Flynn, Elizabeth Gurley (1890-1964)

  • By Benj. H. Kizer
  • Posted 5/07/2005
  • Essay 7309
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Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was a Socialist activist in the Spokane Free Speech fight that began in October 1909. The free speech movement was an action by members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or Wobblies) to challenge a Spokane City ordinance prohibiting street meetings. For a few weeks, the IWW, including Flynn, gathered en masse every day in the streets to make speeches, expecting to get arrested and fill the jails. Benjamin H. Kizer prepared this essay on Flynn's role from a longer article he wrote for the July 1966 issue of The Pacific Northwest Quarterly. The shorter version was published in the Fall 1966 issue of The Pacific Northwesterner (Spokane). It is reprinted by kind permission.

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn

On September 5, 1964, there passed from this life, at the age of 74 one of the most colorful and ardent spirits that ever challenged the existing order. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn had been on the firing line for more than half a century, battling with the "bosses" for the rights, as she understood them, of the unskilled members of the working class. She began that long battle as a Socialist and ended it as the president of the Communist party of the United States. She was not a lone wolf but a lone tiger, stalking her prey and leaping on him with bared fangs wherever she could find him.

In 1909, at the age of 19, Flynn came to Spokane from Butte, Montana (to which her family had removed), to engage in a "free speech" fight in behalf of the Industrial Workers of the World, better known as the IWW or "Wobbies." It was here that she found her vocation. On her arrival in Spokane, she was interviewed by a reporter who had heard her speak and realized that hers was a newsworthy personality. She announced: "I will devote my life to the wage earner. My sole aim in life is to do all in my power to right the wrongs and lighten the burdens of the laboring class."

Flynn scorned the churches because she believed them to be dominated by the capitalist class, and when the reporter inquired if it was true that she was a Socialist, she replied with candor and fearlessness, "Yes, I am a Socialist. And let me tell you, socialism is no dream."

The story of the IWW in the Pacific Northwest that had led Elizabeth Gurley Flynn into battle in its behalf was both sordid and tragic. The supply of unskilled labor was plentiful; if the men did not like their jobs, they could quit, and good riddance. Gradually a spirit of rebellion arose among the men ... and when the IWW came along they joined it in great crowds. The newspapers were closed to them, and in those days before radio there seemed no way for them to be heard. So they began speaking on the streets in Spokane. But the speakers were stopped at once by the police. The IWW members decided to speak anyway and were promptly arrested and sent to jail.

That was the situation when the appeal of the IWW brought Elizabeth Flynn to Spokane in the winter of 1909. Because of her the battle at once made headlines in newspapers far and wide. As the papers described her, she was a frail, slender girl, pretty and graceful, with a resonant voice and a fiery eloquence that attracted huge crowds. In turn, she lighted fire in the IWW workers [who] began to speak in the central part of the city. They were arrested in such numbers that the jail was soon overflowing.

Finally, Flynn herself was arrested. A police judge promptly sent her to jail for a few days. When released, she protested so vigorously against the filthy condition of the jail that the peace officers were sorry they had arrested her.

The arrests and the jailings did nothing to stop the agitation. Finally. half a dozen of the men and Flynn were duly indicted for conspiracy. Both sides girded their loins for a knock-down and drag-out fight to the finish. Then, just before the trial, the prosecutor dismissed all the men save one, and the case was tried against Elizabeth and a young Italian named [Charley] Filigno. The trial took nearly two weeks, and it made headlines every day.

As it progressed, Flynn became increasingly impatient and, when the evidence was in she told her lawyer he could make the first speech, but she would make the closing argument for the defense. She made no plea for herself, but all for Filigno. He had suffered. He was one of these deprived men, and she described the hard living conditions in most stirring terms, Never had she spoken to better advantage, and the jury was visibly impressed.

But the able prosecutor was not to be outwitted. He keyed his argument in sharply contrasting terms. He was calm, reasonable, politic. He reminded the jury that they had promised him, when he had examined them on voir dire, that they would follow the law and the evidence, would put sympathy aside, and would not be swayed by outside consideration. Then he pleaded with them to rise above this emotional, highly exaggerated story, for which there was not a shred of evidence before the jury, and do their duty as God-fearing, American citizens, proud of their country and its noble system of fair and impartial justice. He was followed by the judge who, in his hour-long charge to the jury, spoke in calm, judicial terms and warned them to be moved only by the evidence and the law as he gave it to them.

As one looked at that jury -- middle-aged, comfortable, middle-class citizens -- one wondered: "Will her appeal to their emotions win out, or will they follow the judge's instructions?" Certainly, on the law and the evidence, there was no doubt that both defendants were guilty. Indeed, they gloried in the fact that they had disobeyed the city ordinance.

After a suitable time the jury came in with its verdict: "Filigno, guilty. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, not guilty." Both the prosecutor and Elizabeth were furious, but for opposite reasons. As the jury was discharged, the prosecutor followed them into the outer hall, and rounded on the foreman with: "What do you fellows mean by acquitting the most guilty, and convicting the man, far less guilty?" The foreman retorted: "She ain't a criminal, Fred, an' you know it! If you think this jury, or any jury, is goin' to send that pretty Irish girl to jail merely for being big-hearted and idealistic, to mix with all those crooks down at the pen, you've got another guess comin.'"

Flynn was then asked by the IWW to lead another fight for them down in California, and shortly afterward she left Spokane, taking her private war in behalf of workers to a new field. In the Pacific Northwest, some of the employers were moved by this agitation to look into working conditions and to make some improvements. In another month winter was gone and the men, out of money, scattered to the logging camps, fishing ports, and farms. Spokane was once more untroubled by their grievances.

And so Elizabeth Gurley Flynn lived her life, moving from one labor dispute to another, always where the fight was hottest, the odds against the workers the greatest. Like a doctor who sees nothing but sickness, the detective who hunts for nothing but rogues, Elizabeth Flynn saw nothing but these inequalities, these injustices. Thus, as the years passed, she became more and more radical.

In 1937 she joined the Communist party and she continued her personal warfare with employers wherever they seemed to her to be the most oppressive, where lapse from decent working conditions and fair wages seemed greatest.

Many changes have taken place over the past 50 years in wages and working conditions. Much of the credit goes to the well-organized unions of workers and their, leaders. But we should not forget what was done for the unskilled, the man farthest down, by Elizabeth Flynn. These unceasing battles of a lifetime will be remembered long after her affiliation with the Communist party has been forgotten.

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