The Rebel Girl: A remembrance

March 4, 2008
The Rebel Girl: A remembrance

Reprinted from the People’s Weekly World Newspaper.

As early as age 5, Flynn already had the ‘indelible impression’ of working class life and poverty where they lived in Manchester, N.H., ‘where the great mills stretched like prisons along the bank of the Merrimac River.’

Her family moved to the Bronx, N.Y. at the turn of the century. She loved the city and the school, especially the upper grades where she studied the Constitution and the Bill of Rights which, she said, ‘I have been defending ever since.’

Her family was an active socialist family. She vividly remembered the Sunday night gatherings at the Harlem Socialist Club at 250 W. 125th Street. It was here that Flynn, aged 15, made her first public speech. The topic was ‘Women Under Socialism.’

She frequently went to Union Square with her father, an organizer for the newly-formed Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). She would speak there, attracting the attention of the press. The author Theodore Dreiser, then working as a journalist, wrote of her as ‘an East Side Joan of Arc.’

She joined the IWW in 1906 at 16. Of the IWW Flynn wrote, ‘It blazed a trail like a great comet across the American labor scene from 1905 to 1920.’ She was assigned to IWW Local 179. Her first experience as an IWW speaker took place in Brandywine Park in Schenectady, N.Y. at a meeting protesting the arrest of ‘Wobblies’ Bill Haywood and George Pettibone.

She attended her first IWW Convention as a delegate from Local 177 in Chicago in 1907 while still in high school and met Lucy Parson, widow of Albert Parson, who had been executed 20 years before, a martyr of the struggle for the eight-hour day.

At the convention she also met J. A. Jones, organizer of the Minnesota IWW, who invited her to come on a speaking tour to the Mesabi Iron Range north of Duluth where he was an organizer for the Western Federation of Miners. She went on to Butte, and later to Kalispell, Montana where the IWW was leading a lumber strike.

Gurley’s first real participation in the IWW free speech fight and second arrest occurred in Missoula, Mont. in the fall of 1908. The city council had passed an ordinance making street speech unlawful. The IWW decided to defy this ordinance as unconstitutional, a violation of the First Amendment. Speaker after speaker was arrested, including Flynn. She participated in 26 such battles between 1909 and 1916 and emerged as an eloquent speaker.

1912 brought the Lawrence, Mass. mill strike: 14,000 people went out and the mills remained empty for three months. The strikers spoke in 25 different languages and 45 different dialects. With the arrest of the original leaders, Gurley and Haywood were brought into the strike. They addressed 10 meetings a day.

Police brutality and hunger forced the strike committee to send their children out of town to sympathizers who volunteered to take them for the duration of the strike. Gurley was in charge of the evacuation of the children. On Feb. 22 the police arrested the children at the train station. The local authorities, infuriated by the favorable publicity of the strikers, decided no more children would leave town.

On Feb. 24 Flynn tried to put another 40 children on a train for Philadelphia. The police, with clubs drawn, attacked the group, arresting 15 parents and children, and sent 10 terrified children to the Lawrence Poor Farm. The newspapers headlined the situation and the publicity forced Congress to investigate the conditions in the shops. The strike was won by mid-March with wage increases from 5 to 25 percent, with the largest increases going to the lowest paid workers.

On March 3, 1913, 25,000 silk workers in Paterson, N.J. struck. Over 1,000 strikers were arrested. It became a bloody confrontation between the strikers and the hired thugs, police and judges.

Picketing and outdoor meetings were forbidden. Picketers arrested were automatically sentenced to three months in jail. The nearest meeting place was Haledon, a neighboring suburb whose mayor was a socialist. There Flynn spoke to the mass meetings.

On June 7, the strikers gave a propaganda pageant for the Paterson strike, in Madison Square Garden in New York City, orchestrated by John Reed. It was a theatrical success, but financially a failure because of the expense of the Garden, transportation and publicity. The treasury was zero and the strikers – starved into submission – slowly drifted back into the shops. By Aug. 1 the strike was officially ended. The IWW suffered a setback in Paterson and never completely recovered.

Meanwhile in the west, Joe Hill, a friend of Flynn’s was working with the copper miners in Utah and was framed on charges of killing a Salt Lake grocer. Many felt his arrest was due to his radicalism, especially for his ‘red songbook,’ sold in the millions of copies, with songs like ‘Solidarity Forever,’ ‘Hold The Fort,’ ‘Casey Jones’ and others sung by strikers and workers.

