Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Lucy Parsons, Labor Activist and Anarchist

Lucy Parsons
Lucy Parson was a radical political activist who fought passionately for the working class of Chicago's immigrant neighborhoods; described by police as "more dangerous than a thousand rioters."

"Never be deceived that the rich will allow you to vote away their wealth." ~ Lucy Parson, 1905

Not a great deal is know about Lucy Parson's early life as she gave conflicting reports of her personal history, and what items she had were destroyed or taken by the FBI after she died. What is generally agreed upon by historians is that she was most likely enslaved and born in Texas in 1853, and of African, Mexican, and Native American descent.

She married former soldier Albert Parsons in Texas in 1871 and they moved to Chicago two years later. As a progressive and inter-racial couple, their motivation for moving was the spreading popularity of the KKK, who were lynching black people and white if they expressed resistance to the segregationist views of the South.

The couple's own brush with the KKK came in 1872, when Albert was shot in the leg and threatened with lynching due to his efforts to register black voters.


In 1873 the city of Chicago was undergoing rapid changes, and the results were chaotic. Industrialization was on the rise and immigrants poured into the city from all areas; the city bulged and busted at the seams trying to accommodate them, but could not.

An investigation into the housing situation in 1873 in Chicago revealed that homes designed for 6-7 people were being used to house 30 or 40 at a time. Children played in animal and industrial filth in the streets. Half of the children never survived to the age of five.

The situation for immigrant workers in Chicago was dire. To get and keep jobs they bent to abusive tactics by employers and worked in horrendous conditions. Far from being blind to their situation, talk among the immigrants was of socialism and revolution, themes that were spreading rapidly through Europe at that time.

It was in the immigrant neighborhoods of Chicago among circles of radical European immigrants that Lucy and Albert Parsons became familiar with the ideas of Karl Marx and other social theorists, and they soon became members of the Chicago Branch of the Workingman's Party (WP).

The Great Railroad Strike

In 1877 there was a national railroad strike, the first general strike in US history. Beginning in West Virginia as a strike against wage cuts, it quickly spread along the railroad to Chicago, where every railroad worker joined in and trains were overturned on the tracks to block passage.

This event was one of the most significant in the history of Chicago's labor activism and hastened the rise of radicalism. Lucy Parsons would later write of this event, “It was during the great railroad strike of 1877 that I first became interested in what is known as the ‘Labor Question’.”

The WP backed the strike full-force, with Albert giving a speech at one time to as many as 25,000 striking workers.

Chicago's police response to these actions was vicious and bloody; the police and the newly-formed Illinois National Guard would break up the rallies with guns, swords, and cannons. Several dozen workers were killed, and more were wounded. The local press was unsympathetic at best, reporting that “The world owes these classes [of people] rather extermination than a livelihood” (Chicago Tribune, 1877).

These losses only served to galvanize the working class, and the WP - now renamed the Socialist Labor Party, or SLP - grew dramatically in ranks.

WP rally flyer
Lucy became more politically active. When Albert was fired and blacklisted from working in printing establishments for his involvement with a labor strike in 1879, she worked full-time as a dressmaker to support them and the baby she was by then expecting.

Lucy began writing articles for the newspaper run by the SLP called The Socialist. She organized housewives and other women who went without wages into the SLP's Working Women's Union, and when the Knights of Labor began accepting female members in 1879 she was one of the first.

Formation of the IWPA

By the end of 1881, the SLP had undergone a split in ranks across the country. The revolutionary wing in Chicago (of which Lucy and Albert were supporters) began calling itself the Socialist Revolutionary Club. Two years later, the group would participate in the formation of a new group called the International Working People's Association, or IWPA.

The IWPA was formed with a militant view in mind, believing that property damage, sabotage, and political assassinations were the main catalysts of a social revolution. Stated in the group's Manifesto was the following: "No ruling class has ever laid down its privileges without a struggle. It becomes, therefore, self-evident that the struggle of the proletariat with the bourgeoisie will be of a violent revolutionary character.”


While the IWPA does not formally mention the word "anarchy" in its Manifesto, it is a term the was increasingly assigned to the group, by both members and rivals.

Lucy also began referring to herself as an anarchist at this time. She gave the following explanation for this belief:

"The government could be made an instrument in the hands of the oppressed to alleviate their sufferings. But a closer study of the origin, history and tendency of governments convinced me that this was a mistake. … that it made no difference what fair promises a political party, out of power, might make to the people in order to secure their confidence, when once securely established in control of the affairs of society.”

She went on: “the struggle for liberty is too great and the few steps we have gained have been at too great a sacrifice, for the great mass of the people … to consent to turn over to any political party the management of our social and industrial affairs.”

“For these and other reasons, [I] turned from a sincere, earnest, political Socialist to the non-political phase of Socialism — Anarchism.”

Said Albert of the IWPA, “We are called Communists, Socialists, or Anarchists. We accept all three of the terms.”

Rising revolution

As the fight against oppression continued among the lower working class, the capitalist press was unsympathetic. Advised the Chicago Tribune following a strike by sailors for an increase in pay: "When a tramp asks you for bread, put strychnine or arsenic on it and he will not trouble you any more, and others will keep out of the neighborhood."

