Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Original One and Only Rebel Girl—Part 3

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn in 1951

Note:  We will finally wrap up the Elizabeth Gurley Flynn saga today, I promise.  If you are just getting on board find Part 1 here and Part 2 here .

When Elizabeth Gurley Flynn arrived back in New York City after a ten year stay in Portland with Dr. Marie Equi, she found that her new affiliation with the Communist Party had ramifications for her long and dedicated association with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).  She had been one of the founding members and continued to sit on the Board in addition to frequently speaking on behalf of the organization.

The ACLU and the Communists had a complex—and often conflicted—relationship going back to its founding during the post-World War I Red Scare.  Communists, accused Communists, and their allies had frequently been represented by the ACLU.  A majority of the Board was strongly pro-labor and several had radical credentials and tended to look on the Party sympathetically.  But when the ACLU took on Ku Klux Klan members and later pro-Nazis in freedom of speech cases, the Communists castigated them.  Still, by and large the ACLU and the CP were supportive of each other and found mutual benefits in collaboration on labor and civil rights cases like the Scottsboro Boys.  Board Chair Harry Ward, a British-born Methodist minister, and others on the board were close collaborators with the Party and would later be accused of being either Fellow Travelers or secret Party members.  So at first, in 1937, when Flynn announced her new affiliation it did not cause much of a stir.

But that was about to change. 

After some internal struggle on the Board, the ACLU had decided to join the Popular Front, the American version of a major shift in tactics by Communists worldwide adopted by the Seventh Comintern (Communist International) in response to the rise of Fascism.  The idea was to unite across rigidly ideological barriers with other Left and progressive forces in society to oppose the spread of fascism, support trade unionism, advance civil rights for Blacks and other minorities, promote women’s causes, and cooperate with the liberal reformers in the Democratic Party.  That meant a sudden abandonment of the ultra-leftism and highly sectarian stance that had been the hallmark of the CP since the Red Scare era.  It was the move to a Popular Front stance, in fact, that had overcome Flynn’s earlier resistance to joining the Party.

Under CP Chairman and General Secretary Earl Browder, the Party was already generally cooperative with the New Deal while continuing to field electoral candidates in some districts.  The Popular Front included a number of organizations founded by Communist but which attracted and were open to people sympathetic to the narrow goals of each.  That included the American League Against War and Fascism which was chaired by ACLU chair Harry Ward.  These organizations would soon come to be labeled Communist Fronts.  But long time independent organizations like the ACLU, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and several unions were invited to join or became closely allied.  Browder even tried to bring in the Socialist Party, a longtime bitter rival, by offering to run as vice-president on a unity ticket with Norman Thomas.  Thomas, deeply suspicious of the CP, would have none of it.

Thomas led opposition to the ACLU joining the Front on the Board, strongly supported by Southern born lawyer Morris Ernst.  Ward and Flynn as well as other labor leftists on the Board had supported it.  The balance of support to join was provided by pragmatists who felt that the Popular Front which would have affiliates spread across the country would help broaden the ACLU’s outreach and effectiveness from a New York-centric organization.

Strains began to develop in 1938 when Browder and the CP publicly endorsed Stalin’s brutal show trials in Moscow which led to the execution of thousands, including most of the Old Bolsheviks and anyone thought to have lingering loyalty to exiled Leon Trotsky.  Flynn, a good institutionalist, obediently followed the Party and supported it in her Daily World column.  To many others it was, you should pardon the expression, a red flag warning, that the Soviets and by extension their loyal American Party were nothing but totalitarians in the same league as the Nazis and Fascists.

Early in the Popular Front, nothing had united it like opposition to Franco and support of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War.  Not just Communists, but many idealistic young men rushed to join the famed Abraham Lincoln Brigade.  Flynn was one of many noted Americans who raised money for Spanish relief and in support of the cause.  Then in 1937 Communist led forces suddenly turned against their former allies, the anarcho-syndicalist CNT/FAI in Catalonia and the socialist militia POUM, diverting troops from the Front against the Nationalists to militarily crush their rivals followed by mass executions of militants.  Word began circulating back that “unreliable” members of the International Brigades were being purged and many were executed or disappeared.  The fall out of the civil war within the civil war discouraged Western support for the now Communist dominated Republic, sapped military capacity, and ultimately led to a Fascist victory.

