Tag Archives: White House

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.

 

Police Break Up Unemployed Protest at White House: 1930

26 Feb

Police at the White House broke up a protest by the unemployed on March 6, 1930. The demonstration was part of the first nationwide protest response to the Great Depression that had begun the previous fall.

Protests were held in Detroit, New York, Baltimore, Chicago, Boston, Milwaukee, Seattle, Las Angeles and San Francisco among other cities. Demonstrations were also held on the same day in cities around the world.

Blacks, Whites Protest Job Losses: 1930 No. 1

Pickets arrive at the White House, March 6, 1930. Photo courtesy of the LIbrary of Congress.

The clash began when District of Columbia local Communist Party leader William “Bert” Lawrence stopped and began to speak to the crowd, police in street clothes attacked him. Uniformed police then assaulted the picketers and bystanders with tear gas and black jacks. Some the protestors fought back against the police.

Some reports said President Herbert Hoover watched the demonstration from the White House windows along with a delegation from the District of Columbia Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), while other reports had his wife watching along with the DAR.

The District of Columbia Communist Party and allied groups began preparations in the city for weeks before and police responded by arresting 10 people on April 30 for holding soapbox style speeches on the street corners near the Communist Party headquarters at 1337 7th Street NW. Similar meetings and police harassment took place at the Women’s Christian Temperance Union statue at 7th Street and Pennsylvania Ave. NW.

Unemployment Rally in DC: 1930

Meeting at 1337 7th St. NW prior to picketing, March 6, 1930. From the Library of Congress

The communists and along with others held a rally the night before at the Communist Party headquarters where speeches were given and signs were made for the next day’s demonstration. The main themes were demands for good jobs, against police brutality, Jim Crow schools in the District and lynching.

Among the organizers were Lawrence, Solomon Harper of the International Labor Defense and Edith Briscoe of the Young Communist League.

Briscoe was among those arrested at the White House picket line after she jumped on the back of a police officer he was getting ready to strike an African American demonstrator. Lawrence was detained and charged with speaking in a public place without permission.

Harper was arrested for disorderly conduct, but was acquitted. He still faced charges from an outdoor speech he gave the night before condemning the lynching of sixty-year-old Laura Wood at Barber Junction in North Carolina.

Tear Gas Quells Reds: Washington Post 1930

Jobless pickets are the lead story for the Washington Post, March 7, 1930.

Public demonstrations of this type were fairly infrequent at that time and public protests involving blacks and whites even more infrequent.

The picket in front of the White House was held with blacks and whites locking arms while picketing. Press reports estimated that several thousand nearby office workers came out to watch. The newspapers also indicate that 13 picketers were arrested with an unknown number of injured, but only one that required hospital treatment.

The demonstrations made front-page news and were the lead stories in the Washington Post and Baltimore Sun and helped put the Communist Party at the forefront of the fight against unemployment and racial discrimination in the District for the next decade.


To see still photos of the March 6, 1930 demonstration, go to the Washington Area Spark Flickr site.

The photos in the short video are courtesy of the Library of Congress. The video clips were originally from Sherman Grinberg, but are believed to be in the public domain. The clips were misidentified as part of the the 1932 bonus march in a Newsreel production. The Library of Congress has mis-dated some of the photos to a period earlier than they actually were taken.

Note: This post was updated February 28.

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