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Unbowed & unbroken Debs comes to Washington: 1921

10 Jan
Debs outside Attorney General’s office: 1921

Debs outside the Attorney General’s office in Washington, D.C. Dec. 26, 1921.

by JW

Eugene Debs, the inspirational labor and socialist leader of the late 19th and early 20th centuries visited Washington, D.C. several times during his life.

However his most famous visit occurred after his Christmas Day 1921 release from the Atlanta Penitentiary while serving a 10-year sentence for sedition after U.S. President Warren Harding commuted his jail term, along with 23 others.

Debs, who received nearly a million votes while running for U.S. president from his jail cell in the 1920 election, was incarcerated for the crime of speaking out against U.S. entry into World War I and the forced draft of young men into the army.

Debs left prison and spent a day and a half in Washington, D.C. where he visited the U.S. Attorney General in Justice Department offices and U.S. President Warren Harding at the White House, a man who had defeated him in the election the previous year.

Labor & socialist leader

King Debs: 1894

Capitalist view of “King Debs,” 1894 Pullman Strike.

Early in his adulthood, Debs worked with several craft unions including the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen. He became disillusioned with this model of unionism and was instrumental in the founding of the American Railway Union (ARU), one of the nation’s first industrial unions that organized across craft and skill lines.

The ARU achieved early success with an 1894 strike at Great Northern Railway. Workers at the Pullman Palace Car Company,  many of whom were already ARU members, organized a wildcat strike over pay cuts in the summer of 1894. Debs initially opposed calling a boycott, citing the weakness of the union.

However after workers began boycotting Pullman cars in several areas of the country, Debs called for a nationwide boycott by the ARU against handling trains with Pullman cars, in what became the nationwide Pullman strike, affecting most lines west of Detroit, and more than 250,000 workers in 27 states.

Using the excuse of keeping the U.S. mail running, President Grover Cleveland used the United States Army to break the strike. Thirteen strikers were killed and thousands blacklisted.

As a leader of the ARU, Debs was convicted of federal charges for defying a court injunction against the strike and served six months in prison. The right of the government to use the injunction was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

While in prison, Debs began reading socialist literature and its message hit home. He became an articulate spokesperson for socialism.

He later helped found the Socialist Party and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW)—a radical rival to the American Federation of Labor.

He ran five times for U.S. president, receiving nearly a million votes in 1912 and 1920. In the latter election, he ran for the office from a prison cell.

Imprisonment

Canton speech lands presidential candidate Debs in jail: 1918

Debs imprisoned for this speech in Canton, Ohio June 16, 1918.

Debs was opposed to U.S. workers fighting for the capitalist class in World War I and made a speech against the war in Canton, Ohio in 1918. Debs said he phrased his words carefully mindful of the possible consequences.

Nevertheless, he was charged with ten counts of sedition, convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

He gave two thundering speeches to the court, saying at one point,

Your honor, I ask no mercy, I plead for no immunity. I realize that finally the right must prevail. I never more fully comprehended than now the great struggle between the powers of greed on the one hand and upon the other the rising hosts of freedom. I can see the dawn of a better day of humanity. The people are awakening. In due course of time they will come into their own.

At his sentencing hearing he said,

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.

After his appeals were exhausted, he began serving his sentence April 13, 1919. More than one million signed a petition calling for Debs release. However, President Woodrow Wilson denied appeals for clemency saying at one point, “This man was a traitor to his country and he will never be pardoned during my administration.”

When Warren Harding succeeded Wilson, renewed appeals for clemency began in earnest. Attorney General Harry M. Daugherty invited Debs to Washington in March 1921 as part of an evaluation of Debs status. Debs then returned to prison.

Eugene Debs clemency telegram: 1921

Telegram ordering Debs release from prison, December 24, 1921.

On Christmas Day 1921, Debs’ sentence was commuted. When he left the Atlanta Penitentiary, he was sent off with the cheers of 2,300 inmates. The warden provided him with a first class train ticket to Washington, D.C. (instead of to his home or to his place of sentence which is customary).

Debs rode in a sleeper car and donated the difference in the ticket to the Russian relief fund. He was accompanied by his brother Theodore; Celia Rotter of the Debs freedom conference; Lucy Robbins of the American Federation of Labor and the Debs freedom conference; along with a number of newspaper reporters.

Arrival in Washington, D.C.

