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A historical marker dedicated to Elizabeth Gurley Flynn stands in Concord, N.H., on May 5.Kathy McCormack/The Associated Press

The last battle of the Cold War is being fought on a small patch of earth surrounded by crabgrass at the corner of Court and Montgomery Streets in Concord, N.H.

Republican politicians wanted to assure that a figure hardly anyone has ever heard of would be heard of by no one. Her name was Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, and state officials thought they were commemorating a founder of the American Civil Liberties Union by erecting an unremarkable roadside marker near her birthplace.

Then some of them realized that she was a Communist, had been convicted of trying forcibly to overthrow the government of the United States and was buried with a state funeral in Moscow. The roadside marker was ordered removed. The site now is covered by a metal plate where the signpost stood for 14 days.

But that isn’t the end of it. The civil-liberties group howled that the decision was arbitrary, a departure from established processes governing roadside markers and an effort to erase history. State officials said that such plaques were to mark a historic stop on the Boston, Concord & Montreal Railroad, or the location of an old coal kiln, not for someone who headed the Communist Party.

Thus all of the roles played by activists and officials in contemporary culture suddenly were turned on their head. In this unusual episode, the regular order of contemporary civic debate is reversed, with conservatives hauling down a historical commemoration to the outrage of progressives.

Of course the state’s “Live Free or Die” motto, from a toast once offered by Revolutionary War hero John Stark, is in the air. Of course a review of the process of creating roadside commemorations is under way. Of course feelings are running high; closely held sentiments are raw. And of course legal action is forthcoming.

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Signage left by protesters after the city removed the plaque.David Shribman/Handout

“The removal of the sign did more than the sign could ever have done to teach us about what she stood for,” said Gary Sobelson, a Concord physician who is treasurer of the state branch of the ACLU. “It became a stimulus for examining how her life has meaning for issues in our current world.”

The roadside marker, which said that Ms. Flynn, born in 1890, was “a nationally known labour leader, civil libertarian and feminist organizer, also noted that she was a member of the Communist Party. The more conservatives learned about her story, the more troubled they became.

“Do we really want to celebrate a character in U.S. history who was un-American and wanted to overthrow the government?” asked Joseph Kenney, a member of the Executive Council, an influential body in the state government. “We should promote Americanism. We’re not changing history books but we don’t have to put our ‘Live Free or Die’ seal on her. There are many people in the State Veterans Cemetery who died fighting communism.”

Suddenly this tranquil corner of a quiet state capital is the unlikely site where all the 20th-century tensions of the Cold War are mixing uneasily with all the 21st-century conflicts over statues and historical markers. The result is a conflict about the meaning of history and a parallel collision of the concepts of commemoration and celebration.

“This whole thing confuses the process of honouring someone with the process of evaluating the historical significance of someone,” said Beth Salerno, a historian at St. Anselm College in Goffstown, N.H. “This woman existed and was famous in her time and this marker was recognizing this without honouring her.”

Ms. Flynn, who worked to win rights for women and for the legalization of abortion, began her activism with the Industrial Workers of the World, the radical labour group known as the “Wobblies.” Convicted under the Smith Act for seeking to “teach and advocate violent overthrow,” she served a two-year prison sentence. Despite her early association with the ACLU, the group disavowed her when her Communist Party membership became known, a ruling it reversed after her death in Moscow in 1964. Her memoir was titled The Rebel Girl.

The two activists who originally proposed installing the marker filed suit against the state this week. They also argued that removing the sign contributed to the disparity in state markers, which by a margin of more than 25-to-1 commemorate men over women.

“We believe the state violated the law in removing this marker,” said one of those activists, Arnold Alpert, who runs the website “The whole purpose of the historical marker program is to recognize significant people, places and events – and the birth of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn is a fitting subject. It was only after it was erected with members of the State Division of Historical Resources present that the Governor and members of the Executive Council objected.”

The group’s attorney, Andru Volinsky, is a former member of the Executive Council.

Republican Governor Chris Sununu, who issued the order to remove the marker, has vowed that the sign, which stood three blocks away from his office, would not be restored during his tenure.

Even so, replicas of the removed sign have sprouted around the city, including the spot where it originally stood. A separate poster, inches from the metal plate covering the hole that held the signpost, asks: “Why is the NH GOP afraid of little girls?”

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