Long before 1917, Ike Gilberg had earned a reputation as the “leader of Topeka radicalism.”
Born in 1873 in Bialystok, Russia, a major Jewish textile manufacturing center, Gilberg boarded a Red Star liner in 1889 bound for New York City. For whatever reason, Gilberg seemed intent on obfuscating the reason he fled his homeland giving at least three different accounts of what he described as “my feeble attempts to bring on the revolution.” Traveling first to Missouri, where he became a naturalized citizen in 1896, Gilberg arrived in Topeka by 1907, opening a tailor shop in the basement of the Copeland Hotel.
Gilberg painted capitalism as an unnatural system where man’s most precious possession, his labor, was being exploited by the industrialists who viewed the working class as fodder for their factories and ripe for the plunder. He took up the cause of working men and women saddled with long hours, dismal wages and exploitative work conditions. He fought for the establishment of a municipal hospital and warehouses where fuel and food could be purchased when prices were low and then resold at a reasonable cost as prices rose to the point working families could no longer heat their homes or put milk and bread on their table. Seeing organized labor as the most potent weapon available to chasten capitalism, Gilberg served as a national organizer for the Journeymen Tailors’ Union.
Although declaring the Russian Revolution of 1917 the “biggest progress stride since the French Revolution,” Gilberg believed in change through the ballot rather than the bullet. “The only thing left for the workers,” Gilberg once noted, “is to capture the machinery of government by an intelligent use of the ballot.” Twice Gilberg unsuccessfully sought office on the Socialist ticket, once as a representative from Nemaha County and then entering the race for Topeka Commissioner of Parks and Public Property.
Gilberg saw capitalism and war as inseparable. He believed it did not matter which side emerged victorious when the guns fell silent. The question that agitates the popular mind, Gilberg declared in 1914, is who will win and who will lose. “It makes little difference,” he argued, as “the ones who will suffer will be the common people who are in the battle array of both sides.”