Lucy Parsons: Labor Radical and Anarchist, IWW Founder

"I Am Still a Rebel"

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Lucy Parsons: Labor Radical and Anarchist, IWW Founder." ThoughtCo, Sep. 16, 2017, thoughtco.com/lucy-parsons-biography-3530417. Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2017, September 16). Lucy Parsons: Labor Radical and Anarchist, IWW Founder. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/lucy-parsons-biography-3530417 Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Lucy Parsons: Labor Radical and Anarchist, IWW Founder." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/lucy-parsons-biography-3530417 (accessed September 21, 2017).
Lucy Parsons, 1915 arrest
Lucy Parsons, arrested 1915 in Hull House protest. Courtesy Library of Congress

Lucy Parsons (about March 1853? - March 7, 1942) was an early socialist activist "of color." She was a founder of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, the "Wobblies"), the widow of executed "Haymarket Eight" figure, Albert Parsons, and a writer and speaker.  As an anarchist and radical organizer, she was associated with many of the social movements of her time.  

Origins

Lucy Parsons' origins are not documented, and she told different stories about her background so it's difficult to sort fact from myth.

Lucy was probably born a slave, though she denied any African heritage, claiming only Native American and Mexican ancestry. Her name before marriage to Albert Parsons was Lucy Gonzalez. She may have been married before 1871 to Oliver Gathing.

Albert Parsons

In 1871, the dark-skinned Lucy Parsons married Albert Parsons, a white Texan and former Confederate soldier who had become a radical Republican after the Civil War. Ku Klux Klan presence in Texas was strong, and dangerous for anyone in an interracial marriage, so the couple moved to Chicago in 1873.

Socialism in Chicago

In Chicago, Lucy and Albert Parsons lived in a poor community and became involved in the Social Democratic Party, associated with Marxist socialism. When that organization folded, they joined the Workingmen's Party of the United States (WPUSA, known after 1892 as the Socialist Labor Party, or SLP). The Chicago chapter met in the Parsons home.

Lucy Parsons began her career as a writer and lecturer, writing for the WPUSA's paper, the Socialist, and speaking for the WPUSA and the Working Women's Union.

Lucy Parsons and her husband Albert left the WPUSA in the 1880s and joined an anarchist organization, the International Working People's Association (IWPA), believing that violence was necessary for working people to overthrow capitalism, and for racism to be ended.

Haymarket

In May, 1886, both Lucy Parsons and Albert Parsons were leaders of a strike in Chicago for an eight-hour work day. The strike ended in violence and eight of the anarchists were arrested, including Albert Parsons. They were accused of responsibility for a bomb which killed four police officers, though witnesses testified that none of the eight threw the bomb. The strike came to be called the Haymarket Riot.

Lucy Parsons was a leader in the efforts to defend the "Haymarket Eight" but Albert Parsons was among the four who were executed. Their daughter died shortly after.

Lucy Parsons' Later Activism

She started a paper, Freedom, in 1892, and continued writing, speaking, and organizing. She worked with, among others, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. In 1905 Lucy Parsons was among those who founded the Industrial Workers of the World ("Wobblies") with others including Mother Jones, starting an IWW newspaper in Chicago.

In 1914 Lucy Parsons led protests in San Francisco, and in 1915 organized demonstrations around hunger that brought together Chicago's Hull House and Jane Addams, the Socialist Party, and the American Federation of Labor.

Lucy Parsons may have joined the Communist Party in 1939 (Gale Ahrens disputes this common claim).

She died in a house fire in 1942 in Chicago. Government agents searched her home after the fire and removed many of her papers.

More About Lucy Parsons

Also known as: Lucy González Parson, Lucy Gonzalez Parson, Lucy González, Lucy Gonzalez, Lucy Waller

Background, Family:

  • parents unknown
  • possibly born a slave on a plantation in Texas (she denied having African heritage)

Marriage, Children:

  • husband: Albert Parsons (married 1871; printer; former Confederate soldier; radical Republican, later labor union activist and socialist and anarchist)
  • children: Albert Richard (1879-?) and Lula Eda (1881-1889)
  • may also have been married to Oliver Gathing before her marriage to Albert Parsons

Lucy Parsons Resources

  • Ashbaugh, Carolyn. Lucy Parsons, American Revolutionary. 1976.

Selected Lucy Parsons Quotations

• Let us sink such differences as nationality, religion, politics, and set our eyes eternally and forever toward the rising star of the industrial republic of labor.

• The involuntary aspiration born in man to make the most of one's self, to be loved and appreciated by one's fellow-beings, to "make the world better for having lived in it," will urge him on the nobler deeds than ever the sordid and selfish incentive of material gain has done.

• 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.

• We are the slaves of slaves. We are exploited more ruthlessly than men.

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

• 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.

• Never be deceived that the rich will permit you to vote away their wealth.

• Strike not for a few cents more an hour, because the price of living will be raised faster still, but strike for all you earn, be content with nothing less.

• Concentrated power can be always wielded in the interest of the few and at the expense of the many. Government in its last analysis is this power reduced to a science. Governments never lead; they follow progress. When the prison, stake or scaffold can no longer silence the voice of the protesting minority, progress moves on a step, but not until then.

• Let every dirty, lousy tramp arm himself with a revolver or knife on the steps of the palace 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

• You are not absolutely defenseless. For the torch of the incendiary, which has been known with impunity, cannot be wrested from you.

• 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?

• So many able writers have shown that the unjust institutions which work so much misery and suffering to the masses have their root in governments, and owe their whole existence to the power derived from government we cannot help but believe that were every law, every title deed, every court, and every police officer or soldier abolished tomorrow with one sweep, we would be better off than now.

• Oh, Misery, I have drunk thy cup of sorrow to its dregs, but I am still a rebel.

• Chicago Police Department description of Lucy Parsons: "More dangerous than a thousand rioters..."