In 1938 concern for the rise of the influence of totalitarian states in the U.S.  led to the creation in House Un-American Activity Committee under the chairmanship of Texas Democrat Martin Dies.  It was heavily salted with Southern Bourbon Democrats and Republican Isolationists.  Although charged with investigating both Fascist and Communist organizations, the committee largely ignored the German-American Boon and the huge America First Movement with its many fascist sympathizers like Charles Lindbergh.  Instead, it focused on the Left.  In its 1938 report HUAAC mentioned ACLU leaders and activities several times.  Although it said that it could not “definitely state whether or not” the ACLU was a Communist organization, the implication was clear.  The organization, already unpopular in conservative circles, came under intense editorial attack in Republican and isolationist newspapers like the powerful Chicago Tribune and national publications like Time Magazine.  Nervous liberals and New Dealers began to distance themselves from the organization.

Socialist Party leader Norman Thomas was Flynn's unrelenting foe on the ACLU Board.
On the Board Norman Thomas led the charge to disaffiliate from the Popular Front.  Thomas, a moderate social democrat, had assumed leadership of the Socialist Party following the death of Eugene V. Debs, a much more radical figure.  Much of the old left wing of the SP represented by the International Socialist Review crowd which had included Big Bill Haywood and Flynn, had split from the party after 1919.  Many had defected to the Communists.  Thomas was reflexively anti-Communist as a result of years of ideological confrontations. 
He and Ernst found new allies on the Board, most notably another member since the founding, the Rev. John Haynes Holmes, a radical Unitarian minister and pacifist who’s influential Community Church of New York had been read out of the National Conference of Unitarian Churches for opposition to World War I by its leader, William Howard Taft.  As a pacifist, Holmes was aghast by the brutality of the Spanish Civil War and tended to blame both side equally.  He lumped Communists with all other totalitarians and helped Thomas draft an anti-totalitarian pledge requiring the ACLU to withdraw from any organizations deemed loyal to anti-democratic states and for Board members to personally reject membership.
Chairman Ward and Flynn led opposition to the proposal and retained a narrow majority on the board.  Until the stunning news of the Hitler-Stalin Non-Aggression Pact of August 1939, the outbreak of World War II in Europe, and partition of Poland.  The American Communist Party pivoted on a dime with the news, turning from vigorous anti-fascism to the adoption of a pacifist anti-war position that in many ways mirrored the right-wing isolationist movement.  Flynn, a loyal Party member, followed the lead of Browder. 
The evident hypocrisy of the CP led wavering ACLU Board members to the side of Thomas, Ernst, and Holmes.  In February 1940 the Board voted to prohibit anyone who supported totalitarianism from ACLU leadership roles. Chairman Harry Ward immediately resigned in protest.  Flynn refused to do so.  After a bitter contentious six-hour debate in which even some of the supporters of the resolution came to her personal defense, Flynn was expelled from the Board. 
The move was personally devastating to Flynn who had dedicated so much of her life to the ACLU.  It matched the sense of betrayal she felt when her close friend and mentor Big Bill Haywood had turned on her after the 1916 Iron Range case.
Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was—a revered living legend to much of the labor movement and to many feminists.  Many ACLU rank-and-file dues paying members considered the expulsion a contradiction to the organizations most basic principles of standing up for free expression and the right of free association.  But the ACLU was not then and is not now a democratic organization dues paying members are viewed simply as financial supporters and have no voice in the management of the affairs of the organization which are highly centralized in the Executive Director and Board.  Members could only effectively protest by resigning their membership, which they did in droves, leading to a financial crisis.  Worse, the ACLU reputation was haunted by the episode for years.  It could not even recover when it continued to defend Communists like Harry Bridges. 
