“She is more dangerous than a thousand rioters…” - The Chicago Police Department description of Lucy Parsons
Lucy Eldine Gonzalez Parsons was dedicated to the struggle for justice and peace in the early beginnings of the anarchist labor movement of the late 1800s. Born into slavery Texas in 1853, the still intact slavery laws deemed as property because of her mixed African-American, Native-American and Mexican heritage. Not much is known about Lucy’s early life because of this, though one can only assume that the experiences of inequality and slavery planted in her the early seeds of working against injustice. When her status changed, no one is really sure, but at some point, Lucy was freed from slavery. Her life continued on in hardship until 1871, when she met Albert Parsons, an ex-Confederate soldier and soon-to-be notable radical leader. At the time, he was dedicating himself to Reconstruction measures , securing political rights for former slaves and running a leftist political newspaper he had started called The Waco Spectator. It was on an outing for The Houston Daily Telegraph and The Spectator, that he would meet Lucy at a rally for former slaves securing rights that their paths would forever change. They were married in 1871.
The social climate during their time in Texas was to say gently, intolerable and highly charged from the recent loss of the Civil War. Not only were the Parsons targeted for their left-wing views and publication, but they also for what was considered the symbolic threat of their interracial marriage. They fled to Chicago, hoping to escape into a much more tolerant society and to begin working and organizing with northern laborers who were subjected to horrific working conditions in Chicago. Lucy and Albert began speaking to workers at large scale public rallies on the abuses of capitalism – the long hours, little pay and sexual abuse would not stand. While the pair’s reputation for being activists grew in Chicago, Lucy began juggling a life that would combine her own experiences with the need for social justice. While Albert worked solely as an organizer, Lucy supported their organizational efforts, as well as their two children, working as a dressmaker, where she experienced first hand the actual horrific working conditions that they spoke against.
While involved in the Chicago labor movement, she began writing for The Socialist and The Alarm, publications that were by and for the International Working People’s Association. While she became one of the more well-known, yet few female anarchist activists, she ideologically believed that class politics took precedence over the gender and sexual struggles that known activist, Emma Goldman was dedicating herself to. Though the two were deeply involved with the IWP, their different view points resulted in idealogical and personal conflict that would be later expressed in their personal papers.
During this time, the Parsons were involved in the Haymarket Affair, a May Day rally of striking workers, whose protest was interrupted by a bomb thrown at the Chicago police. The blast ignited gunfire and eight police officers were left dead, as well as an unknown number of citizens that had been participating in the rally. Eight anarchists, including Albert, were brought to trial. The trial was chaotic, as emotions and fear were irrationally fanned by the newspapers. Eventually four men, including Albert, were convicted and sentenced to death. Lucy was left alone, with her anger igniting her cause.
In 1892, she began publishing Freedom: A Revolutionary Anarchist-Communist Monthly, a collection of literature that explored issues from the defense of other anarchist (including the arrest, trial and execution of her husband), the struggles of African-Americans in the North and the continuing violence and racism in the South. She most famously published an essay on the Scottsboro Eight in Alabama, speaking fervently against the lynchings, a piece which warranted her a position as a notable public speaker in many Chicago rallies. This also made her a target for the corrupt and racist police department who perceived her as a threat to a certain way of life.
There is an innate spring of healthy action in every human being who has not been crushed and pinched by poverty and drudgery from before his birth, that impels him onward and upward.
In 1905, she helped found the Industrial Workers of the World, an international union working towards the abolishment of the class and wage system. In conjunction, she began editing The Liberator, an anarchist-based newspaper that supported the Chicago branch of the Industrial Workers of the World. Her work began affecting on a larger scale, specifically when she organized the Chicago Hunger Demonstrations, which was picked up by the American Federation of Labor, The Hull House and The Socialist Party.
My conception of the strike of the future is not to strike and go out and starve, but to strike and remain in and take possession of the necessary property of production.
The Hunger Strike was recognized internationally and became the inspiration for workers’ factory takeovers in Argentina earlier this year. She began collaborating with the International Labor Defense and wrote more pieces defending the Scottsboro Nine and Angelo Herndon. She continued giving speeches at rallies in Chicago, as well as nation wide. These speeches were always joked about for their brevity, as she would normally be arrested on the spot right as her speech would begin or if she was half way through. Pulitzer Prize winner Studs Terkel would later be inspired by a speech that she gave at the age of 80, sighting it as one of the reasons he went into social justice.
If, in the present chaotic and shameful struggle for existence, when organized society offers a premium on greed, cruelty, and deceit, men can be found who stand aloof and almost alone in their determination to work for good rather than gold, who suffer want and persecution rather than desert principle, who can bravely walk to the scaffold for the good they can do humanity, what may we expect from men when freed from the grinding necessity of selling the better part of themselves for bread?
She died on March 7, 1942 in a house fire, the cause of which was never confirmed. Immediately after her death, the Chicago police confiscated her personal library and papers. It is unknown where they are currently. She was buried near her Albert in the Waldheim Cemetery.
Her commitment to workers’ rights has become a permanent fixture in the American labor movement . While you might not hear about her in a conventional history book or her presence maybe overshadowed by Emma Goldman, Parsons was a force of nature dedicated to bettering the working conditions and racial climate for generations to come, making her a badass lady of history.