Opinion: ACLU: Falling in love with America

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn AP


Published: 06-22-2024 6:00 AM

Robert Azzi is a photographer and writer who lives in Exeter. His columns are archived at robertazzitheother.substack.com

‘I fell in love with my country - its rivers, prairies, forests, mountains, cities and people,” Elizabeth Gurley Flynn once wrote. “No one can take my love of country away from me! I felt then, as I do now, it’s a rich, fertile, beautiful land, capable of satisfying all the needs of its people. It could be a paradise on earth if it belonged to the people, not to a small owning class.”

Imagine a paradise that belongs to the people, a land where all people are created equal, all endowed with equal inalienable rights, all protected from predators, exploiters, protected from elites exploiting their privilege and power at the expense of fellow citizens.

That’s what we were all called to be.

I’m a fan of Concord, New Hampshire-born Elizabeth Gurley Flynn — feminist, radical labor organizer, civil rights activist, early advocate of birth control, communist, orator, and one of the founders of the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) of which I’m a board member in its New Hampshire affiliate.

Flynn was part of a New York City textile strike in 1909 and in 1912 she was an organizer in the “Bread and Roses” strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, so named because strikers carried signs that read, “We want Bread and Roses too,” advocating not only for better wages but for time and opportunity to enjoy their lives.

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, portrayed as “The Rebel Girl,” in a c. 1915 song written by Joe Hill, an activist songwriter and member of the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) who was working as a laborer at the Silver King Mine in Park City, Utah, came to mind this past weekend as I attended an ACLU Biennial Leadership Conference (BLC) in Atlanta, GA.

“Yes, her hands may be hardened from labor / And her dress may not be very fine / But a heart in her bosom is beating / That is true to her class and her kind ...”

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I fell in love with my country again.

The BLC was a conference filled with Rebel Girls, Boys, and Them. It was a convening of Americans so diverse, so beautiful, so often unseen and unrealized in my native New Hampshire, that it brought to mind what Malcolm X wrote in his “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” about making the pilgrimage to Mecca: “I saw all races, all colors, blue-eyed blonds to black-skinned Africans in true brotherhood! In unity! Living as one! Worshiping as one ... ”

Immediately, I was drawn into a community who together understood — even as both self-avowed atheists and non-Christians joined in the linking of arms and singing of gospel music — that, as New Hampshire native Mary Baker Eddy once affirmed, “clad in the panoply of love, human hatred cannot reach you.”

Together we gathered as congregants to worship in the Horizon Sanctuary of Ebenezer Baptist Church.

What I witnessed, what I realized, was that I didn’t fully appreciate by living either in New Hampshire or my years abroad, was how much of southern soil is Sacred Soil, are lands nourished since 1619 by the blood of enslaved and Indigenous peoples, nourished by the blood of protesters, activists, and children felled by racist segregationists and Klan members.

Where I understood more fully — from within my conventional Northern perspective — as Billie Holiday sang in “Strange Fruit,” that:

“Southern trees bear a strange fruit, Blood on the leaves and blood at the root. Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze, Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.”

Where I understood more fully that the inhuman, criminal and racist triumphs of white supremacists and nationalists centuries ago — which continue with different techniques in different fora today — gives them license, they believe, to extend their depredations upon all peoples who don’t look like them today.

Where I understood more clearly why Keene’s Jonathan Daniels, murdered in Hayneville, Alabama in 1965 while shielding young Ruby Sales, wasn’t protected by his white collar and lapel pin that he always wore, with the white cross in the middle with initials ESCRU below. which stood for Episcopal Society for Cultural and Racial Unity.

It isn’t just about people of color, it is about denying life and liberty to the Other.

Together, less than a three-hour drive from Hayneville, arms linked together, we affirmed in Atlanta that America’s civil liberties are either for all or for none of us, and that there was still much work to be done.

I could not have been more proud.

On our final night in Atlanta, at the awards dinner, I witnessed former prosecutor and professor at Georgetown University Law Center, Paul Butler, author of “Chokehold: Policing Black Men,” not only being awarded the ACLU Presidential Prize “granted to a full-time academic in any discipline to honor outstanding, lifetime contributions to civil rights and liberties in academia,” but I heard him speak, in his acceptance speech, of solidarity with student protesters advocating for an end to the war on occupied Gaza, speak of solidarity with civil disobedience and free speech.

Solidarity with people like me who feel free to wear the black and white checked keffiyeh in solidarity with the people of Palestine.

I witnessed, too, Cecile Richards, former president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America and co-founder of the women’s political action group Supermajority, being awarded (remotely) the Roger N. Baldwin Medal of Liberty, the ACLU’s highest honor acknowledging lifetime contributions to the advancement of civil liberties.

That was a wonderful moment yet, as an image of Baldwin, one of the ACLU’s founders, live-streamed across large screens I couldn’t help but imagine how even more inclusive the ACLU could be if someday they choose to award an Elizabeth Gurley Flynn Medal of Protest.

How symbolic that would be as repudiation of her unjust ouster from the ACLU in 1940 because she was a communist.

That would be cool — and make me even more proud.

Today, I, son of Arab immigrants, an Arab-American-Muslim photojournalist and columnist well past his salad days, am able to freely pen this tribute to loved ones and colleagues and friends because, since 1920 — from Scopes to Roe to Skokie and beyond — the ACLU has been America’s aspirational North Star, central to the preservation and advancement of constitutional rights, civil liberties and voting rights in America, central to preserving our fundamental freedoms and our democracy.

That makes me proud.