Lucy Parsons - Anarchism and a Life Dedicated to the Working Class
"Never be deceived that the rich will let you vote away their wealth." - Lucy Parsons
"Anarchists know that a long period of education must precede any great fundamental change in society, hence they do not believe in vote begging, nor political campaigns, but rather in the development of self-thinking individuals." - Lucy Parsons
"Anarchism has but one infallible, unchangeable motto, "Freedom." Freedom to discover any truth, freedom to develop, to live naturally and fully." - Lucy Parsons
Although Lucy Parsons was one of the first and most important African American activists on the left, there is scanty historical documentation about her origins. Although Lucy claimed Mexican and Native American ancestry and to have been born in Texas, it is known that she was born a slave in Virginia behind 1853 and only arrived in the Johnson Country area after she was moved there by her owner, along with other slaves, during the Civil War in order to prevent them from seeking refuge in Union lines. Her biographer argues that Lucy may have lived for a while with another former slave by the name of Oliver Gathing. Later, she married Albert Parsons in 1871. Albert became a white radical Republican and Reconstructionist, after first serving as a Confederate soldier in his youth. Due to their political viewpoint and interracial marriage, Lucy and Albert were forced to migrate from Texas to Chicago in 1873.
Albert and Lucy Parsons arrived in Chicago during a period stamped by an economic crisis, the Depression of 1873, and intense labor unrest. Living among Chicago’s impoverished yet militant workers served as the catalyst for the Parsons' political transformation from radical Republicanism to participants in the radical labor movement. Their initial association with the political left was through the Social Democratic Party and the First International, founded by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. It was through this contact that the Parsons became aware of the socialist ideology of Marxism. They later became members of the Chicago Chapter of the Workingmen's Party (WPUSA) and many of its meetings were held in the Parsons’ home.
The year 1877 saw a significant change in US domestic policy. That year marked the end of the Reconstruction era and the start of the first general strike ever witnessed in this country, the Great Railroad Strike. Lucy Parsons, as a WPUSA partisan, was actively involved in the strike. By the end of 1877, however, there was a split in the Party and from out of this rupture emerged the Socialist Labor Party (SLP). Lucy Parsons joined the SLP and wrote for its paper, the Socialist. She was also in the leadership of the Working Women’s Union, an ancillary organization of the Party, and she campaigned for women’s suffrage and equal pay for women. SLP’s political reformism and peaceful approach to capitalism eventually led to Lucy Parsons’ departure. A staunch militant revolutionary, Parsons advocated the overthrow of capitalism and African American armed resistance to racist violence. In 1892, Parsons founded her own newspaper, Freedom. This paper addressed such issues as lynching and the plight of African Americans in peonage.
Described by the Chicago Police Department as "more dangerous than a thousand rioters" in the 1920s, Parsons and her husband had become highly effective anarchist organizers primarily involved in the labor movement in the late 19th century, but also participating in revolutionary activism on behalf of political prisoners, people of color, the homeless and women. In 1886, her husband, who had been heavily involved in campaigning for the eight-hour day, was arrested, tried, and executed on November 11, 1887, by the state of Illinois on charges that he had conspired in the Haymarket Riot, an event which was widely regarded as a political frame-up and which marked the beginning of May Day labor rallies in protest. Prior to his death, he and Lucy had two children together, Albert Richard Parsons, Jr. and Lulu Eda Parsons. Lucy Parsons was invited to write for the French anarchist journal Les Temps Nouveaux and spoke alongside William Morris and Peter Kropotkin during a visit to Great Britain in 1888.
By 1905, she became a founding member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). As an IWW organizer, Parsons fought on behalf of the homeless and unemployed, and she led significant battles on their behalf in San Francisco in 1914 and Chicago in 1915. She was also engaged in the struggle to support political prisoners and joined in the defense of the Scottsboro Boys and Angelo Herndon with the leftist civil-rights organization, International Labor Defense. Parsons began working with the Communist Party in 1935, and officially joined the party in 1939.
Throughout her life, Lucy Parson was a staunch supporter of workers, free speech, African-Americans, and women. Her firm defense of labor began gaining momentum when she and her husband, Albert Parsons, one of the Haymarket martyrs, moved from Texas to Chicago in 1873, and the pair became deeply involved in the labor movement there. She stood steadfastly behind workers and the poor, forcefully advocating the general strike, as well as, the rights to an eight-hour workday, higher pay, and better working conditions, among other things. In order to fulfill the workers' demands, Lucy believed that propaganda of the deed, direct action which sometimes included violence, was necessary. She felt that attempting reform within the political system was futile, and thus fought hard against those labor organizers who wished to support the Democrats in the 1890 elections. Her view of an ideal system was a syndicalist one; she wanted free workers' associations instead of the hierarchical class system. Acting on her conviction that a strong working class movement was the only way to incite the revolution; in 1905, Lucy helped found the Industrial Workers of the World. Furthermore, Lucy was a prominent supporter of anarchism, especially after Albert was hung for holding those beliefs. She became somewhat disillusioned; however, when in the 1920s and 30s, she began feeling that anarchism was no longer a potent revolutionary force. Because of this, she started working with the Communist Party, and eventually joined that organization in 1939. She felt that it was they who still promoted class consciousness and revolution. In spite of the fact that her ideology changed somewhat over the years, Lucy remained constant her defense of the working class.