But the ACLU had to wait for the death or retirement of stubborn older board members to rescind the 1940 resolution in 1968 and to posthumously restore Flynn’s membership after a campaign by feminists in 1970.
Another blow in 1940 was the sudden death by cancer of Flynn’s 29 year old son, Fred Flynn.  Fred had largely been raised by Flynn’s mother and her school teacher sister Kathie while she was busy touring and speaking.  When she moved to Portland for an extended period of being settled down, he had elected to stay in New York and finish school.  Their relationship seemed closer and on the mend after she had returned to the city.
About the same time as the ACLU brouhaha Congress passed the Alien Registration Act of 1940, better known as the Smith Act.  It was specifically tailored to target Australian born West Coast Longshoremen’s leader, Harry Bridges to whom Flynn had close ties since the 1934 West Coast Maritime Strike.  Although the ACLU eventually came to Bridges’ defense, Flynn found herself once again organizing helping lead an independent Defense Committee.    Once again she was busy with a round of meetings and rallies, was well as a heavy workload of writing.  After years of hearings, judgments, reversals, and appeals, the Supreme Court in 1946 finally overturned a deportation order for Bridges ruling that the Government had failed to prove he was “affiliated” with the CP which would have required more than “sympathy” or “mere cooperation.”
At the same time Flynn’s close comrade, CP Chair Browder, was charged with passport fraud and she had to launch and help manage a second major defense committee.
After the sudden German invasion of the Soviet Union in June of 1941, the Communist Party line once again reversed itself, returning to staunch anti-Fascism and urging an early American entry into the war.  After the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the American entry, the Party and Flynn threw themselves into the war effort.
The war years were busy for Flynn, who unflaggingly supported the war effort.  She also paid particular interest to women’s issues, campaigning for equal opportunity and pay for women entering the domestic workforce.  The CP published a booklet, Women Have a Date with Destiny, which had wide circulation in which she urged women to volunteer for the military and take war production jobs. She advocated supported the establishment of day care centers for working mothers. 
In addition to her regular Daily Worker column, the Party kept her busy with a string of publications.  These included defenses of Browder, works on coal miners and the war which were critical of John L. Lewis’s United Mine Workers strikes in defiance of wartime strike bans, a profile of Mother Bloor, a leader of the rival Progressive Miners, and other women’s issues.
In 1942 Flynn ran in an at-large New York Congressional race as a Communist supporting the Administration and polled nearly 50,000 votes.  In 1944 she actively campaigned for Franklin D. Roosevelt.
At the end of the way Flynn, like many American Communists, felt that they had earned a legitimate place at the table of American democracy.  She and they were in for a big shock.
The last shots of the war were hardly over when the wartime alliance with the Soviet Union became strained to the breaking point.  The Cold War was on and with it what must have seemed like a nightmarish replay of the 1919 Red Scare.  Anti-communist rhetoric flooded Congress and the press, particularly as Republicans tried to tie the Democrats, Roosevelt, and his successor Harry Truman to being soft on Communism.  HUAAC was back at it and in short order Flynn and other Communist leaders would become targets.
Flynn, one of the party’s most popular figures, quickly leapt to the defense.  In 1946 she tried to explain Party aims and counter charges of disloyalty in the widely circulated pamphlet Meet the Communists which aimed at putting a human face on Party leaders and members.  It only incensed the anti-Communist crusaders more.
Foley Square Smith Act Trial defendants--Front, Robert G. Thompson, Henry Winston, Eugene Dennis, Gus Hall, and John Williamson.  Back Jack Stachel, Irving Poatash, Henry Winter, Benjamin Davis Jr., John Gates and Gil Green.  Not shown, William Z. Foster.

