A hundred years late, my Bernie 2016 sticker arrives in the Deep South

It was with great interest that I opened an item in my mail today. Mail is not something socialists in the U.S. ever should take for granted.

When the mail is being used against them, it is good. Eugene V. Debs led the Pullman strike. That was deemed bad, so the strikers were enjoined to go back to work, where they would face being fired. Debs refused to end the strike and was held in contempt.

The anti-worker Supreme Court said the injunction was valid because the government had a right to regulate interstate commerce and ensure the operations of the Postal Service, along with a responsibility to “ensure the general welfare of the public.” (Amazing how broadly those words can be interpreted by “Justices” when they are being used against the rights of the workers and the weak.)

When the mail is being used by them, it is bad. Under the Espionage Act of 1917, socialist newspapers were banned from second class mailing privileges because of their opposition to American involvement in World War I. Debs, who by then had unsuccessfully run for president four times outside the two-party system, continued to speak out for the right thing. He went back behind bars, this time because he had the audacity to give a speech urging resistance to the military draft during the war.

Upon conviction, he told the Judge:

Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.

I listened to all that was said in this court in support and justification of this prosecution, but my mind remains unchanged. I look upon the Espionage Law as a despotic enactment in flagrant conflict with democratic principles and with the spirit of free institutions…

Your Honor, I have stated in this court that I am opposed to the social system in which we live; that I believe in a fundamental change—but if possible by peaceable and orderly means…

He was sentenced to ten years in prison and disenfranchised for life. Once again, the Supreme Court took a principled stand for injustice.

I have never had to rip open an envelope like that. I never even got started, while Debs never quit. He ran for president in 1920 from his federal prison cell in Atlanta. From that same cell he also wrote his only book, Walls and Bars: Prisons and Prison Life In The “Land Of The Free” (Chicago: Socialist Party, 1927), published posthumously and exposing the dehumanization of the prison system.

***

I usually let the mail pile up or someone else in our house bring it in. But for many weeks now, each day I would go out to our roadside mail box in Nowheresville and check to see if it had arrived. After a few weeks, I gave up all but the thinnest hope that it would ever arrive. I drew solace from the fact that a campaign that is funded by small donors like me could not afford to prioritize sending supporters in out of the way places goodies. Whatever helps, including being ignored, I told myself. But still I could not stop checking my mail box every day hoping for my bumper sticker from Bernie.

I have not spent this much time paying attention to mail arrivals since 1965 in Little Yazoo waiting for my official GI Joe dog tag to arrive. The joy in my heart that came with finally putting a genuine imitation symbol of war around my six-year-old neck finally has been surpassed by the joy of receiving a bumper sticker from a peace-loving democratic socialist named Bernie.

Despite my childhood fascination with militaristic All-American action figures, I have never been a very brave person. I am ashamed that I did not stand up to the bullies of my youth who were generally not picking on me but others who were smaller or looked differently. I generally kept my chicken shit mouth shut. I deeply regret that.

It is going to take some courage even now, and the risk of loss of work and social banning to the seventh generation, to actually put the darn thing on my 2002 vehicle and drive with it around Nowheresville. I’m on the left side of the possible living in a rural place near a military base where none of the clown car Republicans running for president would be far enough to the right to be assured of a seat on the county commission. I recently escaped feeling compelled to climb up a flag pole when a town near me quietly sent out a maintenance crew to lower the rebel hate flag and save me the envisioned trouble and arrest.

At some point socialists like me living in unpromising places are going to have to risk coming out of the closet with our neighbors and employers. African Americans living in the Deep South have never had a choice but to be out of the closet as the targets of prejudice, hate, and discrimination. Because of external “blackness” they are marked for being bullied or worse. Maybe it will be tomorrow morning that I cease being a coward.

There was no mistaking Debs for a coward. He long stood up for African Americans, rejecting the idea that racial division had any place among the workers of the world:

The Elgin writer says that we shall “jeopardize the best interests of the Socialist Party” if we insist upon the political equality of the Negro. I say that the Socialist Party would be false to its historic mission, violate the fundamental principles of Socialism, deny its philosophy and repudiate its own teachings if, on account of race considerations, it sought to exclude any human being from political equality and economic freedom. Then, indeed, would it not only “jeopardize” its best interests, but forfeit its very life, for it would soon be scorned and deserted as a thing unclean, leaving but a stench in the nostrils of honest men. …

Foolish and vain indeed is the workingman who makes the color of his skin the stepping-stone to his imaginary superiority. The trouble is with his head, and if he can get that right he will find that what ails him is not superiority but inferiority, and that he, as well as the Negro he despises, is the victim of wage-slavery, which robs him of what he produces and keeps both him and the Negro tied down to the dead level of ignorance and degradation. …

The man who seeks to arouse prejudice among workingmen is not their friend. He who advises the white wage-worker to look down upon the black wage-worker is the enemy of both.

Socialism has no value and is not worthy of the word if it is not used in support of liberty and justice for all. Eventually as a socialist I must not only type a good virtual game, I must live it, even in the real world where hate and power too often are aligned. It may seem silly to fear putting a bumper sticker on one’s vehicle in the town where one lives. But that is the town where I live, and I have little people who count on me to earn money.

Living in the Deep South almost all my life, I have always kept my mouth shut in public about my socialism. Around here, deviation from cultural expectations is discouraged. But I expect that it is not anywhere near the danger to be known as a socialist as it is to be a person of color, no matter how conformist the person of color tries to be.

I expect that, to this day, to be a person of color in the Deep South on the streets, in the stores, and in the workplaces, if you are fortunate to have one, is to carry around a non-optional badge and incident of slavery every day. I expect that it is hard to think about economic equality when you or someone in your family could at any moment not breathe.

As a half-Hispanic, I have usually been able to pass as “white.” I was raised to do so and to deny my brownness. Persons undeniably “of color” have no choice but to be brave every day. They cannot take off their beautiful skin or other identifying features like I can take off a bumper sticker when a campaign ends.

To them and all other victims of injustice, I pledge my allegiance. Then what?

Not only workers, but also all persons of good will and all who are deemed worthless or worth less, the imprisoned, the disenfranchised, and the broken of the world, unite! Or as Debs put it as he faced prison without plea for mercy or immunity:

In that day we shall have the universal commonwealth—the harmonious cooperation of every nation with every other nation on earth…

I can see the dawn of the better day for humanity. The people are awakening. In due time they will and must come to their own.

When the mariner, sailing over tropic seas, looks for relief from his weary watch, he turns his eyes toward the southern cross, burning luridly above the tempest-vexed ocean. As the midnight approaches, the southern cross begins to bend, the whirling worlds change their places, and with starry finger-points the Almighty marks the passage of time upon the dial of the universe, and though no bell may beat the glad tidings, the lookout knows that the midnight is passing and that relief and rest are close at hand. Let the people everywhere take heart of hope, for the cross is bending, the midnight is passing, and joy cometh with the morning.

It is deeply sad that you and I cannot read those words without thinking of another “southern cross” that still burns far too brightly in the sick hearts of too many southern white men. Liberty and justice for all will not come easy. A bumper sticker is only a start, but at least it’s a start.

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