Yesterday, Bernie Sanders said something quite extraordinary when asked who his political heroes were on becoming politically active in the early 1960's. He named Martin Luther King and FDR, two known to everyone. His third choice? Eugene V. Debs. As a fellow unreconstructed 1960's liberal, I'm quite familiar with Debs; but I would bet not one H.S. senior in a hundred recognizes him. That shames American education because Debs is a hero and role model for anyone who values real American exceptionalism of peace, freedom and economic justice.
Born in Terre Haute, IN in 1855, Debs labored in a variety of dirty, dangerous railroad jobs, eventually working himself into leadership positions of early railroad unions. Debs organized one of the first industrial unions for unskilled workers in the United States, the American Railway Union (ARU). The Union successfully struck the Great Northern Railway in April 1894, winning most of its demands. That same year his ARU backed the strike against George Pullman's Pullman Palace Car Company after Pullman cut wages 28% but not a nickel of the rents in Pullman's heretofore idyllic company town. President Cleveland busted the strike with the Army, resulting in 30 dead workers and handing Debs a six month sentence for violating a strike breaking injunction. In jail Debs was converted to socialism, going on the found the Social Democratic Party of the United States and later, the International Workers of the World (Wobbles).
Debs ran for President in as a socialist in 1904, 1908, 1912 and 1920, the last time from a federal prison for speaking out against WWI which he described as merely a boon to capitalism. He garnered 919,000 votes sitting in the slammer, the most ever for a socialist candidate. His health declining precipitously, President Wilson, who despised Debs for opposing the senseless war he championed, declined pleas for his release, essentially saying 'let him rot'. Wilson's successor Warren Harding, a substantially more descent human being, not only released Debs, he welcomed to a White House visit.
Debs never recovered his health, dying in an Elmhurst, IL sanitarium in 1926. Watching Bernie stump for economic justice and 15 bucks an hour for the working impoverished, I detect the heart and soul of Eugene V. Debs speaking to us from a century ago. The players change; the causes remain the same.