The backstory of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, who had begun to fade from memory before recent controversy
|Published: 07-14-2023 5:08 PM
Children eating stale bread and lard in the streets, mill workers with missing fingers, poor families without electricity or clean water were a few of the things that Elizabeth Gurley Flynn saw when she traveled to mill towns throughout the country.
“She became what she called a ‘mortal enemy of capitalism,” said Arnie Alpert, who led a talk Thursday night to the Concord Historical Society about the life of Gurley Flynn, who was the subject of a state historical marker before it was promptly taken down due her ties to communism.
While Gurley Flynn made headlines recently because of the dispute over the marker bearing her name, the life and story of the “Rebel Girl,” born in Concord is more than fits onto a green placard. Alpert offered a backstory for a woman who had begun to fade from memory.
Inspired by the dangerous and unsafe conditions she saw in the mill towns she visited, Gurley Flynn became an advocate for socialism and civil rights. She joined protests, fought for injustices across the country and dedicated her life to rallying against the oppression of women. By age 16, she was a well-known public speaker for her views on capitalism and socialism and was invited to socialist groups across the country to speak.
Born to Thomas Flynn and Annie Gurley of Concord in 1890, the Irish immigrant parents prided themselves on their education and socialist beliefs. Gurley Flynn’s father often brought her along to socialist meetings.
“That’s where her road to socialism began,” Alpert said. “Rights of workers in the workplace meant everything to them.”
But it wasn’t until 1912 that Gurley Flynn made her mark as a labor activist during the Bread and Roses strike in Lawrence, Mass. Wages for laborers, mostly women and immigrants, were cut, and the strike began to spread across the city from mill to mill.
It was then that Gurley Flynn, who was part of the Industrial Workers of the World, a labor union in the 1900s representing nearly 9,000 workers across the country, was brought in to help organize and protest on behalf of the workers.
“This attracted publicity to the strike and the struggles of the families who weren’t able to feed their children,” Alpert said. “It eventually put enough pressure on the strikes that worker’s wages were raised.”
During her time as a labor activist, Gurley Flynn had a knack for telling the stories of individuals who were being treated unfairly. She used their stories to add pressure to bring about change for mill workers.
Flynn eventually left the Industrial Workers of the World and became more of an organizer than the agitator she was earlier in life, Alpert said. She wrote protest letters, she circulated the stories of prisoners, she fought the deportation of immigrants, she arranged for food and clothing to be dropped off with families that were suffering and sent money to prisoners.
Between 1917 and 1926, Gurley Flynn suffered a devastating illness and moved in with Dr. Marie Equi, a radical at the time that performed illegal abortions and promoted contraception. Over the next ten years, the pair took care of each other through their hardships.
When Gurley Flynn returned to her work as a labor activist, the environment had changed so much, she co-founded the American Civil Liberties Union alongside nine others.
By 1936, as her socialist views deepened, she joined the Communist Party of the United States, which to her was a group of like-minded working-class people who advocated for civil rights and laborers while fighting against Fascism. Because of her Communist affiliations, she was kicked out of the ACLU, which the group later regretted.
Several years later in 1948, alongside 11 other Communist Party members, she was indicted under the Smith Act, which made it illegal to advocate for the overthrow of the government with force or violence.
Gurley Flynn was found guilty and sentenced to 28 months in prison. During her incarceration, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on an Alabama bus in 1955, giving rise to the American Civil Rights Movement. In 1956, the Soviet Union invaded Hungary to forcibly suppress protectors, which led to mass defections from the Communist Party of the United States.
When Gurley Flynn was released from prison in May of 1957, the American Communist party was a shell of its former self, Alpert said. She rejoined as chair for several years before she went to Moscow in 1964 to work on her second memoir.
She fell ill while traveling and declined quickly while on her trip. Flynn's body lay in state in the Hall of Columns in Moscow’s Red Square, the same place where Joseph Stalin’s body was displayed after his death, according to published reports in the New York Times.
“Izvestia, the Government newspaper, devoted half its front page to Miss Flynn's obituary, a photograph and a message of condolences from the Soviet Central Committee to the United States party,” the newspaper reported in a front-page article about her death, 58 years after she made front page news for being arrested during a protest in 1906 when she was 16.
Her remains were sent back to the United States and she was buried in Chicago.
Alpert began working with his counterpart, Mary Lee Sargent, in 2020 to petition the Department of Natural Resources to install the historical marker in memory of Gurley Flynn, which was placed in Concord at the corner of Montgomery and Court streets in May.
Because of her Communist affiliation, Governor Chris Sununu and two members of the Executive Council called for the marker’s removal within two weeks of its unveiling. Since its removal, Alpert, alongside Sargent, have petitioned the department and written letters to state officials to reinstall the marker with little effect.
The marker for Gurley Flynn is one of four that have been “retired,” by the state. Other markers that have been removed for one reason or another include those commemorating Andrew Jackson’s visit to Bow, the charting of Nottingham in 1722 and one for the Baker River.