Elizabeth Gurley Flynn 1890 -1964
By Richard E. Noble
Elizabeth Gurley Flynn is one of those little girls who grew up to be a Jane Addams, or a Harriet Beecher Stowe, or an Emma Goldman, or a Susan B. Anthony, or a Mother Jones, or a Florence Nightingale, or a Margaret B. Sanger or a Rosa Parks, or a Sojourner Truth or - I suppose one could even say - a Joan of Ark.
All these little girls are either good or evil depending on your point of view.
Elizabeth Gurley Flynn is not so well known as some of these others because she was an American Communist. American Communists do not get a lot of space in American history books, whether they are male or female. She was, first a Socialist, and then a Communist.
Ms. Flynn was an American, born and bread, Communist and proud of it. In “The Rebel Girl”, an autobiography, she puts it this way; “Many have written as ex-Communists. This second book will be the story of an active American Communist and one who is proud of it. No matter what are the consequences, ‘I will never move from where I stand.’ ... I feel it is important for me to set down here my personal recollections of this earlier part of the century, a period full of heroic struggles on the part of the working class, especially the foreign born. As the reader will see, the years 1906 to 1926 were full of ‘force and violence’ used by the ruling class in America against the workers, who gave their lives, shed their blood, were beaten, jailed, blacklisted and framed, as they fought for the right to organize, to strike and to picket. Struggles for a few cents more an hour, for a few minutes less a day - were long and bitterly fought. Nothing was handed on a silver platter to the American working class by employers. All of their hard-won gains came through their own efforts and solidarity.
“It was my privilege to be identified with many of these earlier labor struggles and the heroic men and women, particularly of the “Left” who made labor history in those days. I feel I have a responsibility to share my memories of them with younger generations and to make this record of their noble words and deeds. They were flesh and blood of the American working class. I hope that this book will help to encourage and inspire others to follow in their footsteps, not only along the path they made wider, smoother and clearer for us today, but to travel far beyond, towards the horizons they glimpsed - peace on earth, and an America free from poverty, exploitation, greed and injustice .
Except for a couple of words and phrases - i.e. working class, exploitation - Elizabeth sounds pretty American to me.
I picked up a copy of this book in the United States of America - at a National Historic Park in Lowell, Massachusetts.
Lowell National Historic Park is a preserved textile mill. You can walk around the streets of Lowell and go from huge mill building to mill building and see actual operating machines from America’s Industrial Revolution. It was quite an adventure.
I watched a movie while there about the New England Industrial Revolution and the establishment of the textile industry here in America, and specifically in Lowell, Lawrence (my home town), and Haverhill, back in the mid-eighteen hundreds. The story that was related was not very flattering to this country’s economic history or its industrial entrepreneurs. I have the strong feeling that if J. Edgar Hoover were alive and functioning at the FBI today he would be investigating the curators of this National Historic Park for their un-American propagation of anti-American propaganda. Some of the Capitalists who were pointed out in this film were actually portrayed as not very nice people.
Then I go to the little bookstore in the complex and pick out a book written by a “proud” American Communists who was alive and kicking until the year 1964. I mean she was a well read woman who was alive and knew all about the Russian Revolution, Lenin, Stalin, World War I, World War II and Korea - and even the beginnings of Vietnam - and she was still proud to be a Communist? Makes one curious doesn’t it? What did she know that I don’t know; or I know that she didn’t know?
There were many other books of a subversive nature on sale at that little bookstore also. I’m sure A. Mitchell Palmer, J. Edgar Hoover, Joe McCarthy and even Woodrow Wilson would not approve if they were alive and kicking today.
History speaks volumes, but it doesn’t speak on its own. It doesn’t explain the past - history provides the statistics, the figures, the numbers, the events and even the details - but we must be the interpreters. But before we can interpret it; we must read it; in some cases we must find it.
It wasn’t long ago that the only woman of any consequence in American history books was poor Barbara Fritchie; the only black man of consequence was William Carver (the peanut guy); the Indians were savages who met their enlightenment or were saved from their ignorance and savagery by the wondrous and magnanimous European; and now we have somehow returned to the notion once held by the Romans and Alexander the Murderer that peace on earth and good will toward man is established by the sword.
Today, I am being taught that Jesus Christ was actually a practitioner in this philosophy and will return one day to conquer the world with his sword - kill all the bad guys and make angels out of all the good guys.
But Helen Gurley Flynn was a Communist - and proud of it. She was tried under the Smith Act in 1952. The trial took place in Foley Square in New York. She was found guilty and sent to Alderson Reformatory in West Virginia in 1955 and was released in 1957. She wrote a book about her stay in prison, The Alderson Story: My Life as a Political Prisoner. Strange - one does not think of America as having Political Prisoners.
Her picture is on the cover of this book. She looks pretty, petite and tiny. She has the face of many a little Irish girl who sat on one side or another of me in the classrooms of my youth. She has the face of a nun. She was born in 1890 in Concord, New Hampshire. I first discovered her name while researching a famous labor strike that took place in 1912 in my hometown, The Bread and Roses Strike.
She was at first a Socialist and then an IWW agitator. She knew and was one of the big labor “troublemakers” of her time. She was an associate of Mother Jones, Big Bill Haywood, Vincent St. John, and Eugene V. Debs, among many others. She was one of Teddy Roosevelt’s, Undesirable Citizens. She gave speeches around the nation to burley truck drives, mine workers, mill workers, and railroad men. She was exciting crowds in Lawrence, Paterson, Pittsburgh, and the Mesabi Range. She was fighting for free speech in Montana and the Constitution in Spokane. She was in and out of prison while at the same time, being a girl, falling in love and having a baby.
When I read about girls like this Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, I wonder where they have all gone. For that matter, I wonder where all of the champions of the Common Man have gone - male and female.
Today is full of a brave new world of defenders of the fat and sassy, the well off, the elite and obnoxious, the rich and the I-want-to-be-richer. The psychiatric counseling in today’s world is for those who suffer “irrational” guilt from their overindulgence in one thing or another. “Tell me,” asks the Psychiatric therapist, why do you feel sorry for the poor, do you somehow feel that you are the cause of poverty?” As far as I can see, this country seems to be packed to the brim with the same old social abuses - poverty, slums, addictions of one type or another, child abuse, people abuse in general, lack of health care, violence and crime, dysfunctional families, and social disorganization of one type or another; yet nobody seems to be all that concerned. Even our literature is primarily escapist fantasy or works lacking in any consequence or socially redeeming value. Is it that the human race is simply tired of trying to make the world a better place?
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