Debs at the Hotel Harrington: 1921

Debs (tall man in center) at the Hotel Harrington with supporters and newsmen Dec. 26, 1921.

Debs arrived in Washington’s Union Station where he found the taxicabs were non-union and promptly headed for a streetcar. However, a reporter prevailed upon him to accept a ride in an automobile to the Hotel Harrington where he sat down in the barber’s chair, had a shave and then ate breakfast in the hotel restaurant.

He walked from the hotel at 11th & E Streets NW and called upon Daugherty at the Justice Department offices at 1010 Vermont Avenue NW about 11 a.m. dressed in clothes provided by the warden when he left prison—brown suit, dark felt hat, dark overcoat and black shoes.

Debs calls on U.S. Attorney General: 1921

Eugene Debs outside the office of U.S. Attorney General Harry Dougherty Dec. 26, 1921.

“I was courteously received by the Attorney General,” Debs said, “and expressed to him my interest in and my devotion to my fellow prisoners who were no more guilty than I and who still remain in prison.”

By fellow-prisoners, he said he meant both “political offenders and prisoners in general.” Hundreds of war opponents were sentenced to prison for speaking out against the war while the U.S. government was claiming it was fighting to make the world “safe for democracy.”

After a 30-minute conference with Daugherty he then walked to the White House arriving shortly before noon. “I’ve started for here four or five times,” Debs said tongue in cheek, “but this is the first time I ever landed,” (referring to his five times running for President).

Eugene Debs leaving the White House: 1921

Debs outside the White House Dec. 26, 1921 where he met with U.S. President Warren Harding. Debs ran for president as a socialist five times.

He was received by President Harding and met with the president for about 30 minutes inside the White House.

At the White House I was received very cordially by President Harding, with whom I exchanged opinions and points of view, so that he might perfectly understand my attitude in reference to my future activities. During the visit I took occasion to express my appreciation of the consideration.

Debs walked back to his hotel. He originally planned to leave Washington the same day, but a parade of visitors caused him to stay overnight at the Harrington.

Among those who called upon him was Samuel Gompers, President of the American Federation of Labor who had urged his release. Gompers committed to working to free the remaining political prisoners—mostly men and women from the rival IWW.

Debs with group outside Dougherty’s office: 1921

Debs shown with supporters and newsmen Dec. 26, 1921 in Washington, D.C.

The following day on the 27th he saw Peter MacSwiney, brother of the late Lord Mayor of Cork; Frank Morrison, Secretary of the American Federation of Labor; Philip LaFollette, son of the senior Senator From Wisconsin; Santiago Iglesias of the Puerto Rican Senate and Canuto Vargas, Secretary of the Pan American Federation of Labor; Urbain Ledoux, the advocate for unemployed who bestowed his lantern on Debs ending Ledoux’s quest for “an honest man;” along with dozens of friends and well-wishers.

Before leaving Washington, Debs held an unauthorized rally with several hundred supporters in Union Station where he said in part, “I believe in free speech. In the expression of these differing opinions we find our way to higher civilization.”

“With every drop of blood in my veins,” he concluded, “I am opposed to war. Human life is too sacred a thing to be spent in bloodshed.”

He then left for his home in Terre Haute, Indiana and when he arrived, he was greeted by 50,000 well-wishers in a public demonstration.

Questioned about his prison-issued suit, Debs stated his desire to wear his too-large suit for some time saying, “Like the wrinkles on my face, they (the prison issued clothes) have cost me something.”

During his time in prison, Debs refused all privileges not accorded the other inmates and his health suffered. Debs never recovered his health from his time in prison and died October 20, 1926. He left a legacy as the greatest socialist leader in the history of the United States, although he said,

I am not a Labor Leader; I do not want you to follow me or anyone else; if you are looking for a Moses to lead you out of this capitalist wilderness, you will stay right where you are. I would not lead you into the Promised Land if I could, because if I led you in, some one else would lead you out. You must use your heads as well as your hands, and get yourself out of your present condition.


Sources include The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, Nick Salvatore’s Eugene Debs: Citizen and Socialist among others. The author is a student at the University of Maryland.

 

A Million & Counting…

15 Feb

One million photo views and counting on our Flickr site. We’re frankly surprised at the interest in the history of the struggle for social and economic justice in the greater Washington, D.C. area.

