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Art Lee: Debs once a nationally known famous/infamous(?) politician

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The tiny community of Debs remains unheralded for most of each year but that changes every 4th-of-July when it is no longer anonymous. Then Debs makes the newspapers and local TV all because of its special Parade. The little community gains notoriety and unknown folks ask the obvious question of what’s so special about the Debs’ Parade.

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The answer emphasizes one point: the parade goes around  the parade-route twice. If you miss a certain float the first time, just wait a little while and it will come by again.

For some there’s also the question of the name itself. Who was Debs?  And why and how did he become so famous (or infamous) and have a community named after him? Eugene Victor Debs (1855-1926) made history because he alone ran for U.S. president five times, the last time (1920) while he was sitting in prison. Why in the clink?  Because he had vigorously opposed U.S. entrance into World War I. Despite the war ending in 1918, he was still found guilty in 1920  of violating the Espionage Act and received a 10-year sentence, commuted by President Harding.

Debs, a tall, skinny, bald-headed man from Indiana first became a strong railroad union-man, so strong that he was found guilty of violating a no-strike law and imprisoned and he would say later that he went to prison a Democrat and came out a Socialist. Starting his first presidential try in 1900, he campaigned by railroad (he once came to Bemidji), notably giving his talks from the back of the train to the waiting crowd, and his talks (harangues?) began  with the phrase: “Arise ye slaves!” Slaves to Debs were “wage-slaves” and he blamed employers for their hiring “slave-labor.”

How did the idea of Socialism go over in the Minnesota north-country?  Well, in the 1912 presidential election, voters had the choice of four then well-known candidates: Republican incumbent William Howard Taft (nicknamed The Big Bison for his 350 pounds of solid blubber); the Progressive Party candidate, the super-animated ex-President Theodore Roosevelt; the Democratic candidate T. Woodrow Wilson, former Princeton history prof and later PU president and later yet, governor of Maryland (Wilson was the presidential winner, the Republicans being split between Taft and TR); and lastly, Eugene Debs, Socialist Party candidate. And who of the four carried the majority of votes in Beltrami County? Answer: Eugene Debs.

Until World War I ended in 1918, Socialism in the U.S. was pretty much just another “ism” among many. However, this notion changed dramatically, notably after Czarist Russia was overthrown by the Communists in 1917. In the public mind, Socialism and Communism became equated as one, as indicated by the popular slogans:  “A Socialist is nothing more than a Communist who has shaved off his beard.”  There was an atmosphere of fear and hate that indicated that Socialism was not only un-American but likely traitorous, too.

These highly emotional “bad-ol’-days” — all part of perceived necessary patriotism to support the war —included a serious event in Bemidji that came close to tragedy. The day after war was declared by Congress on April 4,1917, the City Council voted a resolution requiring all downtown businessmen to fly the American flag outside their stores. A couple of days later, it was clearly noted that only one man, Morris Kaplan, a Socialist, did not have any flag up, and this led to a crowd of angry citizens who assembled in front of the store and there were so many of them that many had to stand out in the street. The mayor of Bemidji walked into the store, met face-to-face with Kaplan and demanded that he fly his flag! Kaplan did not have a flag to fly. This nasty message went outside and the nasty murmuring of threats began.

Violence was fortunately averted when Mrs. Kaplan went to their file drawer and pulled out an invoice indicating that a flag had been ordered but had not yet arrived. After some discussion, the mayor accepted this document as a legitimate excuse and then turned and walked out the door and announced the flag-order to the surly crowd. There was still more muttering but the crowd began slowly to disperse.

Inside the store, Mrs. Kaplan sat down and then had a heart attack. She did survive the attack and soon afterward moved out of town. She chose never to come back to Bemidji. Never ever. Her husband, however, stayed and continued to operate his store. He survived the animosity and outlasted the hysteria, which eventually died down.

In the years and decades before WWI, Socialism was a viable and acceptable national option for  voters; but during and after the war ended and in the decades since, Socialism remained tainted. Essentially the Party was over; it was “dead.”

This topic is now “ancient history.” But northern Minnesota does have the community of Debs, the name a reminder of another era way-back-when. Perhaps one book today has a title and subtitle that tries to summarize those special years when Eugene Victor Debs was a major national political figure:  the good old days: They Were Terrible.

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