In 2020, a confessed Socialist running for president strikes some folks as a novelty, and something that surely would have shocked our grandparents.
But maybe not as much as we might assume. On an unseasonably warm Thursday evening late in the winter of 1934, a distinguished-looking man in a gray suit walked into Knoxville High School and gave a talk to a packed auditorium, denouncing President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. His speech was frequently interrupted by applause. Fifteen months earlier, he had run for president, as the nominee of the Socialist Party of America.
His name was Norman Thomas. He was from New York, a 49-year-old Princeton graduate and former Presbyterian minister. For more than 20 years, including America’s biggest stock-market crash, America’s biggest depression and America’s biggest war, he was America’s most popular Socialist.
Knoxville was distracted in early 1934, with lots of news to compete with political ideology, especially the recent arrest in Baltimore of a couple of gangsters well-known here—Basil “The Owl” Banghart and Ike Costner, for armed robbery and kidnapping of fellow gangster John “Jake the Barber” Factor. Costner had run the bootlegging business here during the latter years of Prohibition, and Banghart had once tried to escape from the Knox County Jail.
It had been at least a year since either had been seen hereabouts, but Knoxvillians felt they knew them personally, and followed their story closely.
In terms of newspaper space, both gangsters and socialism could hardly compete with tales of other people having sex. Evelyn Hazen, daughter of a prominent businessman and City Councilman, was suing Ralph Scharringhaus for breach of promise. The trial was actually held in Kentucky, but most of the action described occurred in Knoxville, much of it in Evelyn’s antebellum home on Dandridge Avenue. The young Knoxville businessman had given her the impression that they’d get married, perhaps that they were already as good as married, so there was no reason to wait to perform a variety of sex acts. In trial, Evelyn described some human interactions that few Americans had ever seen described so specifically in print.
Matris Kirlenko, “the Russian Cossack,” was the draw at the Lyric Theatre on Gay, taking on local wrestling champs.
In early 1934, Knoxville was trying to figure out whether this new Tennessee Valley Authority, less than a year old, was a good thing or not. Already the unprecedented federal agency was employing thousands here, building a dam, and a town, about 20 miles to the north, and calling both Norris.
And as Mr. Thomas drove in, he might have noticed a gleaming new marble building—dedicated that same day—on Main Street. The new U.S. post-office and federal courthouse, under construction for almost two years, was open for business, its opening attended by Mayor John T. O’Connor, Congressman J. Will Taylor, and architects A.B. Baumann, Jr. and Sr., both. Junior, who had studied in Pennsylvania with the famous architect Paul Cret, is credited with having the stronger hand in this pink-marble edifice that looked both distinctly modern and impressively classical.
The elder Baumann, in his 70s, had helped design some of the high-Victorian landmarks, like Westwood and the Market House, and a later, neoclassical building, the 1910 Knoxville High School on Fifth.
That was where the Civic League found an auditorium big enough for the crowd expected to see Norman Thomas.
The speech had been announced in the papers almost a year earlier. The League of Industrial Democracy, affiliated with the Socialist Party, sponsored the talk, along with a vaguely described organization called the Civic League, led by Dr. C.C. Cloud, a downtown dentist known for his leadership in the Unitarian Church and his work with the unemployed.
It was the last of a series of public lectures that winter about world events from a socialist perspective. Among their earlier speakers had been Ernest Gruening, well-known journalist then editor of The Nation. So far, all the talks had been in a room at the relatively new Andrew Johnson Hotel, but Norman Thomas was so popular in Depression-era America that they needed a bigger venue, and moved his talk to Knoxville High’s auditorium.
There was no open objection. Mayor John T. O’Connor was sympathetic.
The News-Sentinel ran a few articles about him in the days leading up to the talk. Thomas, the “handsome former Presbyterian minister” had made socialism “fashionable.”
One article allowed, “Time was when the mere mention of the word Socialist…was in bad taste, to say the least. But now it is different, and Norman Thomas in largely responsible for the change.”
Thomas, whose recent book As I See It, was well known locally, had been praised in the magazine Christian Century as “the best informed, deepest thinking, and most morally courageous political leader now playing a major role in our national life.”