Each photo has a short description. Groups of related photos are organized into albums. Each album–sometimes a specific event and sometimes a group of related images–have a longer description that puts the images in context. We also publish this blog for a deep dive look behind selected images.

You can see our photo stream organized by date the image was uploaded or check out individual albums. Check out our in-depth blog posts that are organized by the decade (on right of this page or simply scroll down).

Some of our most popular photo albums are:

Blacks, Whites Protest Job Losses: 1930 No. 2D.C. Protests Against Unemployment:

The first nationwide response to the Great Depression occurred March 6, 1930, including a picket line at the White House in Washington, D.C. Looking for more unemployment protests? 1935, 1937, 1940, 1973, 1977.

 

Harassment at Arlington, Virginia Sit-In: 1960

1960s Civil Rights Protests in the D.C. Area:

District of Columbia public accommodations were largely integrated in the mid 1950s but the surrounding suburbs remained bastions of segregation. Arlington, Rockville, Bowie, Glen Echo, Bethesda, College Park, Silver Spring were but a few of the towns that saw sit-ins, pickets and arrests demanding equality. Read a brief biography of one of these pioneers, Dion Diamond.

Klan Protests Black Minister In Camp Springs MD: 1966The Fight Against the Klan and Nazis in the D.C. area:

The Ku Klux Klan was active throughout the 1960s opposing civil rights and antiwar efforts (one person’s experience). So too was the American Nazi Party. See photos of confrontation in Arlington, Glen Echo, Mt. Ranier, Camp Springs, Frederick and Rising Sun.

 

 

March for Capital Transit Jobs: 1943 (Photo 16)The Washington, D.C. Area Transit Union:

Interest has been high in the struggle to desegregate Washington’s transit system (background story), women streetcar and bus operators during World War II (background story), and in strikes conducted by member of the Amalgamated Transit Union in 1974 and 1978. As the 100th anniversary of ATU Local 689 approaches, check back in the coming year as we post images from early efforts in 19th century to form a union and strikes in 1916, 1917, 1945, 1951 and 1955.

Increasingly Viewed

Negro Congress Pickets Bilbo: 1946

Civil Rights Struggles before 1960: 

Little known today, they helped lay the groundwork for the mass demonstrations, boycotts, sit-ins, pickets and other forms of protest that broke down the worst aspects of segregation in our area: 1922 Anti-Lynching Protest (background story), 1933 March for Scottsboro (background story), 1936 Police Brutality Protests (background story), 1940 Gone with the Wind pickets, 1941 Police Brutality Protest (background story), Integration of D.C. Theaters (background story), The Fight for Fair Employment, The Fight Against the Poll Tax, 1946 Protests Against Sen.Bilbo, 1946 Anti-Lynching Protests, the effort to Free Willie McGee and the Martinsville 7, Mary Church Terrell, the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, among others.

U of MD Ignites: 1970 # 1

Anti-Vietnam War Demonstrations:

The movement against the Vietnam War involved hundreds of thousands of people across the country. Check out the first mass marches on D.C in 1965, The march on the Pentagon in 1967, The Counter-Inaugural in 1969 (background story), University of Md protests in 1970 (background story), 1971, 1972, Mayday protests to shut down the government in 1971 – May 1, May 2, May 3, May 4, May 5, a 1972 march on the Pentagon and 1972 rally downtown, the 1973 Counter-Inaugural and the last demonstration against the Vietnam War in D.C. in 1975. See earlier 1941 and 1958 antiwar protests.

Background

We felt there was historical gap between the internet era and the print era in the struggles for social justice.

We started by publishing photos and negatives that had been improperly stored from the 1972-1975 Montgomery Spark, Washington Area Spark and On The Move tabloid newspapers.  We followed up by researching images available from various sources including the Library of Congress, the D.C. Public Library, the National Archives and auctioned photographs. And occasionally we publish longer blog posts that give a more detailed look.

See all the images in albums or in the order they were posted.

Before 1963: The 1922 Silent March on Washington

6 Feb
Marian Anderson at Lincoln Memorial: 1939

1963 March? – Marian Anderson 1939 concert. Photo: Robert Scurlock,

By Craig Simpson

The August, 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was a watershed moment for the modern civil rights movement.  The effort galvanized upwards of 250,000 people for the largest demonstration in the city up to that time.

