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LIBERTY’S AMBIVALENT LEGACY

The following essay is adopted from Lara Vapnek’s new book, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn: Modern American Revolutionary (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2015).

Taking the Staten Island Ferry toward Manhattan one frigid evening in January 1949, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn looked out at the Statue of Liberty, and jotted down an impromptu poem.

Circa 1950, Library of Congress

The lady with a lamp looked “cold and lonely on her tiny isle.”  Her torch unlit, her book “unread.” In the dark, the statue seemed outshone by “the Jersey flare” and the signs advertising Colgate and Standard Oil.  As the boat approached South Ferry, Manhattan’s “temples of finance” seemed to “blot out the sky.” Like a ghost, liberty faded “into the mist, silent, alone.”1 To Flynn, American ideals of liberty seemed in danger of being eclipsed by the power of capitalism, but the power of the government to silence dissent was equally, if not more threatening.

Flynn’s musings on this iconic New York City landmark reflected her tenuous status as a leader of the American Communist Party during the Cold War. At age fifty-eight, Flynn had spent decades “trying to persuade the majority of the American people that Socialism would be a happier, more secure and peaceful, more just and equitable system of society than capitalism is or can be.”2 But her controversial message now seemed dangerous.

New York Public Library

In her younger days, as an organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World, Flynn herself had been cast as an embodiment of liberty. Watching Flynn lead of a meeting of textile workers in the famous “Bread and Roses” strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1912, journalist Mary Heaton Vorse described Flynn as “the picture of a youthful revolutionary girl leader.”3 In 1914, Joe Hill, “a troubadour of the IWW” wrote the song, “The Rebel Girl” in Flynn’s honor, shortly before he was executed.  Sold as sheet music, the cover featured an image of Flynn striding boldly forward, waving a red flag with the IWW motto, “One Big Union.”

Government repression of radicalism in the Red Scare that began during World War I crushed the IWW’s dreams of building a new society based on workers’ solidarity.  Pushed out of her role as a strike leader during the war, Flynn became a champion of labor. As the head of the Workers Defense Union, Flynn sought to free hundreds of workers imprisoned for protesting against the war or slated for deportation for supporting the Bolshevik Revolution.

In the summer and fall of 1919, Flynn passed the Statue of Liberty weekly as she traveled by ferry from Manhattan to Ellis Island to visit foreign-born workers who had been shipped from around the country to await their fate. Flynn often brought the detainees basics such as soap, boots, tobacco, and clothing. Flynn discussed their cases, checked on their health and tried to bolster their spirits. She worked closely with Harry Weinberger, an attorney who specialized in civil liberties, to build public awareness, and to secure decent treatment for those imprisoned.  Most of the detainees would be released eventually, but several hundred, including Flynn’s friend, Emma Goldman, were repatriated to Soviet Russia.

Red Scare cartoon

For the immigrants held on Ellis Island during the Red Scare, the promise of liberty, seemed illusory, at best. Letters from the detainees to Flynn referred to Ellis Island as “Hell’s Island.” To inform Flynn about his poor diet, one detainee forwarded her a daily menu with the handwritten comment, “A lot of swell names for swill.” He noted the irony of the “Liberty Pudding” served for desert—“Can you beat it. On a par with the Liberty Statue, surrounded by various kinds of jails.”4 The detention of immigrants in view of the Statue of Liberty made a mockery of Emma Lazarus’s famous poem, which characterized the statue as “the Mother of Exiles,” whose lamp “served as a beacon to the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

Flynn barely survived the Red Scare. In 1926, she suffered a breakdown, moved to Portland, Oregon, and withdrew from politics for a decade. In 1936, she returned to New York City and joined the Communist Party.  At the peak of the Popular Front, the party was at the center of a “renaissance of American radicalism.”5 Flynn lent her considerable skills as a speaker and an organizer to campaigns to bring workers into unions created by the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), and to support and extend gains won by workers during the New Deal, such as the right to organize and an eight-hour day. During World War II, Flynn, like other American communists, supported an all-out battle against fascism.

When the war ended in 1945, so too did the United States alliance with the Soviet Union.  As the two “superpowers” battled to shape the new world order, communists like Flynn became internal enemies. In 1948, a dozen party leaders were charged with “conspiring to advocate the overthrow of the United States government through force and violence.” Flynn, the sole woman among the national leaders, and the only one not under indictment, shifted back to her work in labor defense, but she had little success. By this point, the public had little sympathy for communists; Flynn soon faced similar charges.

