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.
b.1855 d.1926

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

This year is also the 100th anniversary of the Socialist Party of America, the party founded by Debs. Eugene Victor. “The Life of Eugene Debs” opens with

The life of Eugene Victor Debs is so complicated and entwined with the dominant thought and action of his time, and he has so persistently, with conscious purpose, touched and impressed it with primal vigor, integrity and energy as will make a distinct and lasting work, not merely upon the institutions of this country, but upon the future welfare and development of all the peoples of the whole world.
Debs (1855-1926) was one of the greatest and most articulate advocates of workers’ power to have ever lived. During the early years of the labor movement in the United States, Debs was far ahead of his times, leading the formation of the American Railway Union (ARU) and the American Socialist Party.

Debs was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, on November 5, 1855. He left home at 14 to work on the railroad and soon became interested in union activity. As president of the American Railway Union, he led a successful strike against the Great Northern Railroad in 1894. Two months later he was jailed for his role in a strike against the Chicago Pullman Palace Car Company. While in jail, Socialist and future Congressman Victor Berger talked with Debs and introduced him to the ideas of Marx and Socialism. When he was released from prison, he announced that he was a Socialist.

He soon formed the Social Democratic Party, which eventually became the Socialist Party in 1901. He became their perennial presidential candidate. He ran on the Socialist ticket in 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920 when he received his highest popular vote—about 915,000 (6%)—from within a prison cell. He had been arrested once again, this time for “sedition” because he opposed World War I. Many Socialists were imprisoned during this time because they felt that the war was being fought for the profits of the rich, but with the blood of the poor. Debs was finally released in 1921.

Eugene Victor Debs is quoted for his speech on the creation of an American Labor Party, to help out workers and their needs,

“This does not mean that a labor party shall consist exclusively of workers but it does mean that all who enter its ranks do so with the understanding that it is a labor party, not a middle class party, not a reform party, nor a progressive party (of which the Republican and Democratic parties are shining examples) but an open-and-above-board labor party, standing squarely on a labor platform, and marshalling its forces to fight labor’s political battles for industrial freedom. He reasoned for his recommendation as, “A 'third party' of such a nature would at best align the dwindling 'little interests' against the 'big interests,' seek to patch up and prolong the present corrupt and collapsing capitalist system, and failing utterly to effect any material change or achieve any substantial benefit would finally fizzle out and add one more to the list of 'third party' fiascoes.
His belief in the Labor party would be followed with many virtues, including: Freedom from the “paralyzing putridities of the parties of their silk-hatted, wealth-inflated, job-owning and labor-exploiting masters—a party with a backbone and the courage to stand up without apology and proclaim itself a Labor Party, clean, confident of its own inherent powers, bearing proudly the union label in token of its fundamental conquering principle of industrial and political solidarity, and challenging the whole world of capitalism to contest the right of this nation to own its own industries, to control its own economic and social life, and the right of the toiling and producing masses to own their own jobs, to enjoy the fruits of their own labor, and to be the masters of their own lives.

Eugene V. Debs was involved in the Pullman Strike. In June, 1894, the great Pullman strike was fought and won, but victory was turned into defeat by the Federal administration using the courts and the soldiers to imprison the leaders and crush the strike. The railroad corporations then resolved to annihilate the A. R. U. Debs was indicted for various crimes, the railroad corporations demanding that he be prosecuted for conspiracy, treason, and murder. Many predicted that he would be hanged. He was imprisoned several times and served six months in Woodstock jail for contempt of court. While serving at Woodstock, he was taken daily to Chicago, a distance of 55 miles, under escort of two deputy sheriffs, where he was being tried for conspiracy and other crimes, but when the prosecution learned that Debs and his attorneys were in possession of the secret proceedings of the Railroads’ General Managers’ Association and that they had a number of witnesses to testify as to who had committed the crimes charged to the strikers, the trial was abruptly ended on the plea that a juror had suddenly been taken sick. No effort has ever been made to impanel another jury and so far as the records show, the juror never got better, and the cases ended by evasion and subterfuge on the part of the Railroad Corporations. 36 lawyers live in my neighborhood of about 140, and among those 36 more than a couple work with railroad industries. By all means I am not calling the Railroad Corporations fraudulent in present day.

Debs was kept 18 months in the jurisdiction of the court by postponements and various pretexts, calculated to prevent him from re-organizing the A. R. U., and when finally released, the railroad corporations put detectives on his track and for two years they followed him, and whenever he organized the men they were discharged, as were many who even recognized him or who were suspected of having any sympathy with his work or for him personally. He saw that it was vain and hopeless to reorganize the A. R. U. and that all the influence the corporations could combine were opposing it.

While in Jail he did many things including pondering life, “In prison my life was a busy one and the time for meditation and to give the imagination free reign was when the daily task was over and Night’s sable curtains enveloped the world in darkness, relieved only by the sentinel stars and the Earth’s silver satellite ‘walking in lovely beauty to her midnight throne.’ It was at such times that the reverend stones of the prison walls preached sermons, sometimes rising in grandeur to the Sermon on the Mount. It might be a question in the minds of some if this occasion warrants the indulgence of the fancy. It will be remembered that Aesop taught the world by fables and Christ by parables, but my recollection is that the old stone preachers were as epigrammatic as an unabridged dictionary. I remember one old divine stone who one night selected for his text ‘George M. Pullman,’ and said ‘George is a bad egg; handle him with care. If you crack his shell the odor would depopulate Chicago in an hour.’ All the rest of the stones said ‘Amen’ and the services closed.

Eugene Victor Debs was more than a founder in socialism for the American mind, he was a Christian man who taught his beliefs for the common good. He spent a life of dedication and went through a lot of turmoil for his beliefs that were before their time in America. Even though his beliefs are not a main political body or party nowadays, they still had effects on what people expect and think or believe could happen. Debs was a Marxist, a writer, and a great man.

Sources, used mainly for quotations:
Life of Eugene V. Debs
Personal History of Eugene V. Debs

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