Opinion: Whatever a court decides, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn retains an important place in American labor history

An historical marker dedicated to Elizabeth Gurley Flynn stands in Concord last May.

An historical marker dedicated to Elizabeth Gurley Flynn stands in Concord last May. Kathy McCormack/ AP

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, seen in New York in 1949.

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, seen in New York in 1949. AP


Published: 04-15-2024 6:00 AM

Jonathan P. Baird lives in Wilmot.

Probably like many people in Concord, I was disappointed in the NH Superior Court’s decision finding that the plaintiffs lacked standing to sue the state for its removal of the Elizabeth Gurley Flynn historical marker. I am very glad the plaintiffs have filed a motion to reconsider.

Concord was Flynn’s birthplace. Whatever you think about her complicated and colorful life, she is one of the most beloved labor leaders in American history. The state of New Hampshire recognizes and celebrates no labor leader of any political stripe with a historical marker. Among those acknowledged with a marker, the state recognizes hardly any women.

Since the history of Flynn and the early 20th-century labor movement is largely forgotten, some points deserve emphasis. Flynn lived in a time when wages and working conditions of American workers were terrible. Workers commonly labored grueling 10 to 12-hour shifts, 65 to 70 hours a week, for starvation wages.

Working conditions in factories, mines and mills were frequently unsafe and deadly accidents were common. Child labor was everywhere. Discrimination of all types prevailed. There was no OSHA or Fair Labor Standards Act.

As a member of the Industrial Workers of the World also known as the Wobblies or IWW, Flynn was selflessly committed to organizing the unorganized and improving workers’ standard of living. She led the Bread and Roses textile strike in Lawrence, Mass. in 1912. She went on to organize garment workers in Pennsylvania, restaurant workers in New York City, silk workers in New Jersey and miners in Minnesota. Theodore Dreiser called her “the East Side Joan of Arc.”

In 1920, Flynn helped to found the American Civil Liberties Union. She was a key organizer in the defense of Sacco and Vanzetti. Flynn was such a great orator that the Los Angeles Times described her as a “leather-lunged hellion that breathed reddish flames.”

Flynn helped to defend the Wobbly songwriter Joe Hill who was ultimately executed by the state of Utah. The consummate organizer, Flynn wrangled a meeting about Joe Hill with then-President Woodrow Wilson. Wilson wondered to Flynn “if further insistence might do more harm than good.” Flynn replied “But he’s sentenced to death. You can’t make it worse, Mr. President.”

Joe Hill was such a fan of Flynn that he composed the song “The Rebel Girl” about her. The song, a classic of the labor movement, went in part: “Yes, her hands may be hardened from labor, And her dress may not be very fine, But a heart in her bosom is beating, That is true to her class and her kind…”

Later in her life, Flynn joined the Communist Party. During the McCarthy period, she and others were prosecuted for violating the Smith Act, a law that forbade advocacy of the overthrow of the government by force or violence. At trial, she acknowledged support for socialism but denied that she advocated force or violence. Flynn was convicted and served two years in federal prison. She became chairwoman of the party in 1961 before she died in 1964.

In her statement at the Smith Act trial in 1952, she said the conditions she encountered in the textile towns of New Hampshire contributed to her joining the Communist Party.

I would think that a historical marker is about acknowledging a historical figure. Sainthood is not required. Consider, for example, Hannah Dustin’s marker in Boscawen. She is one of the very few women New Hampshire recognizes with a marker. After being the victim of an Indian raid and seeing her own child murdered, Dustin later participated in the killing and scalping of 10 Indians. Like Dustin, many historical figures have complex and ambiguous legacies, including committing murder.

Think about Franklin Pierce. As a former president, he is certainly deemed historically worthy. Pierce hated abolitionists, enforced the Fugitive Slave Act and was a collaborator with slavery before the Civil War. Among historians, he is commonly seen as one of our worst presidents. Yet he gets recognized. No test of moral virtue is attached where Pierce is concerned.

The court’s use of standing with the Flynn marker was an easy off-ramp but it is not right. Under the court’s logic, if the plaintiffs in this case don’t have standing, no one could have standing. The plaintiffs sponsored the marker, did required signature-gathering, and took all legally required steps to have the marker approved and installed. The court’s decision makes it an impossibility to dispute the state’s action of removing the marker.

Standing as a legal doctrine often seems to be in the eye of the beholder. The inconsistency of court findings of standing are notable. It has often been used to slam the courthouse door shut on plaintiffs. In this instance, the decision by Gov. Sununu to take down the Flynn marker two weeks after it was installed was a lawless power grab. He didn’t like the fact that the marker remembered someone who had been a communist.

Sununu went through no legal process to un-install the Flynn marker. He simply declared it on his own. As one of the plaintiffs, Mary Lee Sargent said, “There is no provision in statute or in the rules governing the marker program that says established markers can be removed based on ideological rather than historical grounds.”

The removal of the Flynn marker is an embarrassment to the state. The powers-that-be prefer erasing the historical memory of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and all people like her. Whatever New Hampshire ultimately decides, Flynn’s important place in American labor history remains assured.