Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, the IWW and the Free Speech Movement - 1909
The street behind me is Stevens street. In 1909 it was filled with 21 employment agencies and hundreds of unemployed workers. At the employment agencies you could get a job for “a dollar a job”. But, the jobs didn’t last long. They would take your dollar, give you a job, and then fire you in a couple of days and hire another worker. That is what brought Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and a whole lot of IWW’s to Spokane in the Fall of 1909.
The city council passed a law making street speaking illegal. Then they made an exception for a food bank to speak, where Wobblies couldn’t. This was also a reason Elizabeth, her father, and the International Workers of the World came to Spokane. This was clearly unfair and needed fixing. The workers already wanted to protest so the IWW came to help. The IWW needed people to “fill the jails” and mount a soapbox, and the workers needed help protesting the employment agencies. They helped each other. Workers would gather on Stevens Street, climb up on a box and begin speaking: “Fellow workers, . . . . “ and then be yanked off and thrown into jail. Another would climb up and the same result would happen. Elizabeth was a very convincing, eloquent speaker, and the newspapers gave her much publicity. Finally, she was arrested as well as many workers. After her release, she complained about the conditions in the jail as well.
Elizabeth Flynn was put on trial in November along with a man, Figliano. She gave the firey closing arguments in Figliano's defense. The verdict came down -
• Flynn - not guilty,
• Figliano - guilty.
She was upset with the verdict. When asked, the jury foreman said: "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."
Elizabeth was born August, 7, 1890, in Concord, New Hampshire. She gave her first speech at a Harlem social club at age 15. Her first speech topic was “Women under Socialism.” Her father was an organizer for IWW (Industrial Workers of the World). She was 19 when she started organizing for the IWW and came to Spokane. She died in 1964 of a stomach disorder.
She was a socialist. She was against judging people by what class they were in (working class, rich class, etc). She wanted minimum wage to go up. Making sure Freedom of Speech was available was also a goal of hers.
Flynn loved school and when she studied the Bill of Rights and the Constitution, she stated: “I have been defending it ever since.” What that meant was she wanted to defend the rights we have, especially free speech. A journalist called her an “east side Joan of ark.” That means she is a brave leader, ready for almost anything.
She believed in sticking to the Constitution and Bill of Rights. She also believed in doing whatever it takes no matter the cost. Doing what was right was a necessity to her. She was brave in the hardest times, so she had faith. But, most of all she stuck to it whatever it was; she never backed out.
Photo used with permission from Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture/ Eastern Washington State Historical Society.
L86-1159 = Stevens St.
copyright (c) 2007, Discovery School.
All rights reserved.
Report created May, 2007.
Revised August 24, 2007;10/4/2009
Last Modified on August 2, 2011