit rejection of the conservative unionism of Samuel Gompers and the American Federation of Labor, which accepted only skilled workers organized by trade. The IWW was seriously divided by every shade of radical opinion, including Bill Haywood's syndicalism, Mother Jones' trade unionism, and Lucy Parsons' anarchism. Debs' disagreement with the leadership over numerous issues, including Debs' insistence on nonviolence, led him to drop out of the IWW after a few years.
My purpose was to have the people understand something about the social system in which we live and to prepare them to change this system by perfectly peaceable and orderly means into what I, as a Socialist, conceive to be a real democracy. . . . I am doing what little I can, and have been for many years, to bring about a change that shall do away with the rule of the great body of the people by a relatively small class and establish in this country an industrial and social democracy.
Largely due to Debs, by 1904 the SPA became the third largest political party in America - passing both the Prohibition Party
and the Populist Party
. The SPA grew to the point that it held over 1200 elective offices in thirty-three states and 160 cities.
As a Presidential candidate, Debs of course wanted a good vote count, but he saw his presidential campaigns also as educational and his real concern was to spread awareness of his vision of a better society, where justice, fraternity and equality
would prevail. Debs ran in 1900,1904,1908,1912 and 1920. In 1916 he ran for Congress in his home district in Terre Haute on the Socialist ticket, but was defeated.
I have no country to fight for; my country is the earth, and I am a citizen of the world.
Debs' most famous Presidential race was also his last, in 1920. In one of the more sorry chapters in American history he was forced to run his campaign from a federal prison cell in Atlanta
. On June 16, 1918 Debs made one of his anti-war speeches in Canton, Ohio
, protesting World War I
. For this speech he was arrested and convicted in federal court under the Espionage Act of 1917
. He was his own attorney and his appeal to the jury and his statement to the court before sentencing, are regarded as two of the great classic statements ever made in a court of law. He was sentenced to serve 10 years in prison and disenfranchised
for life, losing his citizenship. The slogan on a campaign poster in 1920 read: From Atlanta Prison to the Whitehouse, 1920
, and a popular campaign button showed Debs in prison garb, standing outside the prison gates, with the caption: For President - Convict No. 9653
. Even from his prison cell, Debs received nearly one million votes!
Republican Warren G. Harding won the 1920 election and on Christmas Day, 1921 President Harding released Debs from prison, commuting his sentence to time served. Debs had won the hearts of his fellow prisoners in Atlanta. His humility and friendliness and his assistance to all won him the respect and admiration of the most hardened convicts. He had fought for them and refused any special privileges for himself. On the day of his release, the warden ignored prison regulations and opened every cell-block to allow more than 2,000 inmates to gather in front of the main jail building to say good-bye to Eugene V. Debs. As he started down the walkway from the prison, a roar went up and he turned, tears streaming down his face, and stretched out his arms to the other prisoners.
Debs arrived home in Terre Haute from prison and was given a tremendous welcome home by a crowd numbered in the thousands. Debs spent his remaining days trying to recover his health - severely undermined by prison confinement. He made several speeches, wrote many articles and finally in 1926 went to Lindlahr sanitarium just outside of Chicago, where - on October 20th, he passed away.
I told my friends of the cloth that I did not believe Christ was meek and lowly but a real living, vital agitator who went into the temple with a lash and whipped the oppressors of the poor, routed them out of the doors and spilled their blood and got silver on the floor. He told the robbed and misruled and exploited and driven people to disobey their plunderers, he denounced the profiteers, and it was for this that they nailed his quivering body to the cross and spiked it to the gates of Jerusalem, not because he told them to love one another. That was harmless doctrine. But when he touched their profits and denounced them before their people he was marked for crucifixion.
In 1990, Debs was inducted into the Department of Labor's Labor Hall of Fame
The Eugene V. Debs Foundation was created in 1962 to preserve the Debs' home in Terre Haute, Indiana - a home that he built at 451 North Eighth Street and that is now a National Historic Landmark; an official historic site of the State of Indiana, and houses the Eugene V. Debs Museum. In 1965 the Foundation began issuing an award to honor the memory of Debs and to assist in keeping alive the spirit of progressivism, humanitarianism and social criticism epitomized by Debs.
Eugene V. Debs Award Winners
1965 John L. Lewis
1966 Norman Thomas
1967 A. Philip Randolph
1968 Walter Reuther
1969 H.E. Gilbert
1970 Patrick E. Gorman
1971 No Award
1972 Dorothy Day
1973 Michael Harrington
1974 Arthur Schlesinger
1975 Ruben Levin
1976 Martin H. Miller
1977 Frank Zeidler
1978 Jesse Jackson
1979 Pete Seeger
1980 William Winpisinger
1981 Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
1982 Coretta Scott King
1983 Studs Terkel
1984 William H. Wynn
1985 Jack Sheinkman
1986 Joseph L. Rauh, Jr.
1987 Edward Asner
1988 Joyce Miller
1989 Morton Bahr
1990 Lynn R. Williams
1991 John Sayles
1992 Ralph Nader
1993 Dolores Huerta
1994 Richard Trumka
1995 Jim Hightower
1996 Victor Navasky
1997 John J. Sweeney
1998 Howard Zinn
1999 Gloria Johnson
2000 Michael Sullivan
2001 Al Chesser
2002 Julian Bond