It was in response to this the Lucy wrote one of her most famous articles, entitled "To Tramps, the Unemployed, the Disinherited, and Miserable,” published in the first edition of the newspaper The Alarm, started by Lucy and Albert in 1884.

In this article Lucy addressed the "35,000 now tramping the streets of this great city, with hands in pockets, gazing listlessly about you at the evidence of wealth and pleasure of which you own no part, not sufficient even to purchase yourself a bit of food with which to appease the pangs of hunger now gnawing at your vitals."

"Have you not worked hard all your life, since you were old enough for your labor to be of use in the production of wealth? Have you not toiled long, hard and laboriously in producing wealth? And in all those years of drudgery do you not know you have produced thousands upon thousands of dollar’s worth of wealth, which you did not then, do not now, and unless you ACT, never will, own any part in?"

"… Awaken them [the industrial bosses] from their wanton sport at your expense! Send forth your petition and let them read it by the red glare of destruction. Thus when you cast “one long lingering look behind” you can be assured that you have spoken to these robbers in the only language which they have ever been able to understand, for they have never yet deigned to notice any petition from their slaves that they were not to read by the red glare bursting from the cannon’s mouths, or that was not handed to them upon the point of the sword."

For this fiery rhetoric Lucy became known throughout Chicago and beyond. She was described by reporters even in other states as being a "wonderfully strong writer" and a compelling speaker, exceeding even her husband when it came to inspiring a crowd. She began regularly addressing crowds in the thousands in the streets of Chicago.

As compassionate as she was regarding the working class and oppressed, for the capitalists she held nothing but contempt.

In a meeting of the IWPA in May of 1885 following the killing of two striking workers in a Chicago quarry, Lucy was recorded by the Chicago Tribune as saying, "Let every dirty, lousy tramp arm himself with a revolver or knife and lay in wait on the steps of the palaces of the rich and stab or shoot their owners as they come out. Let us kill them without mercy, and let it be a war of extermination and without pity. Let us devastate the avenues where the wealthy live as [General] Sheridan devastated the beautiful valley of the Shenandoah."

The Haymarket Riot

In 1886 the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions organized a May Day general strike to demand an eight-hour day, a protest against the 10-12 hour day most workers experienced.

Taking up the call "For an eight-hour day, with no reduction in pay!" the IWPA with its thousands of members joined the event, and on May 1st, 80,000 worker lay down their tools and marched up Michigan Avenue. The march was monitored by police and local militia, but the day ended peacefully.

Following this march, there was a strike at a nearby factory called the McCormick Reaper Works. On May 3rd, striking workers attacked some scabbers as they were leaving the plant, and the crowd was immediately set upon by two hundred policemen, who were firing their guns. Two of the workers were killed.

The IWPA called for a rally the next night in Haymarket Square to protest these deaths. The Mayor of Chicago, Carter Harrison, was sympathetic to the plight of the workers and had his men stand by, one block from the square, saying "I want the people to know their Mayor is here."

After Albert Parsons and other leaders of the IWPA spoke, rain began to fall and the crowd began to disperse. Mayor Harrison left the scene, stopping first to speak with Police Chief Jack Bonfield and express that the crowd posed no threat, as he saw it.

After Harrison left, the police attacked the crowd. From somewhere within the crowd of workers, a bomb was thrown towards the police, who began to shoot wildly, some of them hitting their own men. After the smoke had cleared, seven policemen were dead and sixty were injured, some by the shot fired within their ranks. A similar number of protesters were killed and injured, though that was hard to assess as so few would admit to even being there.

Arrest and appeal

The police began taking the protesters and anarchist leaders into custody. Though no-one had been able to identify the bomber, seven men stood trial for murder, based on their "inflammatory speeches." One June 21st, they were joined by an eighth man, when Albert Parsons turned himself in to stand trial with his comrades.

Defense lawyer William Perkins Black provided alibis for all eight men, only two of whom had even been at the rally, and were clearly visible on stage when the bomb was thrown. Despite this defense, the judge allowed men who had already decided on the verdict of guilty to sit in the jury, and they reached a verdict in three hours: death by hanging for seven of the men, including Parsons, and 15 years in jail for the eight.

Albert Parsons, 1880

Friends and supporters of the men immediately launched an appeal, and there was a national campaign asking for clemency. Even bankers and governors weighed in on the decision, believing that granting clemency would be a step towards restoring peace to the city and coming to some kind of an agreement between labor and the upper class.

Lucy herself rallied furiously to save the men, speaking in front of as many as 200,000 people in over 50 speeches and 17 states to alert people to the crisis, but ultimately the judge was unmoved.

One of the prisoners had dynamite smuggled into the jail, and committed suicide in his own cell. Two others had their sentences reduced to life in prison. On November 11th, 1887 however, the fate would be sealed for four of the men: Albert Parsons, August Spies, George Engel, and Adolph Fischer were brought out in front of a crowd with hoods on their faces, and hanged.

