Leading up to Labor Day 1923, Huntington Beach sought to become the workers’ capital of Orange County. The oil town readied to host a major celebration, expecting to draw 10,000 revelers to an event double-billed as the opening of Ocean Boulevard. The Huntington Beach News reported that working people would have the honor of being the first to use the highway, hyping the occasion as “one of the great events which will make history for the city.”
But the illusion of labor peace didn’t last long; Eugene V. Debs, a prominent socialist convicted of violating the Espionage Act of 1917 for speaking out against World War I, wanted to come to town at the invitation of union oil workers.
But before the perennial Socialist Party presidential candidate sent a free-speech panic coursing through Huntington Beach’s political establishment and civic groups—without him uttering a single word—plans for the extravaganza continued. The Central Labor Day Committee met at the Oil Workers Hall throughout the summer to fine-tune the program. The all-day event promised live music, water sports, vaudeville performances and even a bathing girls parade, a precursor to swimsuit competitions, but one in which only union women or those related to union workers could enter.
Huntington Beach News reported that OC union membership rolls tallied 8,000, one-tenth of the total population, leading the paper to declare, “Orange County is a strong union county.”
As expected, thousands showed up. During a morning program, Huntington Beach mayor Richard Drew presented representatives of the local unions with keys to the city. Adolph Germer—a former executive secretary of the Socialist Party who, like Debs, had been convicted under the Espionage Act—gave the main address. The Labor Day festivities ended with an orchestra performance and dance held at the city’s new municipal auditorium. The only hitch of the historic day came with the delay in the permanent opening of Ocean Boulevard, which proved unsafe without barricades for nighttime commuters.
Perhaps with the success of that celebration, union oil workers eyed the municipal auditorium as a potential stop on Debs’ speaking tour. The president of the Huntington Beach oil workers’ union sought a permit to use the space on Sept. 20, 1923, to host the speaker. The City Council denied the request on Sept. 5, siding with the Joseph Rodman post of the American Legion, formed by World War I veterans a century ago.
“We don’t want a man of his type stirring up trouble in Huntington Beach,” said Lewis W. Blodget, American Legion commander and city attorney, in an exclusive Los Angeles Times dispatch. Blodget served in the Army before following in his brother’s footsteps as city manager.
The Debs dispute led to a “verbal controversy of considerable proportion” in downtown Huntington Beach, according to the Santa Ana Register. Drew and Germer, both of whom appeared during the Labor Day celebration’s morning program just days before, traded barbs in the street. “I will stop Debs from speaking in this city or any other Orange County city, if I possibly can,” Drew told Germer. “Do you know that my conscience tells me that a man of Debs’ type should not be allowed to speak here?”
The socialist who came to California that year to organize oil workers took Drew, who now has a public park in Huntington Beach named for him, and his boasts in stride. “Very well, then,” Germer responded. “We will see whether the mayor and the city attorney of one small town are bigger than the Constitution of the United States.”
Curiously, Germer’s Labor Day address didn’t provoke similar controversy. He worked closely together with Debs in the Socialist Party; his own Espionage Act conviction in Berger, et al. v. United States and 20-year prison sentence got overturned by the United States Supreme Court in 1921.
No yellow socialist, Debs considered Democrats and Republicans to be the “political wings” of capitalism and workers who’d cast a vote for either of them traitors to their class. In a 1918 speech in Canton, Ohio, he publicly opposed World War I. “Don’t worry over the charge of treason to your masters, but be concerned about the treason that involves yourselves,” Debs told the crowd. “Be true to yourself, and you cannot be a traitor to any good cause on Earth.”
Prosecutors believed his words promoted the cause of the United States’ enemies in wartime, and after a dubious trial, Debs received a 10-year prison sentence for violating the Espionage Act. In 1920, he ran for president from prison on the Socialist Party’s ticket, garnering nearly a million votes. Warren G. Harding, who won the election, commuted his sentence the following year.
But Debs’ freedom from prison didn’t give him the freedom to speak in Huntington Beach. The crusade to silence the socialist enlisted several civic groups, including the Grand Army of the Republic, the Rotary Club and Lions Club of Huntington Beach. All adopted resolutions in support of the City Council’s actions.
“We feel that there are quite a few radicals, [Industrial Workers of the World] and anarchists in this city, but we know that the majority of the citizens of Huntington Beach have faith in the government of the United States and are not desirous of a revolution or a change in the form of our government,” read the Lions Club resolution signed by Blodget. “We feel that a man who, in a time of war, went about this country preaching sedition and disloyalty to his native land should not be permitted to foment strife and trouble in this community.”
The American Legion issued a resolution to deny Debs his First Amendment rights, saying, “We believe in free speech, but not in speech so free as to transcend the limits of liberty.”
Stifled in their own city, the Oil Workers Union of Huntington Beach took their efforts to have Debs speak to Long Beach instead.
“It’s easy to see why the [Huntington Beach] City Council, the luncheon clubs and other organizations do not want to hear the truth from Debs,” an anonymous worker told the Register. “But it is hard to understand why the American Legion has taken such a stand.”