Norman Thomas knew he wouldn’t come close to capturing the presidency in 1928, but that wasn’t the point–spreading the word of socialism was, and nobody ever did it better than he.
A lanky six-feet-two of Ohio-born bone and muscle unlimbers itself above the speaker’s platform at the corner of Avenue B and Houston Street, on New York’s East Side. Flare-lights throw the long shadow of Norman Thomas across the heads of his audience, squat little tailors, for the most part, with here and there smudged mechanics, truck-drivers, and a sprinkling of women and children.
The speaker holds up a huge enlargement of a photograph of a working-class apartment erected by the Socialists of Vienna and then proceeds to wonder loudly and vehemently how it comes that in a comparatively poverty-stricken city like Vienna folks pay around two dollars a room a month for such splendid quarters, whereas in “prosperous” New York a worker is hard put to it to find decent housing at fifteen dollars. His audience begins to wonder with him. And then Thomas goes on to talk of things as they are and things as they might be; simple things like gas bills and rents and pay envelopes and the youngsters’ schooling and the prices the women pay in the stores round about Avenue B.
One night last year toward the end of a hot campaign in the Eighth Aldermanic District a truck loaded with a Tammany band and a collection of children armed with rattlers and other noisemaking horrors drove through the crowd in front of the platform where Thomas was speaking. The chieftain in charge of the invasion raised a pudgy hand as a signal to his youthful braves to cut loose and drown out Thomas. To his consternation, the kids, after one look at the speaker, piped with shrill gusto, “Yeaa! Norman Thomas!” That’s a familiar enough war-cry on the East Side whenever he goes campaigning. The children, as yet unterrified by Tammany’s elaborate and subtle machinery of fear, suspicion, and greed, have no hesitancy in voicing their love for Norman Thomas. Battalions trudge trustingly after him as he goes from one meeting-place to another, hang on the running-board of his campaign car, and besiege his headquarters the minute school is out. And at least three or four times when Thomas was running for alderman, mothers appeared with amazingly vocal infants whose last names ended in “ski” or “baum” but whose first two names were Norman Thomas.
Sometimes a former classmate of Thomas’s at Princeton or a “respectable” hangover from the old Brick Church days, passing by a street meeting at which Thomas is wondering aloud, stops to do some wondering of his own. How does it happen that a man of such obvious ability, magnetism, and fiery force can stoop to conquer the imaginations and hearts of the city’s most submerged–the workers on the East Side, in the Bronx, and in Brownsville?