Sometimes called “The Great March on Washington,” it was the scene of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and helped spur the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The groundwork for that massive march on the nation’s capital for basic civil rights was laid over the course of decades, and the symbolism of the Lincoln Memorial figured prominently in those early efforts.

A fierce debate over tactics and strategy to achieve equality raged during those years between left-leaning advocates of direct action who were based in the black working class and those more rooted among African American professionals who urged reliance on legal efforts and lobbying.

By the time of the 1963 march, it had become clear that a “Courts and Congress” strategy by itself would not bring equality.

This is the first article in a series outlining some of the prior marches on Washington and rallies at the Lincoln Memorial that laid the basis for 1963 March on Washington.

1922 March Against Lynching in D.C.

Silent Anti-Lynching March on Washington: 1922

1922 anti lynching march on Washington © Bettman/Corbis

Five thousand African Americans staged a silent protest march on June 14, 1922 parading past both the Capitol and the White House with placards denouncing lynching and urging a federal anti-lynching bill.

Rep. Leonidas Dyer (R-MO) sponsored a bill that was pending in the Senate to require federal penalties for those state and city officials who failed to protect against lynching, as well as those committing the act.  It would also have forced counties to pay damages to the victims’ families.

Reversal of Post-Slavery Gains

By 1922, many of the gains African Americans made during the Reconstruction era after the Civil War had been reversed.  And in the 45 years since the end of Reconstruction, over 3,000 black Americans had been lynched.

President Woodrow Wilson capped the drive to re-subjugate black people after his election in 1912 when he segregated most government facilities in the capital city. He told a New York Times reporter in 1914, “If colored people made the mistake of voting for me they ought to correct it.”

Black leadership was not mute during this period, but the NAACP did use the tactic of a “Silent March.” It organized the first mass demonstration by African Americans in the twentieth century when 10,000 paraded in New York City in 1917 after a brutal attack by a white mob on African Americans in East St. Louis, Illinois.

A New Militancy – 1919

African American soldiers returning from World War I gave a new militancy to the fight for rights. When white mobs attacked black people in Washington, DC and Chicago in 1919, the veterans organized the armed defense of black neighborhoods.

White leaders were shocked when 10 whites, including two police officers, were killed during the clashes in Washington, compared to five black people.

DC Teen Kills Detective in Her Home: 1919

Johnson home at 220 G St. NW. Photo: Washington Times

Carrie Minor Johnson, a 17-year-old African American woman, became a cause celebre in black working class Washington when she and her father held off a mob of whites during the riot, then shot and killed a detective after police officers invaded their home.

Both were wounded in the shooting on the second floor of their residence and charged with murder. Charges were subsequently dropped against the father, but Carrie Johnson’s first trial resulted in a conviction for manslaughter. A second trial was granted and prosecutors dropped all charges after the new judge agreed to admit defense evidence that the young woman was in terror for her life.

In the Chicago attack, whites gained the upper hand against a fierce defense by African Americans.  The official toll was 23 black people dead compared to 15 whites.  A dozen blocks were destroyed in African American sections of town. Other cities and towns across the country were often overwhelmed by white mobs in the “Red Summer” of 1919, but the fighting spirit in Chicago and Washington brought hope and pride to the black communities.

Poem Extolls African American Resistance: 1919

Ode to DC’s defenders. From Afro American 8/15/1919.

James Weldon Johnson, then a field secretary for the NAACP and later the organization’s leader, wrote “In previous race riots they [African Americans] have run away and have been beaten without resistance, but now they will protect themselves.”

Chapters of the African Blood Brotherhood (ABB) organized by New York leader Cyril Briggs were established around the country. The ABB was organized as a semi-secret body and was a militant alternative to Marcus Garvey’s back-to-Africa movement; it favored armed self-defense of black people in this country. The ABB peaked during this period at upwards of 3,000 members in several dozen cities across the United States.

White Mob at the Scene of Final Assault on Greenwood: 1921

Part of white mob at scene of final assault on Greenwood at Frisco rail yard: Tulsa, Oklahoma June 1, 1921.

Tulsa Outrage -1921

In Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921, an armed group of African Americans went to the courthouse to protect a black man charged with assault of a 17-year-old white woman. A black man had been taken from the authorities’ custody in 1920 and lynched and the group was determined to prevent another murder.

As the evening went on, shots were exchanged with a white mob. Several people on both sides were killed and wounded.