Although she had fought for freedom of speech throughout her life, after traveling to England in 1888 to speak in front of the Socialist League of England, Lucy became even more deeply interested in the issue. In comparing the United States to England, she felt that the United States, despite its constitutional commitment to that freedom, was actually far more repressive of it. She celebrated the 1889 court ruling that anarchists also have a right to freedom of speech, but she believed this was still not sufficient. She continued the struggle until her death.
Similarly, her work in support of the rights of African-Americans began early in her life. While living in Texas, still a segregated and highly racist state at the time, she spoke out against the blatant inequalities caused by segregation. She felt that the problems facing blacks in the United States were caused in large part by the fact that the majority of the population was poor and that consequently as capitalism dwindled, racism would do the same. She also challenged the racist atmosphere by marrying Albert, a white man. Their anti-segregation work eventually forced them to leave Texas, but Lucy did not stop struggling for racial equality. Once in Chicago, she published many articles denouncing racism and racial violence, including her famous piece, "The Negro: Let Him Leave Politics to the Politician and Prayer to the Preacher." Her journal, Freedom , published in 1892, spoke out vehemently against the unequal and violent treatment of African-Americans.
In addition to defending the rights of African-Americans, Lucy spoke out against the repressed status of women in nineteenth century America. Wanting to challenge the notion that women could not be revolutionary, she took a very active, and often militant, role in the labor movement while passionately protesting the idea that a woman's only proper role was that of a homemaker. She was also a strong proponent of birth control and a woman's right to divorce and remarry. Unlike many anarchists, she did not feel that the modern ideals of marriage and family were wrong and oppressive, aka repressive capitalist social institutions used to keep the working class down. Further, she believed that the struggle for the rights of African-Americans and women were crucial to the labor movement and the broader fight against the oppression of capitalism.
Parsons continued to give fiery speeches in Chicago's Bughouse Square into her 80s, where she inspired Studs Terkel. One of her last major appearances was at the International Harvester in February of 1941.
Parsons died on March 7, 1942, in a house fire in the Avondale Community Area of Chicago. Her lover, George Markstall, died the next day from injuries he received while trying to save her. She was believed to be 89 years old. After her death, police seized her library of over 1,500 books and all of her personal papers. She is buried near her husband at Waldheim Cemetery, now Forest Home Cemetery, near the Haymarket Martyrs' Monument in Forest Park, Illinois.
On October 15, 2015, a copy of William Morris's Signs of Change: Seven Lectures Delivered on Various Occasions was sold at auction in England. It was inscribed "To Lucy E Parsons from William Morris November 15, 1888," bore a "Property of Federal Bureau of Investigation US Department of Justice" stamp, and a "Surplus Library of Congress Duplicate" stamp; some of its pages showed traces of smoke damage.
The Lucy Parsons Center was founded in 1970 in Boston, Massachusetts. It continues as a collectively-run radical bookstore and infoshop.
The 1989 short film Lucy Parsons Meets William Morris: A Hidden History, written, directed and produced by Ruth Dunlap Bartlett, aka Helena Stevens, fictionalized Lucy Parsons' 1888 visit to London.
In the 1990s, a local Chicago artist installed a memorial to Parsons in Wicker Park. In 2004, the City of Chicago named a park for her.
There is an excellent an anthology of her writings edited by Gale Ahrens called Freedom, Equality & Solidarity: Writings & Speeches, 1878-1937 (Charles H. Kerr, 2003). Allowing Parsons' voice to be heard without commentary, although it does have a useful Introduction by Ahrens and an Afterword by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, it is a more reliable introduction to her life and ideas.
On July 16, 2007, a book that purportedly belonged to Lucy Parsons was featured on a segment of the PBS television series, History Detectives. During the segment it was determined that the book, which was a biography of Albert Parsons' co-defendant August Spies' life and trial, was most likely a copy published and sold by Parsons as a means of raising money to prevent her husband's execution. The segment also provided background on Parsons' life and the Haymarket Affair.
In 2016, The Nation magazine released free and online a short film by animator Kelly Gallagher entitled, Lucy Parsons, More Dangerous Than a Thousand Rioters: The Revolutionary Life of Lucy Parsons.
A feature film is being made about Lucy Parsons, Albert Parsons and The Chicago Anarchists.
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