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Emma Goldman and Free Speech

Freedom of expression was a cause Emma Goldman championed throughout her adult life. She was outraged that in the United States, "a country which guaranteed free speech, officers armed with long clubs should invade an orderly assembly." As an anarchist orator, Emma faced constant threats from police and vigilantes determined to suppress her talks. Undeterred, Goldman continued to assert her right to speak, though she paid dearly for her principles. Arrested and tried in 1893 for urging a crowd of hungry, unemployed workers to rely on street demonstrations rather than on the electoral process to obtain relief, Goldman based her defense squarely on the right of free speech--and lost. She spent ten months in jail, a reminder that in nineteenth century America the right of free speech was still a dream, not a reality.

Following the assassination of President McKinley in 1901, tolerance for free speech declined even further. Repression culminated in the passage of the draconian Espionage and Sedition Acts of 1917 and 1918, which resulted in long prison terms for those who protested United States entry into the First World War. At the same time, liberal and radical Americans became more vocal in their opposition to the abridgement of first amendment rights. The government's attempts to suppress Goldman's unconventional views actually led many who disagreed with her to support nonetheless her right to express her ideas freely.

It was in this context that Goldman began lecturing regularly on freedom of speech and, in 1903, worked with the newly formed Free Speech League. The extremity of the situation sometimes led to amusing results. Once, expecting the police to disrupt a lecture in Philadelphia, Emma chained herself to a podium in order to make it physically impossible for the police to remove her before she finished speaking. But as fate would have it, this time the police did not appear.

Goldman's insistence on freedom of speech had a profound influence on Roger Baldwin, a founder of the American Civil Liberties Union. Baldwin heard Goldman speak in 1908 at a working class meeting hall in St. Louis, and what he heard led him to dedicate his life to the cause of freedom. He later told Goldman in a letter, "You always remain one of the chief inspirations of my life, for you aroused in me a sense of what freedom really means." In his old age, Baldwin said, "Emma Goldman opened up not only an entirely new literature to me, but new people as well, some who called themselves anarchists, some libertarians, some freedom lovers . . . bound together by one principle--freedom from coercion."

The ultimate irony of Emma Goldman's crusade for free speech in America is that she was deported to Russia for exercising her right to speak against United States' involvement in World War I. Undaunted, Goldman risked further political isolation by becoming one of the Left's most vocal and eloquent critics of political repression in the Soviet Union.


Early Warning of Growing Threats to Free Speech

growing threats to free speech This letter, published in an anarchist periodical, reflects Goldman's early efforts to publicize the continued police suppression of her lectures, and draw the ominous implications for first amendment rights in America.
(Lucifer the Lightbearer, December 11, 1902)


Roger Baldwin, a Founder of the A.C.L.U.

Roger Baldwin Roger Baldwin was one of the most prominent advocates of civil liberties in twentieth-century America. Baldwin was a friend of Emma Goldman, and he credited her work on behalf of free speech as the inspiration for his own lifelong battle to assert and protect the right of political freedom in the United States.
(Papers of Roger Baldwin, Mudd Manuscript Library, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Libraries)


Ben Reitman, Goldman's "Great, Grand Passion"

Ben Reitman Ben Reitman was Emma Goldman's lover and manager between 1908 and 1916. A Chicagoan, Reitman was for much of his life an almost compulsive hobo. As a youth he tramped through Asia and Europe and around America several times. He settled down long enough to acquire an M.D. degree in Chicago in 1904. Later in his life he continued to go on periodic tramps. Besides using his medical knowledge to minister to the poor, he treated their social ills by organizing a mass demonstration of unemployed workers--for which he was arrested and tried in 1907.

His relationship with Emma Goldman began in March 1908 when Goldman was unable to secure a place to speak. Reitman offered her his "hobo hall." Instantly attracted to each other, this encounter blossomed into the most intense relationship of Goldman's life. Reitman soon offered to accompany Goldman on her lecture tours. As road manager, his skills of arranging and publicizing meetings, renting halls and promoting and selling anarchist literature contributed to the success of Goldman's repeated cross-country lecture tours.

Reitman aroused in Emma Goldman a sexual and emotional passion that she was never to experience in her life again. In l909 she revelled in their love: "You came to me like a stroke of lightning, kindling my soul and my body with mad passion, as I have never known before."
(Goldman Collection, International Institute for Social History, Amsterdam)


Free Love Advocate Confronts Issues of Jealousy and Doubt

free love jealousy and doubt Throughout their ten-year love affair, Emma Goldman and Ben Reitman sustained their relationship on the road through passionate letters. Goldman, who publicly advocated free love and total independence, struggled herself with dark feelings of jealousy and a longing for security. Though she acted as a harbinger of hope and affirmed the anarchist vision of social harmony, privately she wondered whether her own failure to live out her ideal made her unworthy of delivering such a lofty message. "I stand condemned before the bar of my own reason," she would write once.