One of the worst attacks against black people in the nation’s history was about to begin. Oklahoma had a strong Ku Klux Klan and hundreds of whites were organized to assault the black Tulsa neighborhood of Greenwood. Black ex-servicemen organized the defense, placing armed men at strategic defense points around the neighborhood.

Defenders largely held off the white mob on the evening of May 31, but they were overrun on the morning of June 1. The white mob had overwhelming numbers and firepower, including a machine gun and an airplane.

Ruins of Greenwood Section of Tulsa: 1921

Greenwood in ruins after white mob assault in Tulsa: 1921

As they gained territory, the white mob systematically looted each house, business and church and then burned them to the ground, sometimes murdering the homeowners they found. The National Guard, which had been mobilized and spent the night and morning protecting white neighborhoods, moved to end the mob violence around noon.

The actual death toll is not known. Estimates ranged from 10 white and 26 black, to several hundred African American dead. The entire Greenwood section of the city was burned to the ground.

Early NAACP leader James Weldon Johnson: 1920 ca.

NAACP leader James Weldon Johnson led the fight for Dyer bill. Photo by Addison Scurlock.

Dyer Bill – 1922

The increasing violent clashes put pressure on Republican Party leaders who still nominally advocated the rights of African Americans.

While there was no serious talk of Congress over-riding state Jim Crow laws, the campaign against lynching and the armed clashes gave new impetus to a federal anti-lynching bill that had been introduced in one form or another since 1901.

African American leaders had successfully lobbied the Republicans to include an anti-lynching plank in their party platform.  In 1922, the party controlled both houses of Congress and the presidency.

The House of Representatives passed Dyer’s bill, strongly lobbied by the National Association for Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), on a 231-119 vote on January 16, 1922.

Mary Church Terrell as a Young Woman: 1920 ca

Mary Church Terrell, one of the organizers of the 1922 march on Washington. Photo: Addison Scurlock.

Mainstream civil rights organizations that had been leading the anti-lynching fight stepped up their tactics. In addition to the traditional meetings held in churches and letters written to newspapers and elected officials, these leaders made another foray into the street.

The Washington march included many fraternal organizations:  Masons, Elks and Knights of Pythias and Odd Fellows, along with veterans of the Civil and Spanish-American wars and World War I. Over 700 automobiles brought up the rear of the parade.

The District of Columbia march was organized by a “Committee of 100” mainly composed of D.C. residents. It featured a number of prominent women in the leadership, including Mary Church Terrell, a founder of the NAACP, Rosalie F. Cook, a member of the District’s board of education and M. A. McAdoo, head of the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA.

After the march, the NAACP took out full-page ads in major newspapers across the country on November 22 and 23, including the New York Times and The Atlanta Constitution. Despite the backdrop of armed clashes, the lobbying efforts, the 5,000-person march, and the follow-up ad campaign, the Dyer anti-lynching bill died in December 1922, after Senate Democrats staged a filibuster.

Aftermath

While similar bills were introduced in subsequent years, the Ku Klux Klan reached the height of its power in that period during the 1920s. They effectively blocked any legislation through their successful electoral program in the south and intimidation of any white official within their range of influence who considered breaking with them.

NAACP Anti-Lynching Advertisement in New York Times: 1922

NAACP ad in New York Times Nov. 22, 1922 during campaign for Dyer anti-lynching bill.

The devastating defeat of Tulsa’s armed resistance put a damper on this form of resistance and began the decline of the ABB. Briggs ultimately merged the organization with one of the two communist parties in existence at the time.

The failure of public mass pressure to result in victory during the anti-lynching campaign discouraged leaders from widespread use of this tactic during the 1920s.

It would be another ten years before African American activists again embraced the tactics of nationwide marches and demonstrations and renewed the push for federal anti-lynching legislation.


Read Part II: “Scottsboro Boys” – New Tactics & Strategy for Civil Rights
Read Part III: DC’s Old Jim Crow Rocked by 1939 Marian Anderson Concert


Author’s Notes: Most of the material in this article is taken from The Washington Post, The Afro American, Washington Times, Washington Star, Washington Bee, Amsterdam News, New York Times, Chicago Defender, “The Tulsa Race Riot Report” by the Oklahoma Commission and other public sources.


Craig Simpson is a former Secretary-Treasurer of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 and has a BA in labor studies from the National Labor College. He can be contacted by email at washington_area_spark@yahoo.com.


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