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Red Flags, Black Flags


Dozens of mail-bombs sent to United States politicians during the 'Red Scare' of 1919 struck fear of communists, socialists, and anarchists into the hearts of Americans. A May Day parade in Cleveland, Ohio, spiralled into violence when the pro-labor marchers met an anti-communist group who demanded the red flags of socialism not fly alongside the American flag. Between 1919 and 1920, many States tried to prevent displays of support for those groups by passing laws against flying the red flag of Socialism or the black flag of Anarchism in public.

North Dakota's labor-friendly Non-Partisan League, led by Socialist Party member A.C. Townley, had taken power in the state during the 1916 elections with the support of North Dakota farmers, and their plans to start a state-run bank and state mill were on their way to completion. Anti-socialist sentiment during the Red Scare caused a split within the Non-Partisan League, creating an anti-Townley faction in 1919 called the "Independent Voters Association."

The Association aimed to vote out all of A. C. Townley's pro-socialist supporters during the 1920 election, and their ballot measures included an anti red flag law. The IVA candidate for governor, William Langer, denounced anyone who would "forget the stars and stripes and approve the red flag." On this date in 1920, North Dakota voters overwhelmingly approved the Anti Red Flag law.

The North Dakota Anti Red Flag law not only prohibited red and black flags, but also flags of non-friendly nations and any banner or sign opposing the Government. Its reach extended beyond parades to include any public display of illegal flags, signs, or banners.

Leo Mahoney, an ardent Independent Voters Association supporter and editor of the Columbus Reporter in Burke County, was one of the few people arrested under North Dakota's Anti Red Flag law. Mahoney built three fake 'graves' as an effigy representing unseated Non-Partisan League politicians, complete with a red flag flying above. Supporters of the Non-Partisan League were not impressed with the display, and promptly reported Mahoney to authorities for flying the red flag of Socialism in public.

Proponents of anti-flag laws countered First Amendment arguments by saying the flags incited riots, like in Cleveland, and were a threat to public safety. However, in 1933 the Supreme Court of the United States found California's anti-flag laws unconstitutional because they denied due process under the Fourteenth Amendment. Despite being largely unenforceable, North Dakota's anti red flag laws were not repealed until 1973.

Dakota Datebook written by Derek Dahlsad.


Morgan, Ted. Reds: McCarthyism in Twentieth-Century America. Random House, 2004.

"May Day Riots," The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, http://ech.cwru.edu/ech-cgi/article.pl?id=MDR 5/31/2014.

"The NPL's Road to Ruin," North Dakota Studies, http://www.ndstudies.org/articles/political_pulse_the_npls_road_to_ruin 5/31/2014.

"Socialism Gets Triple Blow At Jamestown Talk," Bismarck Tribune, 6/29/1920.

Hall, Thomas. Laws Passed at the 17th Session of the Legislative Assembly of North Dakota. Normanden Publishing Co, 1921.

"Charge Editor With Violating Red Flag Law," Bismarck Tribune, 11/8/1921.

Stromberg v. California, Legal Information Institute http://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/283/359 5/31/2014.

North Dakota Century Code, http://www.legis.nd.gov/general-information/north-dakota-century-code