Opinion: The contested historical marker is about more than Elizabeth Gurley Flynn


Published: 05-14-2023 6:00 AM

Robert Azzi is a photographer and writer who lives in Exeter. His columns are archived at theotherazzi.wordpress.com.

Thomas Wolfe wrote, in a novel posthumously published in 1940, “You Can’t Go Home Again,” about an author who writes about his (fictional) hometown, Libya Hill, but which readers believe represented Asheville, N.C., Wolfe’s hometown. The book was a bestseller but Asheville residents, unhappy with how they believed themselves portrayed, sent Wolfe menacing letters and death threats.

It appears that Elizabeth Gurley Flynn — radical labor organizer, civil rights activist, orator, feminist — can’t return home either.

Recently, in Concord, after a historical marker was erected to honor the native-born social justice activist, ACLU co-founder, and Communist Party activist, a coven of Republican politicians and conservative social media activists have mounted a malign campaign to have the marker removed.

The Concord marker references Flynn as “The Rebel Girl,” acknowledging a 1915 song written in tribute to her by Joe Hill, a songwriter, activist, and member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) who was working at the time at the Silver King Mine in Park City, Utah.

From Concord’s street corners to this moment she was always too much woman for too many men. In a state that names towns for generals who distributed small-pox infected blankets to Native peoples, that celebrates a Supreme Court Justice, Levi Woodbury, who supported the rights of slaveholders and the Fugitive Slave Act, one shouldn’t be surprised at the irrationality of an opposition based solely on one aspect of a singular life.

Flynn came of age at a time of unfettered capitalism for some; of Jim Crow, exploitation of immigrants, institutional misogyny, and trampled rights for too many others.

The first half of the 20th century was tumultuous. Two world wars, Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, genocide, antisemitism, war in Korea, and the beginning of the dismantling of colonialist colonies, while at home the Great Depression, McCarthyism, the Cold War, racism, exploitation and unemployment roiled America for decades.

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Within all that tumult Flynn became, in 1920, one of the founders of the ACLU, an organization, from the Scopes trial to its defense of Jehovah’s Witnesses to its defense of marchers in Skokie and its challenges to loyalty oaths and blacklisting, has been central to the preservation of civil liberties in America.

The ACLU, yielding to popular sentiments, expelled Flynn because of her Communist Party membership, in 1940, when she refused to resign from the organization. In 1976, the ACLU rescinded her ouster.

Flynn fought for women’s rights. She campaigned for equal pay and opportunities and was an early advocate of birth control. She was part of a New York City textile strike in 1909 and in 1912 was an organizer in the “Bread and Roses” strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, so named because strikers carried signs that read “We want Bread and Roses too,” advocating not only for better wages but for time and opportunity to enjoy their lives.

While Flynn, from an early age, personally experienced the nature and inequities of capitalism and opposed it all of her life, it’s also clear she failed to recognize how the Soviet Union and the Communist Party had abandoned their egalitarian principles and the purges that killed millions of people, not all of which was publicly known contemporaneously.

In June 1951, Flynn was arrested and prosecuted, along with others described in the New York Times as “second-string CP leadership,” for trying to overthrow the American government. She acted as her own counsel for ten months and was eloquent and courageous, calling up her long career and her personal reasons for joining and advancing the party.

In her opening statement, she said, “We who are members of the Communist Party repudiate the exclusive identification of democracy with capitalism. We declare that democracy can be widened, take on new aspects, become truly a rule of the people, only when it is extended to the economic life of the people, as in the Soviet Union. As far as women are concerned, the U.S.S.R. is a trailblazer for equal rights and equal opportunities.”

On January 20, 1953, all the defendants were found guilty.

When, impressed by her advocacy, the presiding judge seriously offered her the option of living the rest of her life in Russia instead of two years in prison she refused: “I am an American; I want to live and work in the United States of America. I am not interested in going any place else and would reject any such proposition.”

After her release from prison, she visited the Soviet Union for the first time in 1960. During a second trip in 1964, she was hospitalized within a month of arrival and died on September 5th. The Soviets, no doubt, in part, to poke America in the eye during the Cold War, gave her a full-scale state funeral in Red Square attended by over 25,000 people.

Her body was returned to America and buried in Chicago.

I don’t believe that Flynn was “an anti-American Communist.” I found nothing in the public record, or anything in the trial record (she testified for nearly a month) that advocated for the violent overthrow of the United States.

Somewhere between Flynn’s embrace of communism and the reality of a Soviet Union under Stalin and Berea, rests a complicated set of truths about Americans living and supporting the Communist Party, particularly in the 1920s and 1930s, particularly among those who supported the U.S.S.R. for its opposition to Nazi-Germany’s racism.

The contested historical marker is about more than Flynn. It’s about the right of all Americans for representation, acknowledgment, and space in the Public Square — even if their point of view is not politically correct.

This isn’t about a communist who is an American. This is about the acknowledgment of an American who loved this country, who became a communist, whose life should be honored.

Of the 279 historical markers listed in New Hampshire fewer than 10 honor women.

Alongside Flynn, I wonder, where are markers celebrating Ona Judge Staines, Christa McAuliffe, Lotte Jacobi, and Armenia White? Where are Grace Metalious, Sara George Bagley, Laura Bridgman, Dinah Whipple, and Willa Cather?

“I fell in love with my country - its rivers, prairies, forests, mountains, cities and people,” she had once written. “No one can take my love of country away from me! I felt then, as I do now, it’s a rich, fertile, beautiful land, capable of satisfying all the needs of its people. It could be a paradise on earth if it belonged to the people, not to a small owning class.”

“No one can take my love of country away from me!”