Lucy did not witness the hanging of her husband, for when she went to the prison with her two children on the morning of November 11th to let them say goodbye to their father, they were refused entry. Instead, the police arrested Lucy and her children, then stripped them naked and threw them in a cell where they would remain until the evening, long after Albert had already died.

Aftermath of the riots

After the death of Albert, Lucy threw herself into her revolutionary work with a very real vengeance. Her first task was to publish a book that Albert had been writing in jail, titled "Anarchism: Its Philosophy and Scientific Basis." Released in December of 1887, the police confiscated all but 300 copies of the first edition by taking over the print shop where it was produced.

With the writings of Albert in hand and her own pamphlets, Lucy embarked on a speaking tour in 1888. She sold pamphlets and literature, using the tour as a means to bring the idea of a workers' revolution to as wide an audience as possible.

Back in Chicago, the effect of the Haymarket riots was to quiet the crowds, and the memberships in the workers' unions saw a steep decline. The crowds had been cowed. The example provided by the judge when he allowed the four leaders of the anarchist movement to be executed had its intended effect.

Lucy would not be quieted however and in 1891, she began editing and distributing her own newspaper, Freedom: A Revolutionary Anarchist-Communist Monthly. In this publication she drew the public's attention to such issues as lynching, ongoing labor disputes, and the epidemic of rape within marriage.

Later years

In the decades following the riots, police continued to pursue Lucy and prevent her from speaking in public whenever possible. In 1896 in a meeting to commemorate the Haymarket Martyrs in Chicago, Lucy stood to speak but was only able to utter two sentences before being arrested. At a meeting in New Jersey, she was arrested before even entering the hall.

She remained incredibly active in spite of these arrests and was a familiar sight on the city streets as she trudged for miles, selling pamphlets, books, and newspapers while dodging the police.
She participated vigorously and lent her time to various organizations, and her views modified over the years as she and other activists saw what was working and what was not, within the movement.

By 1905 she was no longer pushing the notion that violence was the oppressed worker's only resort in their fight against capitalism. Instead, she encouraged them to organize and utilize their strength in numbers.

In 1927 Lucy was elected to the Executive Committee of the International Labor Defense (ILD), a group dedicated to defending the victims of capital repression both in and out of jail. In this capacity she participated in some of the most important legal civil rights battles of that time, including organizing against the executions of socialist leaders and black workers who had been targeted due to race or political belief.

In a fascinating letter penned by Lucy to a friend at this time, she looks back on what attracted her to the ILD organization following the frustration she found within anarchy:

"Anarchism has not produced any organized ability in the present generation, only a few little loose, struggling groups, scattered over this vast country, that come together in ‘conferences’ occasionally, talk to each other, then go home.

"Anarchists are good at showing the shortcomings of others’ organizations. But what have they done in the last fifty years … Nothing to build up a movement; they are mere pipe-dreamers dreaming. Consequently, Anarchism doesn’t appeal to the public … [It] is a dead issue in American life today.

"I went to work for the International Labor Defense (ILD) because I wanted to do a little something to help defend the victims of capitalism who got into trouble, and not always be talking, talking, talking.”

On March 7th, 1942, Lucy Parson was found dead in her kitchen following a fire in her Chicago home. She was 89 years old.

The moment it was safe to enter the wreckage, the FBI raided the scene and confiscated over 3,000 volumes of literature and writings on "sex, socialism, and anarchy," from Lucy's personal collection. Despite the requests of her friends and associates, this material was never seen by the public again.

Lucy's Legacy

Labeled by some of her opponents as an opportunist, Lucy is recognized by many historians as a powerful and influential leader quite separate from her husband, devoted to the cause of the poor and disadvantaged, and one who continued to speak out against their oppression for decades after her husband was executed.

The fact that the FBI has so thoroughly attempted to obliterate her memory and works is a red flag to most, summed up well by one researcher of Parson's Work, Keith Rosenthal, in his well-researched and thorough document Lucy Parsons: More Dangerous Than A Thousand Rioters:

"The strongest argument that can be made as to why all radical activists should study the life and works of Lucy Parsons is that the FBI wants you to know nothing about her."

Lucy Parsons, guest of honor at the November 1927
International Labor Defense Convention

Lucy Parsons life was remarkable, yet still hidden from mainstream history. When she is referenced, it's frequently in regard to being the wife of Albert Parsons. Others who recognize her as an independent revolutionary may call her the first minority activist, but this is inaccurate, as there were so many other minority activists in the United States alone at that time - we just don't know their names and faces.

Regardless of what you call her, Lucy Parsons deserves an equal place in history as one of the most powerful speakers and influential anarchist leaders the nation has ever seen.


"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.”

“Anarchism has but one infallible, unchangeable motto, 'Freedom.' Freedom to discover any truth, freedom to develop, to live naturally and fully."

  • Lucy Parsons Biography, Biography.com
  • Lucy Parsons: "More Dangerous Than A Thousand Rioters," Keith Rosenthal, Joan of Mark. September 6th, 2011
  • People and Events: The Anarchist and the Haymarket Square Incident (May 4, 1886), PBS.org

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