was born this day in 1884. As Wikipedia summarizes his life: “an American Presbyterian minister who achieved fame as a socialist, pacifist, and six-time presidential candidate for the Socialist Party of America.” He also ran for a variety of other down-ballot offices on the Socialist Party ticket, and he was the author of numerous articles, pamphlets and books.
It’s hard for me not to regard Thomas as something of a sad figure in history. He aspired to be a new Eugene Debs and the Great Depression provided his second Presidential campaign with a great opportunity, but he and the other leaders of the Socialist Party proved unable to navigate the turbulent currents of 1930s politics. The movement fragmented and declined in the face of changes in political practice, obdurate personalities, and sabotage from the left and the right. By the time the 1950s came about, the Socialist Party had ceased to be a useful agency for much of anything outside of two or three small cities and Thomas had given up running for President.
Third parties on the national level have always had a hard time of it. By the time Thomas came along, it was hard to make a case for them though they could be made to work on the State and most especially on the local level. On the other hand, left-wing non-party formations from the 1930s like the Social Democratic Federation or New America didn’t exactly prosper either, especially after World War II.
I never had the opportunity to meet or see Norman Thomas. He died in December of 1968. I joined the Young Peoples Socialist League in 1969. By the late 1980s, I became, for many years, a principal organizer of an annual Dinner that included his name: the Eugene V. Debs — Norman Thomas — Michael Harrington Dinner. It was an event that, since 1958, had spanned several sponsoring organizations, from the Socialist Party — Social Democratic Federation to the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee to the Democratic Socialists of America.
The photo below is from the 1959 Dinner, then called the Debs Day Dinner, held in November of that year.
A. Philip Randolph was the head of the Sleeping Car Porters union and a major civil rights leader from the 1920s through the 1960s. A. Philip Randolph was a member of the Socialist Party as well. Randolph doesn’t look at all pleased to be there, but I don’t know the story behind it. Thomas, though, seems to have an appetite. The event may have been held at Chicago’s old Midland Hotel as that was the usual venue for many of the early Dinners. I’m told the hotel was owned by an old lefty who was still sympathetic to the movement.