Although she’s been dead for almost six decades, it looks like Elizabeth Gurley Flynn is still getting under the skin of right-wingers. Just two weeks after it was installed, a historical marker commemorating her birth in Concord, N.H., has been demolished on the order of Republican state officials.
The green and white cast iron plaque—the kind you see on the side of highways or in public places noting where significant events occurred or famous persons once lived—was erected on May Day in downtown Concord, where Flynn was born in 1890.
The sign was barely bolted into place before conservatives demanded its removal, embarrassed apparently that the state might recognize someone who devoted her life to fighting for workers’ rights, women’s right to vote, birth control, civil liberties, and economic equality. But it was Flynn’s leadership in the Communist Party USA that really boiled their blood.
“This is a devout communist,” complained Joseph Kenney, a Republican member of the Executive Council, the five-person body that approves state contracts, judicial nominees, and other positions.
How can we possibly promote her propaganda, which still exists now through this sign in downtown Concord?
But in a state with the motto “Live Free or Die,” is there really any better figure to represent that rebellious spirit than “The Rebel Girl” herself?
An agitator her entire life
Flynn earned her Rebel Girl nickname doing battle against the same kind of reactionary politics expressed by Kenney. She made her debut as an activist at the age of 15, giving her first public speech, “What Socialism Will Do for Women,” at the Harlem Socialist Club in New York.
Two years later, at just 17, she was already a full-time organizer for the Wobblies, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a revolutionary labor group that sought to organize all workers into “One Big Union.” She traveled from one end of the country to the other, organizing restaurant workers in New York, garment workers in Pennsylvania, weavers in New Jersey, miners in Minnesota, Montana, and Washington State.
She was immortalized in song for her exploits by famed songwriter Joe Hill, who penned “The Rebel Girl” in 1915, giving Flynn the moniker that would follow her for the rest of her life.
With bosses and their hired guns in local police departments determined to muzzle anyone demanding rights for workers, the IWW faced many free speech fights. City councils were pressured by employers to ban organizers from speaking in the streets.
During one such battle in Spokane, Wash., Flynn chained herself to a lamppost so the cops wouldn’t be able to drag her off to jail as easily. There, she gave a fiery speech demanding freedom for workers to organize and publish their views. She’d end up behind bars more than ten times during her years with the IWW.
With the first Red Scare in full swing following the Russian Revolution, constitutional freedoms like speech, press, and assembly were under attack across the United States. Workers and their organizations were the primary targets, and foreign-born immigrant workers faced mass deportations. This prompted Flynn and others to found the American Civil Liberties Union to defend democracy against right-wing reactionaries.
She also pushed the ACLU to take an active role in fighting for women’s rights, particularly access to birth control and the right to vote.
When Italian anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were framed up on murder charges in 1920, Flynn became a leader in their defense campaign and helped turn their case into an international cause célèbre.
Though the two were eventually murdered by the state, the effort to save them helped launch the International Labor Defense, which fought to save the Scottsboro Nine, battled Ku Klux Klan terror, and defended workers in courtrooms anytime they were under attack. Flynn served as the organization’s chair for a number of years.
By the mid-’30s, amidst the suffering of the Great Depression, Flynn’s radicalism led her to join the Communist Party. Almost immediately, she began writing a column on women’s issues for the Daily Worker newspaper, predecessor of today’s People’s World. That column would run weekly for the next 26 years. In a short time, she was elected to the CPUSA’s National Committee.
During the global fight against Hitler fascism and Japanese imperialism during World War II, Flynn played a key role on the home front. She led struggles for equal pay for the women who replaced men on the assembly lines and agitated for day care centers for these working mothers.
In 1942, she ran for Congress in New York, making unity in the fight against fascism and the battle for equality at home the primary planks of her campaign. She earned 50,000 votes.
After the war, Red Scare repression returned. A dozen top leaders of the CPUSA were arrested in 1948 and accused of violating the Smith Act under the false charge of “conspiring to advocate the overthrow the government by force and violence.” The Rebel Girl was a central leader in the movement to defend not only the Communist leaders but also the First Amendment from those who wanted to see it destroyed.
