By BOB BUSSEL, University of Oregon Labor Education and Research Center professor emeritus
Last month, state officials in New Hampshire announced plans to remove a recently erected historical marker honoring Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. Flynn, who was born in New Hampshire’s capital city of Concord, was dubbed “The Rebel Girl” by trade union troubadour Joe Hill. Flynn earned this nickname while leading free speech fights for the radical union Industrial Workers of the World, most notably during an epic 1909 battle in Spokane, Washington. The marker also referred to Flynn’s activities as a feminist, civil liberties advocate, and leader in the American Communist Party who was jailed under questionable circumstances during the Red Scare of the 1950s. Citing Flynn’s affiliation with the Communist Party, one official blasted the marker, declaring “it’s not part of my history.”
This is not the first time that artwork recognizing labor struggles has been targeted in public spaces. In 1994, after Republicans took control of Congress, they removed Ralph Fasanella’s famous painting of the 1912 Lawrence textile strike from the wall of a subcommittee hearing room. In 2011, Maine Governor Paul LePage ordered the state’s department of labor to take down murals in its lobby depicting workers, strikes, and even FDR’s labor secretary, Frances Perkins, a Maine native.
Although these incidents involve different art forms and occurred in different settings, the attacks on them share something in common. They can best be described as attempts at “erasure,” which literary critic Parul Sehgal has described as “the practice of collective indifference that renders certain people and groups invisible.” Sehgal says erasure means “inconvenient people” are “dismissed” and have their “history, pain, and achievements blotted out.”
Removing artistic images of labor struggles allows those in power to “dismiss inconvenient people” such as Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and textile workers, paper workers, and coal miners exercising their right to strike. These acts of erasure serve several purposes, ones that we can see in current efforts to determine curriculum in public schools. Too often, cultural gatekeepers want to tell a story that uncritically celebrates American “greatness,” which they attribute to individual freedom, free markets, and limited government. There is little room in this story for the labor struggles that allowed workers to gain greater dignity and respect, along with the ability to act as effective citizens and demand that American democracy live up to its ideals. And the reluctance of these gatekeepers to acknowledge the suppression of unions, the fierceness of class conflict, and the persistence of working-class agitation robs us of the opportunity to remember the “history, pain, and achievements” of workers that are such an essential yet neglected feature of the American story.
Art is a powerful tool in shaping public memory. Just ask the people who erected statues honoring Confederate leaders after the Civil War seeking to validate southern resistance as a noble “Lost Cause.” Recognizing the power of public art, we need to ask ourselves the questions posed by Parul Sehgal in discussing the consequences of erasure: “Whose stories are taught and told? Whose suffering is recognized? Whose dead are mourned?” We should not do this nostalgically but rather to honor and learn from the sacrifices, achievements, and even the shortcomings of our ancestors. By protecting and promoting artistic displays where workers’ stories “are taught and told,” we ensure that “rebel girls” and “inconvenient people” remain in our memory as we build on the legacies they have so graciously bestowed.