Norman Thomas (November 20, 1884 - December 19, 1968) was a US political leader, six times Socialist candidate for president 1928–48. One of the founders of the American Civil Liberties Union in 1920, he also served as a director of the League for Industrial Democracy 1922–37. He was a brilliant speaker and published A Socialist's Faith (1951).
Born in Marion, Ohio, Thomas graduated from Princeton University in 1905 and, after studying at the Union Theological Seminary, was ordained a Presbyterian minister in 1911. As pastor of the East Harlem Church he first confronted the problem of urban poverty and joined the Socialist Party of America in 1918, leaving the ministry for political activism two years later.
Ordination as a Pastor
He then attended Union Theological Seminary, and there became a socialist. He was ordained as a Presbyterian minister in 1911, shunning the Park Avenue churches and ministering instead to an Italian Protestant church in New York's East Harlem. Union Theological Seminary was then a center of the Social Gospel movement and liberal politics, but Princeton had a largely Republican student body and even faculty. At Princeton reunions many alumni shunned Thomas, though he had some support among the faculty.
Early Political Work
Thomas opposed the United States' entry into the First World War. He founded The World Tomorrow (magazine) publication in January, 1918, and from 1921-1922 he was associate editor of The Nation.
In 1922 he became codirector of the League for Industrial Democracy. Later, he was one of the founders of the National Civil Liberties Bureau (the precursor of the American Civil Liberties Union) and The Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy. He was an unsuccessful Socialist candidate for Governor of New York in 1924, and for Mayor of New York in 1925 and 1929. The League for Industrial Democracy (or LID) was founded in 1905 by a group of notable socialists including Jack London and Upton Sinclair.
Following Eugene Debs' death in 1926, Thomas became the Socialist standard-bearer and was the party's Presidential nominee in every election from 1928 to 1948. As an articulate and engaging spokesman for democratic socialism, Thomas' influence was considerably greater than that of the typical perennial candidate. Although socialism was viewed as an unsavory form of political thought by most middle-class Americans, the well-educated Thomas -- who often wore three-piece suits -- looked like and talked like a president and gained a grudging admiration.
Thomas frequently spoke on the difference between Socialism and Communism, and explaining the differences between the movement he represented and that of revolutionary Marxism. He had an early admiration for the Russian Revolution that subsequently turned into anti-communism. (The revolutionaries thought him no better; Leon Trotsky, on more than one occasion, leveled high-profile criticism at Thomas.) He wrote several books, among them his passionate defense of World War I conscientious objectors, Is Conscience a Crime?, and his statement of the 1960s social democratic consensus, Socialism Re-examined.
Thomas was as outspoken in opposing the Second World War as he was the first, and served on the board of the America First Committee. However, once America was attacked by the Japanese in Pearl Harbor, his stance changed to support for US involvement He and his fellow democratic socialists were also some of the only public figures to virulently oppose the internment of Japanese Americans following the attack on Pearl Harbor at a time when virtually every public figure and government official approved of it. Thomas was also a pioneer in his campaigning against racial segregation, war, environmental depletion, anti labor laws and practices, and for his efforts to try to open up the United States to Jewish victims of Nazi persecution in the 1930s.
He championed many seemingly unrelated progressive causes, while leaving unstated the essence of his political and economic philosophy. From 1931 until his death, to be a "socialist" in America meant to support those causes which Norman Thomas championed.
Thomas' 80th birthday in 1964 was marked by a well-publicized gala at the Hotel Astor in Manhattan. At the event Thomas called for a cease-fire in Vietnam and read birthday telegrams from Hubert Humphrey Wp→, Warren Wp→, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He also received a check for $17,500 in donations from supporters. "It won't last long," he said of the check, "because every organization I'm connected with is going bankrupt."
Thomas died on December 19, 1968.
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