When a second wave of anti-communist arrests was launched in 1951, Flynn was thrown in jail with 16 other party members. At the opening of her federal trial, she declared:
We are not a criminal conspiracy, but a working-class political party devoted to the immediate needs and aspirations of the American people, to the advancement of the workers, farmers, and the Negro people, to the preservation of democracy and culture, and to the advocacy of socialism.
Even if the jurors did not agree with the Communist Party’s politics, she urged them to remember that in a democratic society, the mere act of thinking should never be made a criminal offense.
“Let none of us forget, especially in this trial in dealing with new ideas and proposals for social change,” she said,
the wise words of Abraham Lincoln: ‘This country with its institutions belongs to the people who inhabit it.’
Nine months later, the court handed down a guilty plea, and Flynn was sent to Alderson Prison in West Virginia for the next two years—along with Claudia Jones and Betty Gannett, two other women party leaders charged under the Smith Act.
As Prisoner #11710, Flynn set down on paper the details of life in a federal women’s correctional facility, published later as My Life as a Political Prisoner: The Alderson Story. She detailed not only the physical brutalities of incarceration but also its psychological toll:
The heavy shadow of prison fell upon us in those three days—the locked door and the night patrol. The turning of a key on the outside of the door is a weird sensation to which one never became accustomed. One felt like a trapped animal in a cage.
She also took the opportunity to expose the classist and racist nature of America’s prison-industrial complex. “No rich women were to be found in Alderson,” she wrote, highlighting how the prison system mostly consumed poor and working-class women, the majority Black and Spanish-speaking with past lives defined often by abuse, mental illness, or drug addiction.
Following her release from the penitentiary, Flynn didn’t hesitate to jump right back into leftist political work and Communist activism. She also ran for office again, putting her name forward for New York City Council in 1957.
In 1961, her long years of work were recognized by comrades, who elected her to become chairperson of the Communist Party, the first woman to ever hold the position. After winning back her passport from the government, Flynn traveled to the Soviet Union in 1964 to spend time working on her next book. While there, however, she became ill and passed away at the age of 74.
Over 25,000 people turned out for her state funeral in Moscow’s Red Square. Her remains were returned to the U.S., where they were buried in Chicago’s Waldheim Cemetery, near the Haymarket Martyrs and other labor heroes.
Flynn described herself as a “professional revolutionary, an agitator” against the injustices of capitalism, racism, and misogyny. As Prof. Mary Anne Trasciatti wrote:
It is no exaggeration to claim that Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was involved in almost every major campaign of the U.S. left in the first two-thirds of the twentieth century.
And it is that life lived in struggle which so irritates conservatives in New Hampshire; they simply can’t stand for the erection of a historical marker that might remind people of such a figure or prompt them to learn more about her, or, heaven forbid, follow in her footsteps.
So, it is no surprise that Gov. Chris Sununu quickly acted on the demands of his fellow Republicans on the Executive Council who said the historical marker in Concord was “inappropriate, given Flynn’s communist involvement.” Since the marker was on state property, his office had power to order its destruction.
Sununu’s spokesperson, Ben Vihstadt, said on Monday,
All policies and guidelines were followed in removing this controversial marker.
Supporters of accurate history differ with Sununu. They accuse the state of violating its own rules for the markers, rules which say that markers can only be “retired” if they “contain errors of fact, are in a state of disrepair, or require refurbishment.” None of those apply in the Flynn case.
“We still say that under the department’s own guidelines, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn’s birthplace in Concord is a fitting location for a historical marker,” said Mary Lee Sargent, a former U.S. history teacher and labor and women’s rights activist.
The sign was approved last year by the Concord City Council after a recommendation from the state marker program, which is run by the N.H. Historical Resources Division and the Transportation Department.
A commissioner for the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources says the marker program is popular “because it’s initiated at the local level,” with no “top-down effort” to populate New Hampshire with historical markers of elected officials’ own political heroes nor to cleanse the state of their ideological foes.
With the intervention of Sununu and reactionaries at the highest levels of state government, that tradition is over. Anti-communism may have won out, but perhaps there is a silver lining.
Thanks to all the media coverage conservatives have generated with their contrived controversy, more people will probably learn about Elizabeth Gurley Flynn from articles like this one than would have ever read a plaque at the courthouse in downtown Concord.