Immigrants detained at Ellis Island

The Red Scares that followed World War I and World War II both set new limits on American liberty in the interest of national security. Flynn found the post World War II Red Scare to be“far more hysterical and fear laden” than its predecessor, “when the IWW was the national bugaboo.”6 Flynn had managed to assemble a strong “United Front” in defense of political prisoners during the 1910s and 1920s, but by the late 1940s, communists had become isolated from other forces on the Left, leaving them in the cold and lonely position reflected in Flynn’s January 1949 poem. Despite her misgivings, she still saw “something majestic, uncompromising, noble, about the lady with the lamp.”7

In August 1950, Flynn celebrated her sixtieth birthday at Webster Hall in New York City. The event prompted hundreds of affectionate cards and telegrams from across the country and around the world. Many mentioned recent struggles for peace and civil rights in addition to longer battles on behalf of American workers. One of the most poignant greetings came from Mike Gold, the author of Jews Without Money, who sent her a telegram that read, “YOU HAVE BEEN MY PERSONAL STATUE OF LIBERTY SINCE 1914 WHEN I FIRST HEARD YOU AT UNION SQUARE NOW THE LIGHTS ARE GOING OUT ONE BY ONE BUT FOR ME AND THOUSANDS OF OTHERS YOUR LIGHT IS SEEN CLEAR AND TRUE.”8

Less than a year later, Flynn became one of more than a hundred “second string” leaders of the Communist Party charged with conspiracy “to unlawfully, willfully, and knowingly, to advocate and teach the duty and necessity of overthrowing the Government of the United States by force and violence.”9 After a lengthy trial in which the prosecution relied on paid informants and quotes from Marxist literature, Flynn and most of the other defendants were indicted. Their appeals failed and in January 1955, Flynn began serving a twenty-eight month sentence at Alderson Female Penitentiary in West Virginia.

In prison, Flynn’s mail was censored and she was denied any reading material or communications associated with her crime. Likewise, any letters she received or writing she produced during this period was considered the property of the federal government. In “What Do I Miss,” a poem that she sent to one of her FBI approved correspondents, Flynn reminisced fondly about the life she had left behind “in this strange hiatus, this temporary withdrawal from a living world.” She recalled her friends, her work, her books, her clothes, and the East Village walk up apartment she shared with her sister Kathie.  But she regretted her distance from New York City’s familiar landmarks, too, writing,

I miss the Hudson River and the East River Drive and the U.N. at night and I miss dear old Brooklyn Bridge and the skyline all alight.

I miss New York Harbor and the Statue in the bay, and LaGuardia airport, Idlewild and Union Square in May.

Remembered from prison, the Statue of Liberty symbolized the city Flynn called home, as well as the freedom she had lost.

After her release from prison, Flynn traveled widely, making her first trip the Soviet Union in 1960. As the Cold War waned, the prosecution of communists continued. In July 1962, the US State Department revoked her passport. Yet, she refused to be imprisoned “within the borders of the U.S.A.” framing her right to travel as quintessentially American.10 She and Herbert Aptheker, a communist historian, sued to have their passports reinstated. In June 1964, the US Supreme Court struck down the provision of the federal law denying passports to communists.

Twenty-five years after Flynn feared that Liberty’s torch had been extinguished, she felt jubilant: at last, “the fog of McCarthyism” seemed to be lifting.11 She used her restored passport to travel to the Soviet Union, where she hoped to make progress on the second volume of her autobiography. (The first volume, I Speak My Own Piece: Autobiography of the ‘Rebel Girl,’ had been published while she was in prison).  Flynn died in Moscow in 1965, however, leaving the book unfinished.

Flynn’s life, as intertwined with her reflections on the famous statue in New York Harbor, testifies to the fragility of American freedom. Like many radicals of her generation, Flynn identified capitalism as corrupting America. Her advocacy of socialism, then communism, placed her among thousands of people detained, imprisoned, or deported during the nation’s two red scares. Flynn refused to go quietly, insisting on the right to dissent as an essential element of American democracy.


[1] Flynn, Reflections of the Statue of Liberty, January 1949, Box 3, Folder 13, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn Papers, Tamiment Library, New York University.

[2] Flynn, Radio Script, Station WKXL, Concord, NH, April 12, 1947, EGF Papers (Tamiment), Box 3, Folder 34.

[3] Mary Heaton Vorse, A Footnote to Folly (New York: Farrar and Rinehart, 1935), 8–9.

[4] Bill of Fare, Ellis Island, July 24, 1919, and Letter from Workers’ Defense Union to Frederick C. Howe, July 22, 1919, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn Papers, Wisconsin Historical Society

[5] James R. Barrett, William Z. Foster and the Tragedy of American Radicalism (University of Illinois Press, 1999), 190–91.

[6] Flynn, Fragment of autobiography, 1953, EGF Papers (Tamiment), Box 8, Folder 24.

[7] Flynn, Reflections of the Statue of Liberty, January 1949.

[8] Cards, letters, and telegrams from Flynn’s Scrapbook, 1950–1951, EGF Papers (Tamiment), Box 4, Folder 32.

[9] Flynn, Alderson Story, 9; “Text of Indictment of 21 Communist Leaders on Conspiracy Charges,” New York Times, June 21, 1951, ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

[10] Flynn, “The Borders are My Prison,” clipping from Political Affairs, November, 1962, EGF Papers (Tamiment), Box 8, Folder 3.

[11] Flynn, “First Victory over the McCarran Act,” clipping from Political Affairs, February 1964, EGF Papers (Tamiment), Box 8, Folder 3.