For years he had been denounced by Father Coughlin, the right-wing radio pundit. But old Bolshevik Leon Trotsky, then in exile in France, didn’t like him much, either, considering him an American poseur, and no true Marxist. Thomas did not call for class war, opposed violence, and didn’t see religion as a threat to the socialist state. But he did call for government ownership of banks, utilities, and major industries, and the abolition of profit as a nation’s prevailing motive.
He had some car trouble on the way to Knoxville, and was late for his arrival at a smaller event, a fundraiser for the old Railroad Y, the facility near the Southern station appreciated by passengers with time to kill before the next train. He got there too late for dinner—he just asked for a glass of water—but said a few words to the crowd, and then went around the corner to the high school.
In front of Knoxville High, then as now, was the heroic bronze Doughboy Statue. It’s not recorded whether Thomas remarked on it. He had been a conscientious objector to that war.
Accompanying him was young firebrand Myles Horton. Also a Presbyterian seminarian, Horton was already notable at age 28 for founding the Highlander Center in Monteagle, the “folk school” that helped with union organization and later played a leadership role in the civil-rights movement. Thomas was involved with Highlander as an adviser.
Also on the bill was a short talk by Clarence Senior, another officer of the national Socialist Party, younger and a bit more militant than Thomas. A Fentress County politician, John H. Compton, who had been the long-shot Socialist candidate for governor of Tennessee in 1932, introduced Thomas.
Thomas’s lecture, titled “The Aims of Socialism,” commenced at 8:00. With his thinning gray hair and worsted suit, he looked every bit like the conservative Presbyterian, but he spoke like a rebel, if not a revolutionary.
“Capitalism is economic cannibalism,” he said.
Unlike the Bolsheviks, he opposed all violence. “To play up violence is only to play into the hands of the Fascists.” Thomas called for a boycott of Nazi Germany and Austria, where fascism was taking hold.
The target of most of his attacks in Knoxville was not Wall Street, as had been the case with previous Socialists who had come to town, like the late Eugene Debs. Thomas laid into Roosevelt’s New Deal.
The National Recovery Act was a “straightjacket for labor,” he said, better for big business than for workers. He said the Civil Works Administration was a waste of money. The Agricultural Adjustment Act was also a waste, he said.
Some of his words hit home. That day, it was announced that New Deal programs, especially the CWA, were laying off almost 500 in the Knoxville area. “Socialism is infinitely more practical than the crazy system we are now living under,” he said. “How can you carry on anything that’s 99 percent capitalism, one percent socialist? You can’t improve capitalism with planning. You’ve got to change the system, get rid of the profits.”
The only truly Socialist part of Roosevelt’s New Deal, Thomas declared, was the Tennessee Valley Authority. It was “a beautiful flower planted in a garden of weeds.”
TVA may not seem so controversial today, but before 1933, power companies had always been privately owned and run for profit. TVA, an extraordinary new creation in 1934 that combined utilities, recreation, erosion control, agricultural improvements, and even model communities, advertised itself as devoutly “for the people.”
The next morning, Thomas made a point to drive up to see the Norris Dam project, and the carefully planned town being built nearby. In the 1930s and early ‘40s, many intellectuals would make that trip, from Jean-Paul Sartre to Eleanor Roosevelt to Le Corbusier.
It may seem remarkable that both usually contentious daily papers greeted Norman Thomas cordially, including the traditionally Republican Journal. “He has a good voice,” reported the Journal, “but his greatest asset is his easy choice of words, his facility of expression, with which he constantly holds interest.”
“General Knox,” the bewigged editorial persona of the News-Sentinel, later specifically congratulated the League of Industrial Democracy for organizing such a worthwhile lecture series, with Thomas’s lecture “a fitting climax.”
A few months later, though, the Journal tangled with the League of Industrial Democracy, as a local businessman tried to gather interest in forbidding some speakers to use public facilities. Mayor O’Connor wouldn’t budge on the issue. He was born and raised in old Irish Town, practically across the street from the high school. He was a former boxing champ, machinist, and Union organizer. He was especially fond of free speech.
~Researched and Written by Jack Neely, March 2020