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Dec 3, 2019

(November 23 2019) In 1920, he was in prison while running the final of his five campaigns for U.S. president. Terre Haute native Eugene V. Debs, the leader of the Socialist Party of America, won nearly one million votes during that unusual campaign.

Hailed by many as the "champion of the American worker" - and denounced by others as an agitator - Debs (1855-1926) advocated nearly all of his life for many labor reforms, including 40-hour workweeks and anti-child labor laws, that were regarded as radical then. Today, the reforms often are taken for granted.

Before his rise to national fame for his organizational role in the Pullman Strike of 1894, Debs had formed the American Railway Union, the first industrial union in the country.

He lived in Terre Haute for most of his life, with exceptions including his stint in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary. A pacifist, he was imprisoned for speaking out against American involvement in World War I. Debs was freed on Christmas Day in 1921 by Warren G. Harding, who had been one of his opponents in the 1920 presidential race.

To explore the life and impact of Debs, the son of French immigrants who quit school as a teenager to take grueling jobs on railroads, Nelson is joined by two studio guests:

  • Allison Duerk, director of the Eugene V. Debs Museum Home in Terre Haute. The museum is in the Victorian-era home where Debs lived with his wife, Katherine, beginning in 1890.
  • And Kim Hood Jacobs, co-producer of a new documentary by WFYI-TV/Channel 20, The Revolutionist: Eugene V. Debs, which can be viewed for free at The documentary emphasizes that no social safety net existed for workers and their families when Debs began crusading on their behalf during the Industrial Age. He may be best remembered for one of his statements during his trial for violating sedition laws during World War I:

Allison Duerk"While there is a lower class, I am in it. While there is a criminal element, I am of it. And while there is a soul in prison, I am not free."

Because of debates about socialism among current candidates for the presidential nomination, the life and legacy of Debs again have become the focus of national media attention, including a recent article in the New York Times. Debs' first presidential campaign - as the candidate of the Socialist Party - was in 1900.

Six years earlier, he had helped Pullman railway car employees with their strike. It involved nearly 250,000 workers, many of whom had been toiling for notoriously low wages. Although Debs had urged the Pullman workers to refrain from violence, "bloody confrontations" connected to the strike resulted in about 30 deaths, according to The Revolutionist documentary.

Arrested on conspiracy charges, Debs was represented by Clarence Darrow, one of the country's most famous defense attorneys. Despite Darrow's stirring defense, Debs served six months in prison, his first stint behind bars. During that time, he concluded that both the Republican and Democratic parties were failing American workers - and that the country needed a new, third political party to champion their cause.