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Crowd celebrates Concord's 'Rebel Girl,' as lawsuit looms over sign removal

A woman dressed in an old-fashioned waves a red sign amid a crowd of people in downtown Concord.
Paul Cuno-Booth
/
NHPR
Someone impersonating Elizabeth Gurley Flynn waves a red Industrial Workers of the World flag during a event celebrating the 20th century labor activist and Communist Party leader in Concord on Saturday.

Months after the state installed, then removed, a historical marker for a Concord-born labor activist and Communist Party leader, several dozen people gathered outside the State House to celebrate what would have been her 133rd birthday — as some in the crowd prepared to take legal action challenging the marker’s disappearance.

In between union songs, readings and digs at the Republican officials who pushed for the sign’s removal, speakers reflected on Elizabeth Gurley Flynn’s multifaceted legacy.

“Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was indeed a communist. She believed in the liberation of the working class. And I appreciate and accept that most politicians don't really like that,” said Will Leiserson of the Boston branch of the Industrial Workers of the World, adding that wasn’t “all she was about.”

“She was a founder of the ACLU,” Leiserson continued. “She loved civil liberties. She was a suffragette. She believed in the rights of women. She believed in bodily autonomy."

A white sign at a rally that says "Do Not Fear The Rebel Girl - Learn From Her."
Paul Cuno-Booth
/
NHPR
A sign at a rally celebrating 20th century labor activist and Communist Party leader Elizabeth Gurley Flynn in Concord on Aug. 5, 2023.

Born in Concord on Aug. 7, 1890, Gurley Flynn became active in the labor movement and in advocating for women’s rights. Known as “The Rebel Girl,” she later joined and led the U.S. Communist Party. She died in 1964 while visiting the Soviet Union.

The state put up a historical marker memorializing Gurley Flynn near her birthplace this spring. Officials took it down two weeks later after Republicans on the Executive Council raised concerns over her Communist Party ties and Gov. Chris Sununu called for a review of the process used to approve the marker.

At Saturday’s event, Andru Volinsky, a lawyer and former Democratic executive councilor, said he planned to file a lawsuit challenging the state’s removal of the sign within the next week. The activists who proposed the sign enlisted his legal help earlier this summer.

“Perhaps on Monday morning. Perhaps in the Merrimack County Superior Court. Stay tuned,” he said. “We'll see what happens. But look for some legal action early next week as a further birthday present.”

People attending a rally in downtown Concord hold signs and a black-and-white image of 20th century labor leader Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.
Paul Cuno-Booth
/
NHPR
People attending a celebration of 20th century labor activist and Communist Party leader Elizabeth Gurley Flynn in Concord on Aug. 5, 2023.

Meanwhile, the 20th century labor leader has become a cause célèbre among some in Concord, where images of the now-removed historical marker have been popping up as yard signs.

Plenty of those signs were sprinkled among the crowd Saturday, along with placards that read “HANDS OFF WORKING CLASS HISTORY: BRING BACK OUR REBEL GIRL!” A couple people waved large red Industrial Workers of the World flags. A handful wore shirts affiliated with the Party for Socialism and Liberation, which calls for a "socialist transformation of society."

Arnie Alpert, a Canterbury resident who was part of the effort to install the historical marker, helped organize Saturday’s event. He thinks Gurley Flynn’s activism still resonates today.

“We're in a moment now where there's attacks against women's reproductive rights,” he said. “We're in a moment now when workers are rising up in their workplaces.”

An actor dressed as Gurley Flynn – in a dark-blue skirt, white blouse with a bow tie, and sunflower-adorned black hat – read from a 1952 speech she gave while facing charges of violating the Smith Act, which prohibits advocating the violent overthrow of the U.S. government. Gurley Flynn denied those allegations.

A woman dressed in an old-fashioned outfit reads from a booklet in front of bushes and a tall stone wall.
Paul Cuno-Booth
/
NHPR
An Elizabeth Gurley Flynn impersonator reads a speech by the 20th century labor activist and Communist Party leader during a celebration in Concord on Saturday.

In the speech, Gurley Flynn describes how her experiences in textile towns in New Hampshire and Massachusetts influenced her decision to join the Communist Party.

“I was greatly troubled by the conditions in these textile towns,” the actor read. “Why did good hardworking people suffer so? Why were men who were willing and able and anxious to work denied jobs? Why was there so much unemployment? And why were there rich people who apparently did little but enjoyed life?”

Will Thomas of Auburn, a retired history teacher, said removing the marker “erases history.”

“I wanted my students – I’m retired now – to learn all points of view,” he said. “All portions of history: good, bad, in between.”

Thomas, who belonged to the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers union, said he’s most inspired by Gurley Flynn’s labor activism.

“Unions have declined in membership,” he said. “So for me, she's a symbol of organizing, because as you've heard, there is strength in a union.”

Paul Cuno-Booth covers health and equity for NHPR. He previously worked as a reporter and editor for The Keene Sentinel, where he wrote about police accountability, local government and a range of other topics. He can be reached at pcuno-booth@nhpr.org.
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