Flynn visited him in jail and the next day he sent her a copy of ‘The Rebel Girl’ which he dedicated to her. Flynn led the movement to save Hill. She met personally with President Woodrow Wilson, who appealed to the governor of Utah. However, the governor rejected the message from Wilson as ‘unwarranted interference.’ Before his execution Hill wrote Haywood, ‘Don’t mourn, organize.’

At the end of World War I the government organized an all- out attack against workers, a reaction to the Russian Revolution and a near uprising of workers in the United States. Nearly a million workers were on strike, including the Seattle General Strike, an industry-wide strike of 365,000 steel workers led by William Z. Foster, 400,000 miners out, 200,000 railroad workers and the Boston Police Strike. During this time the Communist Party was formed.

To halt this upsurge the government launched an all-out attack on labor. The agents of U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer and his assistant, J. Edgar Hoover, invaded homes and meetings, arresting over 10,000 men and women in a single night. Hundreds were deported, thousands imprisoned for opposition to the war.

Two Italian anarchists, Nicola Sacco and Bartolemeo Vanzetti, were arrested and accused of murder. Flynn was one of the first to investigate the case, which became the most famous labor defense fight in history. For the next seven years, Communists helped lead the fightback against the case, which sparked protests worldwide. Despite the outcry, however, the two men were executed.

The International Labor Defense was organized in June of 1925 and Flynn became chairperson in 1926. It existed for over 15 years and was succeeded by the Civil Rights Congress, in which Flynn was also active.

Flynn joined the Communist Party in 1936. In 1937 she made her first speech as a Communist at Madison Square Garden. She wrote a biweekly column for the Daily Worker and served as chair of the women’s commission for 10 years.

In 1942 Flynn ran for Congress at large in New York and received 50,000 votes. Her program was geared especially toward women, millions of whom had been drawn into factories and offices during the war. She believed that African American women were the most discriminated against, super- exploited workers in spite of the Fair Employment Protection Act. The Ford Motor Co. would not even accept applications from African American women until militant demonstrations forced an end to this discrimination.

In July 1948 12 leaders of the CPUSA were arrested under the infamous anti-Communist witchhunt, falsely accused of advocating the overthrow of the U.S. government by force and violence. Flynn launched a mass defense campaign for the release of the 11. In June 1951 at the height of the McCarthy period, Flynn was arrested in the second wave of arrests. Between the time of her sentencing and her actual imprisonment, Flynn ran for Congress from the Bronx on the Communist Party ticket under the slogan of ‘Vote No! to McCarthyism.’ For Peace and Jobs! Amnesty for all.’ She received 4,000 votes. On Jan. 24, 1951, Flynn, Claudia Jones and Betty Gannett were incarcerated in Alderson Women’s Federal Prison in West Virginia.

On her return from prison Flynn ran for city council with the slogan of ‘Clean Jim Crow out of New York’ and for full equality for women. In 1961 Flynn was elected CPUSA national chairperson, a post she held until her death.

In January 1962 the State Department revoked the passports of five well-known Communists, including Flynn who had just returned from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union’s 22nd Congress. She protested that ‘to set up classes of citizens who can’t leave the country due to political beliefs is unconstitutional and a violation of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights adopted in 1948. When the test case reached the court in 1964 the justices agreed with her. They ruled Section 6 of the McCarran Act unconstitutional.

In August 1964, after the McCarran Act was struck down, Flynn went to the USSR representing the CPUSA at an international Party Congress. She hoped to write her autobiography there. Instead she was hospitalized for a stomach disorder and died on Sept. 5.

She was honored with a state funeral in Red Square. Her body lay in state in the Hall of Columns of the Soviet Trade Unions. For eight hours a column of mourners, six abreast, filed past. Wreaths from workers’ organizations and trade unions from the vast Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and Communist parties around the globe adorned the casket.

The New York Times gave this story front page coverage, quoting a May Day speech in which Flynn said ‘I believe in a socialist America. What a May Day that will be to celebrate. Hail to it.’

In accordance with her wishes, Flynn’s remains were flown to the U.S. for burial in Chicago’s Waldheim Cemetery, near the grave of Eugene Dennis, Big Bill Haywood and the Haymarket martyrs.


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