Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Then and Now—Resistance, Free Speech and the ACLU

Socialist Party leader, fiery orator, and war opponent found speech a ticket to prison.

This week two events in McHenry County involve the venerable American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and together they are a reminder of a continuum of struggle. 
First tonight Eugene Debs and the Fight for Free Speech in World War I will be presented at the McHenry County Historical Society, 6422 Main Street in Union, Illinois from 7 to 9 pm.
Then on Wednesday evening  April 26 at 7 pm the Tree of Life Unitarian Universalist Congregation Social Justice Team will host Effective Activism With the ACLU with Illinois ACLU Communications Director Edwin C. Yonhka at the church, 5603 Bull Valley Road in McHenry.
At tonight’s program University of Tennessee historian Ernest F. Freeberg will mark America’s entry into World War I by revisiting one of its greatest opponentsSocialist Party leader and militant union leader Eugene V. Debs.  Debs has a special connection to McHenry County because he and the entire Executive Board of the American Railway Union were held for month in the county jail in Woodstock following their Federal conviction for interfering with the mail during the epic 1894 Pullman Strike.  While in jail Debs undertook a deep study and emerged a committed Marxist socialist. 
Freeberg will examine events more than ten years later when Debs was a fierce opponent of America’s entrance in the war.  His will be lecture based on his award-winning book, Democracy’s Prisoner: Eugene V. Debs, The Great War, and the Right to Dissent.

University of Tennessee Professor Ernest F. Freeberg.

The talk will explore an important legacy of World War I, the fight for civil liberties waged by those who worked to free Debs after he was sentenced in 1919 to 10 years in prison for speaking against the U.S. decision to join the fighting in Europe. The incident sparked a national debate over the meaning of the First Amendment and the government’s power to silence its critics. The fight to free Debs raised fundamental questions about the balance between individual liberty and national security, and helped to expand the right to protest against war ever since.
Two years later Debs ran for President for the third time and won over a million votes without ever leaving his Atlanta jail cell. Though eventually pardoned, Debs’ imprisonment sparked an argument that still rages: is protest in times of war a democratic right or an act of treason?
The case was also among several involving war-time dissent and the post-war Red Scare that marked the most brutal and widespread repression in American history and led to the formation of the ACLU.
Admission is $10 at the door. The program is  co-sponsored by the McHenry County Historical Society, Woodstock Celebrates, and the Illinois Labor History Society

Recent event have caused both a resurgence of activism and protest but raised concerns about a return to heavy handed repression and a roll back of a century’s worth of hard won rights and gains over a broad front.  Yonhka  will address that at the Wednesday briefing. He will discuss what is going on in the nation and the state as well as discuss ways people can get involved and support the ACLU’s efforts.   
 He will concentrate on key issues on the Federal legislative calendar, including continuing efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and the impact of those efforts on women’s reproductive health and services to people with disabilities; the so-called “Religious Freedombills, which would effectively sanction discrimination against the LGBTQ community and minority religions; and Congressional and independent oversight of the Executive Branch, particularly in relation to investigations of Russian interference in the 2016 campaign. 
There will be discussion of how to approach Congress members on these issues when they return to their Districts during upcoming recesses May 8 to12 and May 29 to June 2.

Edwin C. Yonhka of the Illinois ACLU at work.

Yonhka has held his position at the ACLU since June 1999.  He serves as a primary spokesperson for the civil rights advocacy organization and appears regularly on television and radio programs in Illinois and throughout the nation. Yonhka also is widely cited in newspapers and publications on legal and legislative matters related to the ACLU of Illinois’ priorities. Previously he served on the staff of the American Bar Association, spending most of that time as a Special Presidential Assistant in the ABA’s Office of the President.   

The program is free and open to the public.

For more information call the Tree of Life office at 815 322-2464, office@treeoflifeuu.org., or visit http://treeoflifeuu.org/2017/04/18/effective-activism-with-the-aclu/ .



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