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12AD.1.6 Elizabeth Gurley Flynn Speaks to the Court

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn Speaks to the Court, Opening Statement to the Court and Jury in the Case of the Sixteenth Smith Act Victims in the Trial at Foley Square, New York.
1952
Ephemera

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn Speaks to the Court. University of Pittsburgh, American Left Ephemera Collection, 1875 – 2015, VI Communists and Civil Liberties, Box 2, Folder 100.

In 1940, just as the United States was about to enter World War II, the government passed the Smith Act, a law that made it illegal to conspire to advocate the overthrow of the government. In the context of World War II, the government aimed to shore up support and patriotism during the wartime emergency. However, by the end of the decade, with World War II over and the Cold War ramping up, American radicals were arrested, charged, tried, and convicted for violating the Smith Act. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and more than a dozen other American Communists were charged with violating the Smith Act. According to the US Department of Justice, being a member of the American Communist Party meant supporting an organization committed to overthrowing the US government, even if, like Flynn, members insisted they wanted change through peaceful means. A leading labor organizer and Communist, Flynn stood trial and represented herself in court. This document is the cover of her testimony (which was later published in a pamphlet). How does the Smith Act and this document serve as evidence of an increasing role that the government sought to play in exerting power over its citizens?

While the power that the American government claimed over its people was enshrined in key documents surrounding the ratification of the Constitution, the power of course evolved over the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries. As the world became more interconnected and the government took on new roles, certain laws established new ways that the government could exert control over ordinary people. In 1940, just as the United States was about to enter World War II, the government passed the Smith Act, a law that made it illegal to conspire to advocate the overthrow of the government. In the context of World War II, the government aimed to shore up support and patriotism during the wartime emergency. However, by the end of the decade, with World War II over and the Cold War ramping up, American radicals were arrested, charged, tried, and convicted for violating the Smith Act. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and more than a dozen other American Communists were charged with violating the Smith Act. According to the US Department of Justice, being a member of the American Communist Party meant supporting an organization committed to overthrowing the US government, even if, like Flynn, members insisted they wanted change through peaceful means. A leading labor organizer and Communist, Flynn stood trial and represented herself in court. This document is the cover of her testimony (which was later published in a pamphlet). Ask your students to consider how the Smith Act and this document serve as evidence of an increasing role that the government sought to play in exerting power over its citizens. As an extension, ask students to research how long the Smith Act was in existence, and have them note other ways in which it was used to force people to comply with certain behavior.

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn Speaks to the Court
“My name is Elizabeth Gurley Flynn ... I am a defendant in this case, acting as my own attorney ...”
Opening statement to the court and jury in the case of the sixteen Smith Act victims in the trial at Foley Square, New York
10c