Parsons, Lucy, 1853-1942

Lucy Parsons
Lucy Parsons

A biography of anarchist labour organiser and wife of Haymarket Martyr Albert Parsons, Lucy Parsons.

Submitted by Steven. on February 19, 2006

Little is known about the early life of Lucy Parsons. She claimed to have been born the daughter of a Mexican women, Marie del Gather and John Waller, a Creek Indian, and orphaned at age three. From there she said she was raised on a ranch in Texas by her maternal uncle. However, later research has pointed to the possibility that she was a slave in Texas.

Around 1870 she met Albert Parsons, a former Confederate soldier turned radical Republican and married him in either 1871 or 1872.

Forced to flee Texas because of their mixed marriage, they settled in Chicago in 1873 and became heavily involved in the revolutionary elements of the labour movement. In 1877 Lucy Parsons opened a dress shop after her husband was blacklisted from the printing trade. She began writing articles about the homeless and unemployed, Civil War veterans, and working women for The Socialist in 1878, and gave birth to two children within the next few years. Known for being a powerful writer and speaker, Parsons played a crucial role in the workers' movements in Chicago.

In 1883 she helped found the International Working People's Association (IWPA), an anarchist-influenced labor organisation that promoted revolutionary direct action towards a stateless and cooperative society and insisted on the equality of people of color and women. Parsons became a frequent contributor to the IPWA weekly paper The Alarm in 1884. Her most famous piece was "To Tramps," which encouraged workers and the unemployed to rise up in direct acts of violence against the rich.

Although Parsons was primarily a labour activist, she was also a staunch advocate of the rights of African Americans. She wrote numerous articles and pamphlets condemning racist attacks and killings. her most significant piece being "The Negro: Let Him Leave Politics to the Politician and Prayer to the Preacher." Published in The Alarm on April 3rd, 1886, the article was a response to the lynching of thirteen African Americans in Corrollton, MS. In it, she claimed that blacks where only victimized because they were poor, and that racism would inevitably disappear with the destruction of capitalism.

In 1886 Parsons and the IPWA worked with the other industrial trade unions for a general strike in support of the 8 hour work day beyinning on the first of May that involved close to 80,000 workers. Five days later at a rally at Haymarket Square in support of the strike, a bomb was hurled at police officers after they attacked the demonstration. Police blamed the IWPA and began rounding up anarchist organisers, including Albert Parsons. Lucy Parsons took the lead in organising their defence, and after they were a!l found guilty of murder, she travelled the country speaking on behalf of their innocence and raising money for their appeals. In November of that year her husband was hanged, along with the other three Haymarket defendants.

After her husband's death, Parsons continued revolutionary activism on behalf of workers, political prisoners, people of color, the homeless, and women. In 1892 she published the short lived Freedom, which attacked Iynchings and black peonage. In 1905 she participated in the founding of the Industrial Workers of the World, a syndicalist trade union, and also published a paper called The Liberator. In 1927 she was made a member of the National Committee of the International Labor Defense, a communist-led organisation that defended labor activists and unjustly accused African Americans such as the Scottsboro Nine and Angelo Herndon.

After working with the Communist Party for a number of years, she finally joined in 1939, despairing of the advance of both capitalism and fascism on the world stage and unconvinced of the anarchists' ability to effectively confront them.

After almost 50 years of continuous activism, Parsons died in a fire in her Chicago home in 1942. Viewed as a threat to the political order in death as well as life, her personal papers and books were seized by the police from the gutted house.

By Joe Lowndes


Juan Conatz

14 years 3 months ago

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Submitted by Juan Conatz on February 8, 2010


So which is true?


Towards the end of her life when the US anarchist movement has largely collapsed she was active in the Communist Party dominated 'International Labour Defense'. Unfortunately this allowed some to claim she had joined the Communist Party - a claim that is too often repeated by many anarchists today. In fact there is no evidence for this. The CP did publish an obituary when she died it but did not claim she was ever a member - surely a major oversight if she had been. Her own attitude to working with the ILD is probably best expressed in her 1930 May Day speech, which delivered at the age of 77. In it she appeals for support for the "hundreds and hundreds" of CP members in prison cells but she also declares "I am an anarchist: I have no apology to make to a single man women or child, because I am an anarchist, because anarchism carries the very germ of liberty in its womb."

At the age of 81 she replies to an anarchist who had written to her about the state of the US movement at that time. She says "Anarchism has not produced any organized ability in the present generation, only a few loose struggling groups scattered over this vast country, that come together in conferences occasionally, talk to each other, then go home"... "Do you call this a movement?" ... "I went to work for the International Labour 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."

Black Badger

14 years 3 months ago

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Submitted by Black Badger on February 8, 2010

It's probably false to claim that she joined the Party, but who cares? Paul Robeson was never a member of the Party either, but he might as well have been for all his full support for all CP policies and lines. Lucy Parsons' claims to being an anarchist, while obviously sincere, were outweighed by her close and long-lasting cooperation and collaboration with CP fronts, and her dismissal and/or rejection of many anarchist projects and campaigns during the years she was active. Part of the reason that she quit hanging around with anarchists were her trade (not industrial) unionist activities (even though she was present at the founding of the IWW, she was never a member, nor was she much of a supporter). Another was her rejection of free love, which alienated her from the mainstream of American anarchism. Her relationship with her son, whom she forcibly committed to an asylum, was another problematic issue (the excuse was that she did it in order to protect him from being drafted, but he died there). To be sure nobody's perfect, but especially public activists need to be called on their shortcomings, preferably while they're still around. Lucy Parsons was an important person in early American anarchism, but that's no excuse for allowing her legacy to go unchallenged.


9 years 3 months ago

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Submitted by doug on February 9, 2015

"even though she was present at the founding of the IWW, she was never a member, nor was she much of a supporter"

From the IWW website:

In response to the growing labor unrest throughout the country, the labor movement in Chicago mobilized, planning a Continental Congress of labor for June 1905. Before that, however, Big Bill Haywood called a convention drawing anarchists, syndicalists and trade unionists. This was the founding convention of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) which united these groups with the new revolutionary model it offered. For Lucy Parsons, the second woman to join this new organization, the class conscious perspective of the IWW mirrored her political leanings. She believed that a revolution could only come through a well-organized working class movement that seized the methods of production, and that the IWW's tactics of militant strikes and direct action would enable this movement. Lucy promoted the idea of a general strike and spoke strongly for this at the founding convention.

After a major shift towards industrial unionism, in 1905 Lucy began editing The Liberator, a paper published by the IWW and based in Chicago. Through this medium, she took her stand on other women's issues, supporting a woman's right to divorce, remarry, and have access to birth control. She also wrote a column about famous women and a history of the working class.

From 1907-1908, a period encompassing huge economic crashes, Lucy organized against hunger and unemployment. In San Francisco Lucy and the IWW took over the Unemployment Committee, pressuring the state to begin a public works project. The San Francisco government's refusal to acknowledge the committee gave rise to a march of ten thousand people. At the front were unemployed women. The success of Lucy's Chicago Hunger Demonstrations in January 1915 pushed the American Federation of Labor, the Socialist Party, and Jane Addam's Hull House to participate in a huge demonstration on February 12. Two weeks after this demonstration, the government began planning for a decentralization of hunger and unemployment policy.