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Eugene V. Debs Museum Explores History Of American Socialism


It will be Indiana's turn tomorrow to vote in the presidential primaries, and that gives us the opportunity to remember one of the state's most famous politicians. Eugene V. Debs ran for president as a Socialist five times in the early 1900s, once in 1920 from prison. NPR's Will Huntsberry visited Debs' historical home in Terre Haute to learn more.

WILL HUNTSBERRY, BYLINE: The Debs house looks very out of place. It's white and two stories, but it's standing all by itself, wedged between a parking lot and two dorms right in the middle of Indiana State University's campus.


BEN KITE: Good morning.

HUNTSBERRY: Ben Kite volunteers here and is showing me around.

KITE: We're not technically open right now. But here I am, so let's do it (laughter).

HUNTSBERRY: Inside, the walls are lined with glass cases of Debs memorabilia.

KITE: Oh, there's the key, the cell keys to his cell.

HUNTSBERRY: Debs spent two years in prison on sedition charges for urging people to resist the draft in World War I. He also organized a nationwide railroad strike which led to violent clashes and railed against the robber barons, the 1 percent of that era. The museum has lots of posters from his Socialist presidential campaigns.

So let's see. Here's an interesting phrase, right? This could apply to Bernie right now. On the Socialist almanac - (reading) it is better to vote for what you want and not get it than to vote for what you don't want and get it.

KITE: When it comes down to it, especially in the primary, I feel like you've got to vote for, you know, your heart. And then you can be more pragmatic in the general.

HUNTSBERRY: For Kite, voting your heart means voting for Bernie Sanders, a Democratic Socialist.

KITE: Sanders is, you know, is well-known, I think, for being a big fan of Eugene V. Debs. He has a big picture of Debs in his office.

HUNTSBERRY: Kite believes Debs paved the way for the New Deal, and he thinks Sanders could have a big impact on the future, too.

KITE: Part of it is creating the political room for politicians sometimes to do what they already believe in but don't believe that they have the public support to do.

Do you want to see the upstairs?

HUNTSBERRY: Kite takes me up to the attic. Murals of Debs' life cover the walls. There's a picture of police, batons raised against protesters, as well as one that's more metaphoric.

KITE: I especially like the hands reaching for progress and reaching for a better life, reaching for the sun.

HUNTSBERRY: See, Ben Kite is like Eugene Debs and maybe even Bernie Sanders. He's an unapologetic idealist. Will Huntsberry, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Will Huntsberry is an assistant producer in NPR's elections unit, where he produced a piece about Don Gonyea's favorite campaign trail playlists, reported on the one place in Washington where former House Speaker John Boehner could feel like "a regular guy," and other stories that get beneath the surface of American politics.

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