1909: Missoula Free Speech Fight

History of the first free speech fight conducted by the IWW.

Submitted by Reddebrek on January 22, 2017

Say what you would about Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, you couldn't afford to take her lightly.

Flynn, a striking auburn-haired 19-year-old, was a few weeks pregnant when she came to Missoula in September of 1909.

Already a seasoned agitator and fiery orator, she'd been sent here by the radical Industrial Workers of the World, or Wobblies, to help husband Jack Jones organize laborers in the organization's efforts to topple capitalism.

By early October, Flynn was in the vanguard of a free speech fight that rocked Missoula and spread throughout the West, all launched from a soapbox at the corner of Higgins Avenue and West Front Street.

"It's a fascinating piece of history, and we're lucky to live in a town that has it as a part of its history," Clem Work said last week.

Work, a University of Montana journalism professor, recounted Missoula's free speech fight of 1909 at the outset of "Darkest Before Dawn: Sedition and Free Speech in the American West." The book, published in 2005, led to Gov. Brian Schweitzer's pardon of all Montanans imprisoned during World War I for sedition.

Flynn and Jones were among a handful of Wobblies in Missoula that month. Frank Little, a rabid agitator who would be lynched in Butte eight years later, showed up on Sept. 22 and Flynn immediately invited him to speak on the street corner. According to Work, Little and Jones were among the first to be arrested, on the evening of Sept. 29.

The IWW described it as the first free speech fight. Certainly it was the first successful one for the Wobblies. Behind Flynn's lead, they brought the city to its knees by flooding the jails with sympathizers arrested for disturbing the peace and creating loud noises.

In her autobiography "The Rebel Girl," published nine years before her death in 1964, Flynn said she began polishing her public speaking skills in the South Bronx of New York when she was 16.

"Needless to say, there were no amplifiers or loudspeakers in those days," she wrote. "Tom Lewis, pioneer soapboxer who could be heard for blocks, taught me to speak, especially how to project my voice outdoors."

Breathe deep, Lewis instructed. Use the diaphragm as a bellows. Project your voice. Don't "talk on your vocal chords" or you'll soon be hoarse.

But her voice accounted for only part of Flynn's effect. Here was a woman whose passionate gestures and succinct messages mesmerized her target audience - the rough-hewn itinerants passing through town searching, often desperately, for jobs in the lumber camps, mills, mines, orchards and farms.

When she spoke, Flynn lambasted the employment agencies, "sharks" who worked in cahoots with employers. In his book, Work quoted a Wobblies' description of the racket: "As soon as a man had worked long enough to pay the shark's fee, the hospital dollar, poll tax and a few other grafts, he was discharged to make room for more slaves, so that the fleecing process could continue."

It's little wonder such agencies raised a stink against Flynn, insisting along with other downtown merchants for the police department to start enforcing a 10-year-old ordinance that effectively prohibited street speaking.

When Little came to town, the police took them up on it. After several warnings, he was hauled to jail after barely getting out the title of his speech, "On Temperance," the night of Sept. 29. Jones went next and met the same fate.

A young logger stepped to the soapbox and started to read the Declaration of Independence. He was cuffed. A civil engineer for the U.S. Forest Service named Herman Tucker saw what was happening from the Forest Service office above. He rushed down, tried to continue the job and was arrested as well.

So began a daily routine.

"We need volunteers to go to jail," Flynn messaged the Wobbly office in Spokane in early October. "The police have absolutely forbidden us to speak, so that we know that there will be wholesale arrests from now on."

Sympathizers poured into town from Spokane, Seattle and Portland and northern Idaho. They came, Flynn said later, "on top of the trains and beneath the trains, and on the sides, in the box cars and every way that you didn't have to pay fare."

They arrived expressly for the purpose of getting thrown in the clink. Many read from the Constitution or the Bill of Rights.

"I remember one big and strong lumberjack who, frightened to death, went up on the box and read the First Amendment and then looked around rather helplessly for the cops," Flynn said in a speech in 1962. "But the cops went elsewhere so he read it again and when he read it about three times, the policemen came along and yanked him down, much to his relief."

The Wobblies flooded the jails and disrupted the citizenry with their ruckus, singing IWW songs and shouting IWW slogans. According to Work, they called it "making battleships." Flynn claimed Jones was among those badly beaten in jail.

She, however, was treated with kid gloves when she was jailed on Oct. 3. But she sent a message to the IWW office in Spokane describing the makeshift cell she and others were held in.

"It's a filthy, dirty hole under the firehouse stable, where all the filthy excrement of the place pours down upon the prisoners," she said.

Ultimately, the Wobblies forced Missoula's hand. They spoke in the afternoon so they'd be jailed in time for dinner. Many were offered their freedom before breakfast but refused to leave their cells without jury trials.

The city fathers ran out of room, money and patience to put them up, and perhaps began to feel self-conscious about the furor. The mayor at one point ordered the fire chief to turn a hose on the agitators. According to Flynn, "Townspeople protested vigorously after several people were hurt."

The Daily Missoulian and editor Arthur Stone were frustratingly silent. The paper covered most of the affair via dispatches from the Spokane Chronicle and Butte papers, though it did take a couple of shots at the protesters on the editorial page on Oct. 4.

"The socialists who imagine they are posing as martyrs are really posing as very foolish persons," one blurb read.

"Liberty is not license, a fact which the street-corner agitators overlook," said another.

On Oct. 7, acting mayor Herbert Wilkinson drew a line in the sand.

"The socialists were notified that they would not be permitted to hold meetings on Higgins Avenue or within one block of the avenue on either side," the Missoulian reported. "The socialists replied that they would hold their meetings wherever they pleased."

"We want to find out what our legal rights are in the matter," Wilkinson argued. "Surely, we have the right to keep the streets open and to prevent interference with the approach of people to hotels and stores. We are not interfering with anybody's rights, and we do not propose to do so, but we must protect the rights of our people."

Many citizens shared the acting mayor's sentiments.

The Wobblies, torn apart themselves by differing ideas and ideologues, "were so radical they were hated and despised," Work said. "Even people who were socialists hated them with their in-your-face attitudes and the fact that they were so far out on the left. They were pariahs.

"But they got down to the working man's level, and they spoke his language."

When the stalemate downtown threatened to explode, Missoula waved a white flag. The popular Western Montana Apple Show was opening in days, and hundreds more Wobblies were bearing down on the city.

"Here were these unruly, dirty Wobblies creating a huge ruckus in their jail," Work said. "What could the city council do but capitulate?"

On the evening of Oct. 8, the council declared that IWW orators could speak wherever and whenever they pleased, so long as they didn't impede traffic. All charges were dropped and the jails were cleared of Wobblies. However, Work doesn't think the ordinance that got them arrested was rescinded.

Immediately a crowd gathered and the orations resumed. But, as the Butte Evening News noted, "without a fight to keep things warm the interest faded, and as the night was cold, the assemblage adjourned to the hall."

Nonetheless, Work called it "a clear and convincing victory in Missoula" for Flynn and her fellow Wobblies, who moved the fight to Spokane in November, and later to Kansas City; Aberdeen, Wash.; and Fresno and San Diego, Calif.

IWW agitators hadn't come to Missoula to wage a free speech fight, but what they started here had a profound effect.

"People could see how they were being treated and just that process, I think, helped many Americans realize that free speech was a valuable thing," Work said. "However, it probably also reinforced notions at the time that there are limits to free speech, and those limits were far more severe than they are today."

Taken from the Missoulian