On this day in labor history, the year was 1921.
That was the day President Warren G. Harding ordered Eugene V. Debs released from prison.
The Socialist Party leader had been convicted of Sedition in 1918 and sentenced to ten years in prison for an anti-war speech he made in Canton, Ohio earlier that year.
He noted in that speech, “Wars throughout history have been waged for conquest and plunder… And that is war, in a nutshell. The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles… To turn your back on the corrupt Republican Party and the corrupt Democratic Party—the gold-dust lackeys of the ruling class—counts for something.
It counts still more...to join a minority party that has an ideal, that stands for a principle, and fights for a cause.”
His arrest and conviction was part of a wider crackdown against dissent during World War I of anti-war activists, including the Socialist Party, IWW, labor unions, and immigrants.
From his jail cell, he won close to a million votes on the Socialist Party ticket in the 1920 presidential elections.
He was also stripped of his citizenship, posthumously restored in 1976. “On the day of his release, the warden ignored prison regulations and opened every cell-block to allow more than 2,000 inmates to gather in front of the main jail building to say good-bye to Eugene Debs,” according to historian Howard Zinn. “As he started down the walkway from the prison, a roar went up and he turned, tears streaming down his face, and stretched out his arms to the other prisoners.”