Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Revolutionary Of The Week

Eugene Debs (1855-1926)

Eugene Debs was one of the most prominent labor organizers & political activists of his time. He was also nominated as the Socialist Party's candidate for President 5 times.

In 1874, at his mother's request, he gave up his job as a railroad fireman & went to work at a wholesale grocery store as a billing clerk. In 1875, he became a Charter member & secretary of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen. He continued to work at the wholesale grocery store to help out the labor union. The same year he became the President of Occidental Literary Club of Terre Haute.

Debs made assistant editor of the National Brotherhood of Locomotive Fireman's Magazine. He became interested in politics & was elected to first of 2 terms as City Clerk of Terre Haute on the Democractic ticket in 1879.

A year later Eugene Debs was named Grand Secretary of the Brotherhood of Railway Firemen, as well as Editor of the magazine.

By 1884, Debs was elected State Representative to the Indiana General Assembly as a Democrat. He organized the first industrial union in the United States, The American Railway Union, in 1885.

America's entrance into WWI, provoked a tightening of civil liberties, culminating with the passage of the Espionage and Sedition Act in June, 1917. Their totalitarian salvo read in part: " Whoever, when the US is at war, shall willfully cause or attempt to cause insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, or refusal of duty in the military or naval forces of the US, shall be punished by a fine of not more than $ 10,000 or imprisonment of not more than 20 years, or both."

One year after the Espionage and Sedition Act was voted into law, Debs was in Canton, Ohio for a Socialist Party Convention. He was arrested for making a speech deemed "anti-war" by the Canton District Attorney. In that speech, Debs declared, " They have always taught and trained you to believe it to be your patriotic duty to go to war and to have yourselves slaughtered at their command. But in all the history of the world, you, the people, have never had a voice in declaring war, and strange as it certainly appears, no war by any nation in any age has ever been declared by the people."

"Do not worry over the charge of treason to your masters, but be concerned about the treason that involves yourselves. Be true to yourself and you cannot be a traitor to any good cause on earth."

These words led him to a 10 year prison sentence & the stripping of his US citizenship. At his sentencing, Debs famously told the judge : " Your honor, years ago, I recognized my kinship with all living beings, & I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, & 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."

While serving his sentence in the federal penitentiary, Debs was nominated for the 5th time, campaigned from his jail cell, & remarkably recieved 917,799 votes. His program included proposals for improved labour conditions, housing & welfare legislation, & an increase in the number of people who could vote in election.

President Woodrow Wilson ignored all pleas to release Debs from prison. But after serving 2 years & 8 months, President Warren G. Harding commuted his sentence on Christmas Day 1921.

Eugene Debs died in 1926, & was replaced by Norman Thomas as leader of the Socialist Party.

He is the Revolutionary Of The Week for being outspoken against war, at a time when it was illegal & punishable to do so. He went to prison because he spoke his mind in public against WWI. The current times & situation with the Iraq invasion makes me remember Eugene Debs & his contribution to free speech & the anti-war movement.