Eugene V. Debs is a hero for the prison reform movement. Which is strange given that prison reform per se wasn’t his main cause. Debs was a labor rights advocate, union organiser and Socialist Party pioneer.
Debs was a harsh critic of American draft policies of the First World War; he was accused of sedition and labeled a traitor by Woodrow Wilson. Debs’ June 1918 anti-war speech saw him arrested under the war-time espionage law. He was sentenced to 10 years. He was effectively a political prisoner.
It is the statement Debs delivered in his court hearing that has inspired generations of prison activists:
“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.”
Given that Marx’s Das Kapital was published in 1867, Debs’ adoption of Socialism is relatively late. Ironically, it was while he was imprisoned in Woostock, Illinois during 1895 that he read Marx’s work and upon release became an avowed Socialist.
Debs ran for the US Presidency five times; first as a member of the Social Democratic Party of the United States (1900) and later as the candidate for the Socialist Party of America (1904, 1908, 1912 & 1920). In both the 1912 and 1920 elections Debs’ received nearly one million votes, 6% and 3.4% of the popular vote, respectively.
The 1920 campaign was run from within prison – after his 1918 speech he was convicted in April of 1919. The photograph above is of Debs’ release on Christmas Day, 1921 when his sentence was commuted to time served.
Debs legacy lives on partly in the form of the Eugene V. Debs Award . Past winner include Studs Terkel, Howard Zinn, Kurt Vonnegut, Molly Ivins, Pete Seeger and Ralph Nader.
Musings on the ‘Third Candidate’
I am always fascinated by the presence of historical figures who have disturbed the prevalent two party system of America. As unsavory as George Wallace was, his impact as a third candidate is worth measuring. Today, Ralph Nader’s name is synonymous with the term ‘third candidate’ and for his involvement in the 2000 general election his is vilified as the reason Al Gore did not become president. I am sick of hearing such a whinging and backward logic. Al Gore did not become president of the United States because he failed to win enough Electoral College votes and we well know the hanging, Floridian chaddy reasons for that.
People’s criticism of Nader says more about their surrender to a seemingly perpetual two party system than it does of his perceived faults.
Nader has made the point that neither the suffragettes or civil rights activists made it to elected office but that didn’t prevent them effecting massive change. If people are criticising any third candidate it is because they are more focused on the intractable two-party system than they are on their own agency and potential to effect change.