Live from the Atlanta Penitentiary! It's the president of the United States! You may know him by the name on his campaign buttons —- "Convict No. 9653."
It didn't come close to happening, of course.
Yet in 1920, Socialist leader Eugene V. Debs received nearly a million votes as a third-party candidate for the White House. At the time he was serving a 10-year sentence in Atlanta's federal prison in violation of the Espionage Act for criticizing U.S. involvement in World War I.
A typical Debs broadside to the working class went like this: "Don't you take a fit and rush to the front until you see [the bankers] there," he once wrote. "They own the country, and if they don't set the example of fighting for it, why should you?"
Although barred from hitting the campaign trail, the convict-candidate, who was frail and in his mid-60s, was allowed to make a series of weekly messages to voters from Atlanta, distributed through newspaper wire services. He galvanized a significant protest movement, earning important and influential friends (writer Upton Sinclair, legal eagle Clarence Darrow) along the way. The prison's warden liked him so much he took him on a driving tour of Atlanta.
It couldn't make him a winner. Debs lost to Warren G. Harding, who also soundly defeated his main rival, Democratic candidate James M. Cox (who later founded the company that owns The Atlanta Journal-Constitution).
Recounting Debs' tale in his new book, "Democracy's Prisoner: Eugene V. Debs, the Great War, and the Right to Dissent" (Harvard, $29.95), Ernest Freeberg delivers a sobering, eye-opening and resonant history of the fight to secure free speech rights at a volatile time in the nation's history —- one with unsettling parallels to the current decade.
Freeberg, an associate professor of history at the University of Tennessee, recently answered questions about his book:
Q: What made you want to write about Debs?
A: Almost a million Americans voted for him while he was in prison, and I wanted to know why they did that. There were only 10,000 Socialist Party members in 1920, so the rest were casting their vote to say something about free speech. We often think that the Supreme Court decides what our First Amendment rights are. When I dug into this, I found a massive protest movement in which many thousands of ordinary Americans found ways to make their own point about how much free speech we should have in times of war.
Q: Early in his sentence, Debs was transferred from prison in West Virginia to Atlanta. Why? Was Atlanta considered a harsher place?
A: Many of Debs' radical friends thought so. The warden in West Virginia was kind to him, so many thought the move was designed to make sure he was suffering, especially in the Atlanta heat. But the record shows the real motivation was money. Debs was a federal prisoner parked in a state prison [in West Virginia], because federal prisons were overcrowded, but he was moved to Atlanta when a new cellblock opened. And before long, the warden in Atlanta fell in love with him, too.
Q: When you hear the shouting between the left and right these days, you wonder how it was ever worse. But it was back then, wasn't it?
A: I agree. Before the war, the range of political opinions was wider than now, and Debs led a third-party movement that was hard for the mainstream to ignore. But during the war, the government and patriotic mobs wrecked the party, censored their newspapers and put more than a thousand speakers in jail. Today we still fight about the right to free speech in wartime, but we should also recognize how far we've come. We have a lot more freedom to protest now than they had back then.
Q: Certainly socialism was demonized back in Debs' day, but it was a serious part of the national conversation. That's not true today. What happened?
A: First, we should give the Socialists credit for forcing mainstream parties to consider the plight of working people. Many ideas proposed by Socialists were adopted by the mainstream parties, and we enjoy them today. Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt told their followers that, if they did not adopt some of the Socialists' ideas, the country faced the danger of a revolution. The Socialists accomplished what third parties often do; they forced the conversation in a certain direction.
Q: There's a moving scene at the end of the book when Debs' sentence is commuted and the prisoners cheer him as he leaves. It reads like the stuff of a Hollywood movie. Can't you get Warren Beatty or Tim Robbins interested in playing Debs?
A: Actually, I thought Robert Duvall would be a good bet. He seems to have that same mix of intensity and kindness that Debs had.
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