In 1948 12 leaders of the Communist Party including Party General Secretary Eugene Dennis, National Secretary William Z. Foster, New York City Councilman and prominent Black leader Benjamin Davis, John Gate leader of the Young Communist League, National Board members Gil Green and Gus Hall, and Daily Worker Editor Jack Stachel were indicted for violating a provision of the Smith Act that outlawed mere membership in “an organization that advocated the violent overthrow of the government.”  Foster, the biggest fish in the net, did not go to trial with the others because he was ill with severe heart problems and probably would not have survived a trial. 
J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI was bitterly disappointed that all 50 top Communist leaders and Board members were not indicted.  He had hoped to match the trial of 101 IWW leaders after the Palmer Raids which he felt had permanently smashed the union.   Flynn had escaped indictment and flew into action organizing and advocating for the defense.  She authored an apologia for Foster, Labor’s Own William Z. Foster; a Communist’s Fifty Years of Working-class Leadership and Struggle.  This time she found the task more daunting than ever as paralyzing fear descended on the country.  She had a hard time renting halls for public meetings.  Even unions that had largely been built by Communist organizers were afraid to use their halls and many were purging Reds from their leadership.
The trial itself before Judge Harold Medina
at Manhattan’s Foley Square Court House was a virtual kangaroo court with the judge openly hostile to the defendants and their lawyers.  Jury selection dragged on for four months.  As hundreds of pickets often paraded outside and a letter writing campaign organized by Flynn flooded mail boxes of President Truman, the Justice Department, and the Judge, the trial dragged on.  By the time it was over in October it was the longest Federal trial then in American history.  All 11 remaining defendants were convicted, 10 receiving sentences of five years in prison and fines of $10,000. 
Robert G. Thompson, a decorated World War II combat veteran drew only three years in consideration of his service.  Not content with that, Judge Medina cited five defense lawyers for contempt of Court.
Combined with the sentences handed down in the Hollywood Ten case and other prosecutions, fear gripped the American left, and not just Communists, but anyone who had come into contact with them during the Popular Front era.  That meant literally millions of Americans.  The press was united in approving the sentences and howling for more.  Many Communists went underground, and indeed the Party itself began to respond with a strategy of secret cells that when exposed by Federal Agents only increase national paranoia.
A major public figure like Flynn could not and would not go underground.  She once again ramped up for what looked to be a hopeless appeals process.  It was.  The Supreme Court upheld all of the convictions, including the contempt of court proceedings against the lawyers.  As the appeals dragged on Flynn wrote The Twelve and You: What Happens to Democracy is Your Business, Too, The Plot to Gag America, and Debs and Dennis: Fighters for Peace which drew the obvious parallels between the prison sentences of the old Socialist leader and the current titular head of the Communist Party.  A few others like singer, actor, activist Paul Robeson risked publicly sticking their necks out on behalf of them and they paid dearly for the audacity.
Second round Smith Act defendants in 1951--Claudia Jones, Flynn, Pettis Perry, and Betty Gannet
Inevitably Flynn’s turn was coming.  She was arrested in June of 1950 in the first wave of second round of Smith Act indictments.  She was brought to trial along with 20 other defendants including her close Trinidad born Black nationalist Claudia Jones.  Most were unable to make bail when the Civil Rights Congress (CRC) which had raised funds for that purpose was forbidden to stand the bail and writer  Dashiell Hammett was sent to prison for six months for refusing to reveal name of donors. 
Likewise getting competent counsel was difficult given the prison sentences of precious attorneys and the disbarment of two of them.  The left wing National Lawyers Guild offered assistance but were threatened with being officially listed as a subversive organization by the Attorney General and lost half of their membership.  The ACLU did not volunteer assistance, nor were they asked to, perhaps in deference to Flynn’s bitter experience with them.  In the end many of the lawyers were young and inexperienced.  Some bordered on incompetence.  Surveying the options Flynn and one other defendant, Black Communist Pettis Perry elected to represent themselves at the trial, an unusual and risky move.
It was another long grueling trial.  At the end Flynn rose to make a closing statement.  It was an epic speech detailing her life story and long involvement with the labor movement going back to her early days with the Socialist Party and IWW trough the previous Red Scare years, here involvement with the ACLU and women’s issues, and her connections with the Communist Party. She was unapologetic for her activity but strove to show that neither she nor the party was un-American or sought to overthrow the government by force and violence.  She recounted a history of the Party and tried to explain its aims and purposes.  Flynn had lost none of her legendary powers as a speaker and often seemed to move the handpicked and hostile jury.  Reporters were transfixed.  The address would later be included in a collection of the 100 Greatest American Political Speeches.
