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1979 Norman Thomas - Eugene V. Debs Dinner

The 1979 Norman Thomas - Eugene V. Debs Dinner was held on Sunday, May 6, at what was home base for much of the Dinners first few decades: the Midland Hotel. The establishment was owned by an old radical at that time and was thus a congenial place for many lefty events. Addie Wyatt, at that time a Vice-President of the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen, was the honoree. Irving Howe was the featured speaker.

The newsletter article below was from The Illinois Socialist, the newsletter of the Chicago Chapter of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee. For 1979, the publication was irregularly issued and typically undated.

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Dinner - A Success

The 1979 Norman Thomas - Eugene V. Debs Award Dinner was another tremendous success. Close to five hundred people attended this year's event to pay tribute to Addie Wyatt, vice-president of the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workers of America. The guests cheered her dedication to the labor movement and reflected on progressive struggles of years past.

Following the Midland Hotel's meal of broiled chicken, Jim Gorman, Chair of the Chicago chapter of DSOC, called the gathering to order. He extended a hearty welcome to our many distinguished guests. Jim asked the guests to recall the history of the labor movement and other progressive struggles. He reflected on Haymarket, the fight for the eight-hour day, and the conversion of Debs to socialism in nearby Woodstock, Illinois. Today, Jim added, there are renewed signs of hope with activity around ERA, anti-nuclear efforts and Democratic Party reform. He concluded his opening remarks with: "There are signs of hope when people are willing to wager their lives in the struggle, people like Eugene Debs, Norman Thomas, and Addie Wyatt."

Irving Howe, editor of Dissent, critic and author of best selling World of Our Fathers, gave the keynote address of the evening. Howe spoke of the crisis that liberalism faces in the 1980s. That crisis, he argued, has enabled the New Right to set the terms of political debate in the 70s. He stressed the importance of the New Deal reforms for the American workers, which must now be protected from the assault by the right. A new coalition in the Democratic Party must be created for the 80s to battle the challenge from the right. Howe spoke of the role that democratic socialists should play in that coalition, and complimented DSOC's openness toward potential members of that coalition. Howe saw this as the way to build a new social movement.

After Irving Howe's analysis of politics in the 80s, Carl Shier told the group about DSOC's work over the past year. The Chicago chapter has opened an office in the Loop, and has hired a full time organizer. Chicago DSOC is now working to mobilize grassroots support for collective bargaining for city employees. The national organization, he added, also has had many successes. The national convention in Houston mandated that DSOC begin a major membership drive. In addition, our work within the left of the Democratic Party continues to be significant. Under the leadership of Ruth Jordan, DSOC vice-chair, the Democratic Agenda Project is planning a major conference in the fall. The audience responded to Carl's review with enthusiastic applause and contributions. During the collection, Jim Gorman led the group in choruses of "This Land is Your Land".

Mary Beth Guinan, an officer of SEIU Local 372, spoke briefly about the inspiration that Addie is to her and to her sisters in the labor movement. Barbara Merrill, the J.P. Stevens coordinator for the Amalgamated Clothing workers, presented the Norman Thomas - Eugene V. Debs Award to Addie Wyatt. Barbara praised Addie Wyatt's dedication to the advancement of women and minorities as part of labor struggles. Barbara, a friend of Addie's, also commented on Addie's role as mother and religious leader.

Addie Wyatt accepted the Award - a portrait of herself inscribed with her many contributions to the labor movement - with words of thanks for all the women and minorities who were part of her struggle. She recalled the encouragement and leadership given to her by Ralph Helstein and Charlie Hayes. Her closing words, "Solidarity forever, solidarity forever, for the union makes us strong!" brought the audience to a thundering standing ovation.

The Dinner Committee thanks the many people who made the dinner a success. The Norman Thomas - Eugene V. Debs Dinner truly is the occasion of the year that brings together all the progressive voices in Chicago.

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