Eugene V. Debs Centennial

Detail of a mural by the artist, John Joseph Laska. Reproduced courtesy of the Eugene V. Debs Museum, Terre Haute, Indiana.

Join us for the Fifth Annual Cleveland LaborFest by the Labor Education & Arts Project

Friday, October 510:00AM–2:00PM Saturday, October 610:00AM–4:00PM
Cleveland Marshall College of Law Cleveland Public Library
1801 Euclid Ave., Cleveland, Ohio 525 Superior Ave., Cleveland, Ohio
Moot Courtroom (Room 101) Louis Stokes Wing Auditorium

Join Us for a Debs Centennial Dinner Reception with Guest Speakers: Margaret Kimberley and Dan Kovalik

The topic for the Friday Session will be on the question of the Espionage Act of 1917 and the fight for free speech, both then—versus Debs—and now with the war against whistleblowers, journalists, and the alternative media. Speakers include: Ernest Freeberg, Ahmed White, Sue Udry, and Kevin Frances O'Neill. (See below for bios.) The proceedings will include a tour of the East Courtroom in the Metzenbaum U.S. Courthouse where Debs was tried on the charge of sedition.

Questions to be submitted to the Saturday Assembly at the library for consideration include: (1) Eugene Debs and American Socialism; (2) The Espionage Act and its censorship of domestic free speech and the right to dissent; (3) U.S. militarism and its drumbeat for endless war; and (4) "What is to be done?": Discussion on the question of an independent political party based in the labor movement in the manner of Debs.

Speakers include: Allison Duerk, Ernest Freeberg, Robert Fitrakis, Sue Udry, Dan Kovalik, David Goldberg, Margaret Kimberley, and Mark Dimondstein (tentative). See below for bio. Luncheon included.

Ernest Freeberg

Professor and Head of History Department at the University of Tennessee. Freeberg is a Distinguished Professor of Humanities and a Distinguished Lecturer for the Organization of American Historians. He is the author of Democracy's Prisoner: Eugene V. Debs, The Great War, and the Right to Dissent.

Robert Fitrakis

Political Science Professor in the Social Sciences and Legal Studies Department at Columbus State Community College. Fitrakis is the author of The Idea of Democratic Socialism in America: Eugene Debs, Norman Thomas, and Michael Harrington. He has authored or co-authored six books on election integrity including his latest titled The Strip & Flip Selection of 2016: Five Jim Crows & Electronic Election Theft (Zip Publication, 2016).

Margaret Kimberley

Editor and Senior Columnist at Black Agenda Report. Ms. Kimberley is a regular guest on radio and internet talk shows and has appeared on Al Jazeera English, RT, WBAI, KPFK, Presstv Iron, and Govorit Committee of the United National Antiwar Coalition (UNAC), the Coordinating Committee of Black Alliance for Peace, and the Advisory Board of ExposeFacts.org. She is writing a book about racism and the American presidency. She is a graduate of Williams College and lives in New York City.

Kevin Francis O'Neill

Associate Professor at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law. Professor O'Neill teaches First Amendment, Evidence, Civil Procedure, and Pretrial Practice. His scholarship focuses on the Speech Clause of the First Amendment, with particular emphasis on public protest and forum access issues.

East Courtroom, Howard M. Metzenbaum U.S. Courthouse

The chamber of contemporary justice in Cleveland is of oak and marble, with windows two stories high and a ceiling of gold; the judge sits high up and his desk is as wide as a counter; and above and behind him the full width of wall is filled with a splendorous painting... It is a kind flamboyant solemnity of space in all of that end of the room, and on the other end, a solid crowd of poor people, standing up, eager, their eyes shining like children's on everything that happens.."

"The Trial of Eugene Debs" by Max Eastman, The Liberator, November 1918.

Mark Dimondstein

President of the American Postal Workers Union. The APWU represents more than 200,000 employees of the U.S. Postal Service and approximately 1,500 workers in the private-sector mailing industry. Since taking office, Dimondstein has transformed the APWU into a fighting, activist organization. He helped establish "A Grand Alliance to Save Our Public Postal Service," helpt to for the Campaign for Postal Banking, and led the successful fight against privatization schemes. (Please note: Dimondstein's apperance is contigent on negotiations with the USPS for a contract that expires on 9/20/18.

