Viewing Debs’ message through modern lens

America’s dimes bear Franklin Roosevelt’s image. The largest of several memorials honoring the nation’s 32nd president covers 7.5 acres of Washington, D.C. Schools, bridges, airports, parks and an aircraft carrier bear his name. Polls often rate him as the second- or third-greatest president.

Eugene Debs’ home on North Eighth Street in Terre Haute preserves his memory as a museum. That’s pretty much it. Few other public displays recall Debs’ impact on this country. Even 89 years after his death, getting past his labels — “radical” and “socialist” — is difficult, or impossible, for most of the smattering of Americans who’ve heard of Debs, whose causes became part of Roosevelt’s legacy.

If people got to know Debs, their opinions might change. That’s what Yale Strom believes. The San Diego-based filmmaker sees his upcoming documentary, “American Socialist: The Life and Times of Eugene Victor Debs,” as a way to reintroduce the social justice and labor leader to the 21st century world.

“If I stood on a busy street corner in New York or Chicago or San Francisco and asked people of all races, religions and ages, not many would know him,” Strom speculated in a phone interview last week.

Debs spoke out on issues still relevant today, such as income inequality, equal pay for women in the workplace, acceptance of immigrants and job safety. Likewise, many objectives FDR pursued to lead the country through the Great Depression stemmed from beliefs Debs championed years earlier.

“Here’s a man, I feel, that brought into reality the policy changes of the New Deal,” Strom said.

In fact, the synopsis of Strom’s new film — still in production — says it will bring “to light the story of a man whose name may not (yet) be familiar, but whose ideas set the foundation of Roosevelt’s New Deal.” Those ideas include Social Security, workers’ compensation and pensions.

The concepts left Debs branded as a radical, despite their popularity among the working class in the early 20th century.

The modern relevance of Debs partly inspired Strom to capture Debs’ story in a documentary. The rest of that inspiration, though, emerged in recent years when the term “socialist” morphed into a superficial political insult.

“The word ‘socialist’ kept being thrown out by the tea party and the right wing about President (Barack) Obama. I would chuckle and then get a little bit angry and say, ‘They don’t even know what the word means.’ He’s not even close to being a socialist,” Strom said, who was raised by politically progressive parents in Detroit and whose father kept a Debs biography on their home bookshelf.

Like the president, Debs gets misunderstood, too. Strom hopes the film dispels myths and shows Debs’ humanity — both the flaws and virtues.

“He had his downfalls, and we’ll talk about those in the film,” Strom said. “He didn’t walk on water.”

To tell the story, Strom enlisted as narrator Oscar-nominated actress Amy Madigan, whose movie credits include “Field of Dreams,” “Places in the Heart,” “Uncle Buck” and “Twice in a Lifetime.” Strom handles the writing, directing and producing. He’s joined by a small production crew, which includes his wife and local actors.

On the web

To support the film

San Diego filmmaker Yale Strom has created a crowd-funding project at:

The goal is to raise $20,000 to cover production costs of the documentary “American Socialist: The Life and Times of Eugene Victor Debs.”

To see the trailer

Go online to:

Mark Bennett is a writer for the (Terre Haute) Tribune-Star. Send comments to