Norman Thomas: The Socialist Minister

On this day 136 years ago, Norman Mattoon Thomas was born in Marion, Ohio. Being the first of six kids, Norman was always held to a high standard. Especially in a heavily Presbyterian household, becoming a minister in New York. His religious upbringing led him to become a conscientious objector during the first world war, which directly pushed him working with Socialist Party’s campaigns, due to them having an radical pacifist platform. Norman would then use the skills he learned from his father to run campaigns in New York, which steadily built his profile in the state and the party.

In 1926, the standard bearer for the party Eugene Debs passed away. That lead to a power vacuum within the party as they could not find a new person to carry the torch of the new face of the party. Thomas was the only person to try for the spot, so he did end up getting it, and he began to push the Socialists in a new direction. While upper class people typically hated Socialism, Thomas was able to translate his preaching skills into political speeches and earned Norman and the Socialists a new wave of respect. Particularly due to Thomas differentiating his branch of Socialism than stuff like communism. This led to Thomas to become the Socialist Party’s Nominee six times, one more time than their more famous perennial nominee Eugene Debs. Leading a wave of Democratic Socialism to a more mainstream attention, Thomas would frequently be invited to give his opinions on hot button issues to magazines, talk shows, and even to congress. He even received telegrams from Senator Hubert Humphrey, Chief Justice Earl Warren, and Civil Rights activist Martin Luther King Jr for his 80th Birthday. Four years later, and aging Thomas would later even attempt to draft MLK for president. He would pass away December 19th that same year.

While Thomas is not remembered as much as Eugene Debs, he still has a place in the history of the American Socialist movement that should not be forgotten.

5 thoughts on “Norman Thomas: The Socialist Minister

  1. Gene Berkman

    Four years before he ran his first campaign for President, Norman Thomas ran for Governor of New York, challenging Al Smith. The Republican candidate was Theodore Roosevelt III, son of former President Theodore Roosevelt.

    In this 1924 campaign, Thomas was the Socialist candidate on a ticket headed by Sen. Robert M LaFollette running for President.

    Thomas campaigned for LaFollette, but many LaFollette campaign workers in New York backed Al Smith, considered a liberal, and an opponent of Prohibition. Apparently LaFollette voters agreed with them – LaFollette received 475,000 votes for President in New York; Norman Thomas received about 100,000 votes, with Governor Smith winning re-election with just less than 50% of the vote.

    In his 1928 campaign for President, Thomas would again face Al Smith. Thomas received about 187,000 votes for President, including more than 107,000 votes in New York. The Socialist Party was was in decline, with few officeholders outside Wisconsin, and Thomas went through 5 more campaigns for President, only receiving a significant protest vote in 1932 as the depression drove desperate voters to desperate protest.

    A stalwart, but hardly a hero, Thomas failed to develop a strategy of local growth for the Socialist Party that would enable it to survive New Deal era.

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