Dec. 18 (Tuesday)

Socialist Firebrand
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 Eugene Victor “Gene” Debs
Full Name: Eugene Victor “Gene” Debs
Born: Nov. 5, 1855 in Terre Haute, Indiana
Died: Oct. 20, 1926 in Elmhurst, Illinois

Eugene V. Debs was an American union leader, one of the founding members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or Wobblies) and the Socialist Party of America’s most famous candidate for President of the United States. His story is both tragic and inspirational.

Debs was instrumental in the founding of the American Railway Union (ARU), one of the nation’s first industrial unions. When he convinced the ARU to stage a boycott that evolved into a nationwide strike, President Grover Cleveland called in the U.S. Army, killing thirteen strikers. (Ironically, a July 9, 1894 New York Times editorial called Debs “a lawbreaker at large, an enemy of the human race.”) Debs was sentenced to six months in prison. He was defended by Clarence Darrow, a corporate lawyer who switched sides, becoming a leading civil libertarian. (Darrow is best known for his role in the Scopes “Monkey” Trial.)

Debs was a Democrat when he entered prison. However, he devoured literature given him by socialist fans. Before he left prison, he had become a convert. Debs ran as the Socialist Partys candidate for the presidency in 1900, 1904, 1908, 1912 and 1920.

In 1918, Debs was arrested for giving a speech denouncing participation in World War I, arguably the most pointless war in history at that time. Convicted under the Espionage Act of 1917, he was sentenced to a term of ten years. Debs was in prison when he ran for President for the last time. President Warren G. Harding commuted his sentence in December 1921, and Debs died in 1926, not long after being admitted to a sanatorium.

Debs received nearly 6% of the popular vote in 1912 and 1920, a record for a Socialist Party candidate. Yet he was disenchanted with the electoral process, which was very corrupt. If Debs was still alive and ran for office today — when the political system is even more corrupt and the voters more apathetic — he’d be lucky to get more than 1% of the vote.

But Debs proved that he was no quitter and that even running against impossible odds can be worthwhile. A brilliant orator, Debs dazzled jurors with a moving speech during his sentencing hearing. This remains his most memorable statement:

Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.