On August 15, 1909, Goldman wrote this letter to "My Beloved Hobo."
(Reitman Collection, University of Illinois at Chicago)


Characteristically Diverse Goldman Lecture Series

Goldman Lecture Series Emma Goldman gradually expanded her lecture topics from straightforward expositions of anarchist theory to include applications of this theory to contemporary social and political issues. Among these were socialism, birth control, women's emancipation, free speech, and free love. 
(New York Public Library)


Introducing Modern Ideas to the American Public

introducing modern ideas to the amerian public This 1915 handbill is a striking example of how Goldman placed issues of personal life on a par with war and the economy. No topic was taboo, as her lecture titles suggest.
(Holzwarth Collection, University of California, Santa Barbara)

Atrocities Against Free Speech in the Name of Patriotism

Mother Earth cover June 1912 Emma Goldman played an supportive role in the largest free speech movement in pre-World War I America: the battle of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) to secure constitutional liberties for their organization on the West Coast. In an effort to suppress the IWW, many cities passed ordinances denying IWW leaders the right to speak. The IWW began defying these ordinances by sending large contingents to the endangered cities to exercise their constitutional right to free speech. In Missoula, Spokane, and Fresno, hundreds of IWW members were thrown in jail for this offense.

One of the most dramatic confrontations over free speech occurred in 1912 in San Diego. Within one week, San Diego authorities jailed 150 members of the IWW (also known as the Wobblies). Private vigilante groups terrorized IWW members and drove them out of town. As tensions mounted in San Diego, a vigilante group killed a Wobbly in Los Angeles. Outraged by the turn of events, Emma Goldman and Ben Reitman decided to join the San Diego free speech fight. They had barely arrived in the city when Reitman was abducted from their hotel by a group of vigilantes. He was taken into the countryside, stripped, beaten, covered with hot tar and sagebrush, forced to sing "The Star Spangled Banner," then, with a cigar, the letters IWW were singed onto his buttocks.
(Mother Earth, June 1912)

Goldman Describes the Horror of the San Diego Event

San Diego Event 1 San Diego Event 2 San Diego Event 3

Emma alerted the press to the recent brutal violations of human rights in this letter written a few days after the 1912 San Diego free speech struggle and the abduction and torture of Ben Reitman.
(Emma Goldman to Fred Bonfils of the Denver Post, May 16, l912, Reitman Collection, University of Illinois at Chicago)


Prominent Chinese Writer Inspired by Emma Goldman

 Li Fei-Kan Born in Chengtu, Szechwan, in 1904 with the name Li Fei-Kan. Inspired by the popular anarchist literature during the May Fourth Movement (May 4, l9l9), he adopted as his pen name, Ba Jin, using parts of the namesBakunin and Kropotkin. At the same time, the Chinese translations of Emma Goldman's essays inspired the fifteen-year-old Ba Jin to write to Goldman as his "spiritual mother" for advice on how to reconcile being a child of an old feudal family with his sympathy for the suffering of the masses. Goldman reassured him that though "we cannot choose the place where we are born . . . we decide ourselves the life we live afterwards. I see you have honesty and enthusiasm, which every young rebel should have . . . "

Among Ba Jin's most important novels is Chia (Family), a moving and courageous critique of China's patriarchal feudal family structure, published in 1931 as the first volume of an autobiographical trilogy. Ba Jin was one of the most respected leaders of the Union of Chinese Writers. 
(Photograph from Pa Chin, by Nathan K. Mao, Twayne Publishers, 1978)


Ba Jin Dedicates His Book The General To Emma Goldman

 Ba Jin The General  Ba Jin The General  Ba Jin The General

Similar letters collected by The Emma Goldman Papers document the importance of international support and the inspiration that individuals of different cultures and generations can draw from one another in sustaining activism for social justice. Goldman's example of lifelong devotion to the principles of freedom of speech, anarchism, and women's independence inspired activists in Japan, China, the Soviet Union, India, Europe, Canada, and Latin America.
(Excerpt from September 1933 letter from Ba Jin to Emma Goldman, preface to The General, or Confessions--The Outcry of My Soul, a collection of short stories, Kai Ming Press, Shanghai, China, 1934.)