But it was to no avail.  Flynn and all of the defendants were convicted after a nine month trial.  Flynn was reportedly offered the option of voluntary deportation to the Soviet Union, which she rejected out of hand because she was an American by birth and because she thought that accepting the deal would confirm the belief that American Communists were solely tools of the Soviets and not, as she maintained, an indigenous American movement with connections of solidarity around the world. She received an unusually harsh sentence given her age and health.
Flynn was no longer that slender adolescent girl that had first electrified street corner rallies more than 45 years earlier.  She was now matronly and heavyset, beset by long standing health issues.  After inevitably losing her appeals, Flynn began serving her sentence at Alderson Federal Prison Camp West Virginia in 1955.  She spent two years there and celebrated her 65th and 66th birthdays there.  Most of the other inmates were drug offenders—it was where jazz singer Billie Holiday had served her time—or middle class embezzlers.  The best known inmate when she was there was the Nazi propaganda broadcaster known as Axis Sally.  Presumably they did not fraternize.  The prison was segregated so that contact with fellow defendant and inmate Claudia Jones was somewhat limited.   
Flynn, like all inmates, was expected to work doing chores around the dormitories, grounds, laundry, and kitchen.  In her free time she wrote.  While there she completed a draft of her autobiography and kept a journal which became the basis for a prison memoir, The Alderson Story: My Life as a Political Prisoner which was published in 1963.  I Speak My Own Piece: Autobiography of “The Rebel Girl” came out shortly after her release, a revised, corrected version came out under the new title The Rebel Girl: An Autobiography, My First Life (1906-1926) came out in 1973.  She died before a planned second volume encompassing her years as a Communist was ready.  The 1973 book is still in print and became a staple of college women’s studies classes.
By the time Flynn was released America had already begun to move on from the latest Red Scare and repression.  Senator Joe McCarthy had risen and spectacularly fallen.  People were beginning to look back on the post-war years with regret for what began to look more and more like a horrible overreaction and miscarriage of justice.  Leftists and liberals were beginning to speak up again and finding their heads still in place.  The Civil Rights movement was energizing a new generation.  It was a slow process, but it was discernibly underway.
Flynn began touring again in support of her books and in defense of other Communists who were charged and convicted in yet more trials.  Although the mood of the country was changing, she discovered that the reputation of the Communist Party had not recovered and in some ways was worse than ever.
Always rejected by the Right, the CP was now isolated on the Left.  The excesses of Stalinism and the ugly purges of the early ‘50’s in the Soviet Union had disgusted even long time members.  The violent suppression of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 had shocked other.  Members were resigning the party in droves including well known loyalists like Pete Seeger.  The American Party’s rigid discipline and reflexive support of every twist and turn of policy dictated by the Comintern alienated many.
But Flynn remained resolutely loyal.  Perhaps after suffering so much on its behalf she could not turn her back on it.  As a result Flynn’s reputation suffered.  Many of her old Wobbly friends were bitterly disappointed that she did not break from the CP as evidence mounted against it.  Their scorn was reflected in how Flynn was portrayed in the IWW press and in memoirs of other survivors.  They could not, like the Communists had the old Bolsheviks, write here out of the union’s history.  But her contributions were often downplayed and after her firing as an organizer by Haywood in 1916 she was treated as a veritable non-person.  The disdain continues to this day when the IWW is more closely connected to the anarchist and anarcho-syndicalist movements than ever.
By the early 1960’s a whole new generation of non-Communist Left was arising out of the civil rights, anti-war, and student movements which was largely alienated from the old labor roots of the CP. 
Never the less, Flynn was probably the most popular figure the CP could put forward to burnish its tattered image.  She was named to the high profile but largely ceremonial post of National Chairwoman of the Communist Party, succeeding Eugene Dennis.  Party Secretary Gus Hall was the active and unquestioned Party leader. 
The year before the Supreme Court had ruled that she could not be denied a passport.  For the first time in her life, Flynn was able to travel abroad.  She made several trips to Europe and attended various international Communist gatherings where she was treated as a great heroine.  She made several visits to the Soviet Union and died in Moscow of a heart attack on September 5, 1964 at age 74.
The Soviets gave her a full state funeral and interred her ashes in the Kremlin wall next to Big Bill Haywood.  Eventually at her request her ashes were returned to the U.S. and buried near the Haymarket Martyrs Memorial at Waldheim Cemetery near Chicago with a who’s who of labor, socialist, anarchist, Wobbly, and Communist activists.

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