Dan Kovalik

Senior Associate General Counsel of the United Steelworkers, AFL-CIO (USW). Kovalik is the author of critically-acclaimed The Plot to Scapegoat Russia, and teaches International Human Rights at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. He is a graduate of Columbia Law School and received the David W. Mills Mentoring Fellowship from Stanford Law School.

David Goldberg

Professor Emeritus of History at Cleveland State University. Professor Goldberg is the author of A Tale of Three Cities: Labor Organization and Protest in Paterson, Passaic, and Lawrence, 1916–1921 and Discontented America: The United States in the 1920s. He has taught numerous classes dealing with labor, immigration, and urban history. He served 19 months in federal prison for refusing to cooperate with Selective Service during the Vietnam War.

Ahmed White

Nicholas Rosenbaum Professor of Law at the University of Colorado. Professor White's scholarship centers on criminal justice and labor, with a particular emphasis on the history of labor law and labor repression. Professor White is writing a book on the history of anti-syndicalism laws and the important role these played in undermining militant trade unionism in the early twentieth century.

Sue Udry

Executive Director of Defending Rights and Dissent. Udry's career in public service spans four decades and includes advocating for peace, civil rights, and economic justice. As Executive Director of Defendng Rights and Dissent, she leads the organization's advocacy and public education efforts to protect and strengthen civil society and challenge government abuse of First and Fourth Amendment rights.

Allison Duerk

Director of the Eugene V. Debs Museum Terre Haute, Indiana. Ms. Duerk was raised in a union family. Her work at the Museum focuses on Debs’ relevance to today's working class movements. Allison holds a BS in political science from Indiana State University where she researched labor legislation and was active in several justice organizations.

An Appeal for Material Support in behalf of the Eugene Debs Centennial

As a working class organization, the Labor Education & Arts Project (LEAP) is wholly dependent on contributions from working people, their organizations, and those favorable to our cause.

All proceeds in behalf of the Debs Centennial will be allocated to cover the expenses necessary for its success, such as, speaker recompense, rental of facilities, and the graphic design and printing of the program booklet. We also hope to produce a video recording of the event for distribution to a wider audience and for posterity.

The Debs Centennial will be our Fifth Annual LaborFest event. Booklet covers for three previous such events are shown below. They include: (1) Labor & New Deal Art Traveling Exhibition & Forums in Commemoration of the 75th Anniversary of the Little Steel Strike of 1937, (2) The Rise of the Labor Movement in Ohio and (3) A Tribute to the Industrial Workers of the World a.k.a. The Wobblies.

Your contribution will be acknowledged in the Debs commemorative program booklet. A copy with a centerspread of photos taken at the Centennial will be mailed to you postage prepaid. All donations are tax deductible in accordance with Section 501c3 of the Internal Revenue Code We appeal to you to do what is in your ability to attend this event and to help defray the expenses necessary for its success.

Click here to donate.

If you are making a contribution by check, please make it payable to LEAP and mail it to same at P.O. Box 5334, Cleveland, OH 44101. For further information, contact newdeallaborart@gmail.com.

The Canton Speech and the Cleveland Trial of Eugene V. Debs

September 11th and 12th, 2018 marks the one hundredth anniversary of one of the most famous political trials in American history. During these two days, Eugene V. Debs bravely restated his opposition to U.S. participation in the World War and his commitment to socialism. Indicted for having violated the wartime Sedition Act, Debs was sentenced to ten years in federal prison by the presiding judge, D.C. Westenhaver. How could an individual who had received 6% of the vote in the 1912 presidential election receive such a harsh sentence just for making a speech? The explanation lies in the hysteria and repression that accompanied U.S. entry into the war in April 1917 and the class-based nature of the justice system itself.

