Home > Uncategorized > Removing the Elizabeth Gurley Flynn historical marker is an act of ignorance – posted 5/20/2023

Removing the Elizabeth Gurley Flynn historical marker is an act of ignorance – posted 5/20/2023

The New Hampshire state decision to take down the Elizabeth Gurley Flynn historical marker two weeks after it was unveiled was both wrong-headed and ignorant. Flynn had a long, flamboyant and illustrious life. The decision to remove her historical marker in Concord, her birthplace, was based solely on her membership in the Communist Party which she had joined in 1936.

The state took the marker down on the basis of a label – communist – rather than on any informed understanding of what she did in her life.

Flynn had three decades of experience as a labor organizer, civil libertarian and activist before she joined the Communist Party. She was a much-loved leader in the American labor movement. Here is what the saintly socialist Eugene V. Debs, who knew her well, wrote about Flynn in 1926:

“Elizabeth Gurley Flynn holds a proud and enviable position in the American labor movement and yet she is one of the humblest and most unpretentious of its members. Ever since I first heard of this brave, dauntless leader of the working class she has been at the forefront, one of its most eloquent spokesmen and one of its most consecrated servants. She has espoused and championed the cause of the weakest, lowliest, most despised and persecuted, even when she stood almost alone, and in this she has never weakened or wavered a moment but faced and fought the enemy without fear and without reference to consequences to herself.”

Flynn was first and foremost, an organizer. In 1906, she dropped out of high school to join the Industrial Workers of the World also known as the IWW or the Wobblies. She was an early feminist, advocating for birth control, labor legislation for women, liberalizing divorce laws and standing up for the rights of prostitutes.

She played a key role in multiple strikes including the 1912 Bread and Roses strike in Lawrence Ma, the Paterson NJ silk mill workers strike in 1913, the Mesabi Range miners’ strike of 1916 and the Passaic NJ textile workers’ strike in 1926.

For years, Flynn was on the road, traveling and speaking on behalf of workers across America who were organizing. She was an extremely talented debater and orator. Even among unions like the United Mine Workers who disagreed with her IWW politics she was sought as a speaker for their strike campaigns. She captivated audiences and had a gift for connecting with people.

She was a key player on numerous defense committees when strike leaders and other comrades were prosecuted by the authorities. She directed strategy for Joe Ettor and Arturo Giovannitti, the Lawrence strike leaders who were framed on a charge of inciting to murder. They were both acquitted by a jury. She also defended Tom Mooney, a San Francisco socialist also framed up and accused of throwing a bomb and later Nicolo Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. She herself was arrested many times.

In her autobiography, The Rebel Girl, Flynn describes going to a jail in Salt Lake City in 1915 to visit the legendary IWW songwriter Joe Hill. As he put it, he wrote songs “to fan the flame of discontent”. Hill wrote such famous songs as “Hallelujah I’m a Bum”, “Casey Jones”, “Mr. Block” and “Long haired Preachers” or “Pie in the Sky”. Hill told Flynn “I am not afraid of death, but I’d like to be in the fight a little longer”. It was not to be.

A few hours before he was executed by the State of Utah, Hill sent Flynn this note:

“Dear Friend Gurley:
I have been saying Good Bye so much now that it is becoming monotonous but I just cannot help to send you a few more lines because you have been more to me than a fellow Worker. You have been an inspiration and when I composed The Rebel Girl you were right there and helped me all the time as you furnished the idea I will now that I am gone, give you all the credit for that song, and be sure to locate a few more Rebel Girls like yourself, because they are needed and needed badly.”

Joe Hill’s famous last words were “Don’t mourn, organize”. I would say that if Joe Hill was writing songs about you, your place in labor history is assured. Unfortunately though, American labor history is now an almost entirely forgotten story. The fact that Flynn became a member of the American Communist Party later in her life doesn’t cancel out her story.

When Flynn joined the Communist Party in 1936, the world faced the threat of fascism. For the most part, except in the less than two years of the Hitler-Stalin Pact from 1939-1941, the Party was a bulwark in the fight against fascism. Many Americans who were terrified by the rise of European fascism joined the Party in the 1930’s.

To its credit, the Party was also one of the few institutions in American life that vigorously opposed racism and white supremacy which was disgracefully accommodated in America.

I would acknowledge though that Flynn never opposed Joseph Stalin’s monstrous crimes even after they were widely known nor did she ever publicly oppose or repudiate the Communist Party’s slavish devotion to following the Moscow line. This is certainly to her discredit but I think it is only one chapter in an otherwise long, brave and admirable life.

The question arises: how do you evaluate a life? Flynn’s life was not flawless. Of course, in that regard she is no different than anyone else and certainly no different than many of the people that New Hampshire has chosen to recognize with historical markers. If perfection is the standard, there will be no historical markers.

Robert Azzi made a good point when he pointed out that of the 279 historical markers listed in New Hampshire, there are hardly any women. There were 12 devoted to an individual woman until Flynn’s marker got removed. Two of the remaining eleven share their marker with a male.

Another way of looking at the Flynn marker removal is that a small group of narrow-minded old white men only want to honor other men like themselves. They don’t own history. Besides Flynn, there are no other women labor leaders on that list. Objectively, the numbers speak for themselves.

The Flynn marker removal makes New Hampshire look dumb – and sexist.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Debbie
    May 20, 2023 at 11:34 pm

    What a shame NH did that! Thanks, Jon, for this terrific description of her, and argument.

    • May 20, 2023 at 11:41 pm

      Thanks Debbie! I agree that it is a real shame. So redneck. It is in the worst NH tradition.

  2. jlewandohotmailcom
    May 22, 2023 at 12:38 am

    As always, I’ve learned so much. Thank you! I looked up the lyrics to “Rebel Girl,” and they’re quite moving. There was a little homage to it and Flynn on “The Folk Show” this evening. I remember my mother singing “Halleluia I’m a Bum” a million years ago. She had some rebel in her, too.

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