The war we now know as World War I began in the Fall of 1914. By January 1917, millions of Europeans had died in trenches and on battlefields. Woodrow Wilson had proclaimed the United States to be a neutral nation, but his policy had tilted towards the British. Finally, on April 2, 1917, after Germany resumed unrestricted submarine warfare, Wilson went before Congress to request a declaration of war.

Fifty members of the House and six members of the U.S. Senate voted against the war declaration. The U.S. Socialist Party held an emergency meeting in St. Louis and also voted to oppose what the party viewed as a capitalists’ war. Debs had been the SP’s presidential nominee four times, and he fully concurred with the party’s decision. Faced with this opposition, the Wilson administration convinced Congress to adopt the Espionage Act in 1917 which made it illegal to encourage opposition to the war and to the draft, a measure strengthened by the 1918 Sedition Act.

Leftists in Cleveland, as elsewhere, paid a price for continuing to voice their opposition to the war. Super patriots broke up rallies, federal officials raided the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and SP offices and socialists were expelled from the Cleveland City Council and School Committee. Three Socialist Party leaders, Charles E. Ruthenberg, Alfred Wagenknecht and Charles Baker, were found guilty of violating the Espionage Act and sentenced to one year in the Canton Workhouse. Despite being indicted, Ruthenberg, who went on to become a leader of the U.S. Communist Party, received a third of the vote in the 1917 Cleveland mayoralty election.

Debs had become enraged that members of the SP and IWW had been imprisoned for merely speaking out against the war. He continued to boldly state his own opposition to the pointless slaughter and gladly accepted an invitation from the Ohio Socialist Party to speak at their annual state convention and picnic to be held in Nimisilla Park in Canton on June 16th, 1918. The park adjoined the county workhouse, and before he spoke, Debs visited the three imprisoned socialists and learned about how they had been mistreated while incarcerated.

Debs, in his usual booming voice, delivered a lengthy speech that addressed a number of issues. He reiterated his opposition to the war, his disgust with war profiteers, his advocacy of industrial unionism, his solidarity with the imprisoned IWW members, his support for the Bolshevik Revolution, and his distress that two of his most beloved comrades, Kate Richards O’Hare and Rose Pastor Stokes, faced long prison sentences for speaking out against the war.

The speech led to Debs’ indictment for violating the Sedition Act, and the subsequent trial attracted national attention. Debs’ Cleveland supporters packed the courtroom. The jury was composed of businessmen, merchants and farmers, but this did not matter much because Debs rejected all suggestions that he base his defense on narrow, legalistic grounds. Instead on September 11t , he gave one of the greatest speeches ever delivered by a defendant in an American courtroom. Holding that the Espionage and Sedition Acts violated the Constitution, Debs spoke eloquently of his own heroes – Tom Paine, William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips – of the contributions made by those willing to speak out against unjust wars, and of the value of free speech noting that “socialists stand almost alone today in defending the Constitution of the United States.”

Photo of East Courtroom, Howard M. Metzenbaum U.S. Courthouse, Cleveland, Ohio. Photographs in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Debs’ brilliant oration ended any doubt that he would be convicted though the jury deliberated six hours before finding him guilty. The next day, Debs had another opportunity to speak before the judge pronounced the sentence. Debs then summarized the course of his life since 1895 when he first went to prison for violating an injunction during a railroad strike and spoke his most famous words: “Your honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I am not one bit better than the meanest of earth, I said then, 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.”

Judge Westenhover, who had fined seven court spectators for “riotous conduct” when they applauded a statement by Debs’ defense attorney, then sentenced Debs to a ten year sentence. In 1920, while imprisoned in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, he received one million votes for president running as convict No. 9653. He served two and a half years before Warren Harding pardoned him. The prison term did much damage to his fragile health. But Debs returned to Cleveland on June 16th, 1923 to complete his Canton address. He told the crowd of 7,000 who welcomed their hero at Public Auditorium: “There is not one word I would apologize for. There is not one word I would take back if it carried me to the gallows.”

The Labor Education and Arts Project is proud to sponsor a program in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the trial of this great radical.

― preceding history written by DAVID GOLDBERG.