Lucy Parsons: labor activist, writer and revolutionary

“I hope even now to live to see the day when the first dawn of the new era of labor will have arisen, when capitalism will be a thing of the past, and the new industrial republic, the commonwealth of labor, shall be in operation.”

— Lucy Parsons

Women of every oppressed nationality are often at the helm of revolutionary movements. Unfortunately, the contributions of women are frequently dismissed or forgotten.

The legacy and revolutionary spirit of Lucy Parsons is a constant reminder of the sacrifice, dedication and leadership provided by female activists. The Chicago Police Department described her as “more dangerous than a thousand rioters.”

Lucy Gonzalez was born in 1853 in Texas. In 1871, she married Albert Parsons, a writer and fellow radical. Her African, American Indian and Mexican heritage endangered their lives as an interracial couple in the South. In 1873, they moved to Chicago.

Upon their arrival, the couple became deeply involved in the fight against injustice. Working with the Social Democratic Party and the Workingmen’s Party of the United States, Lucy wrote for the WPUSA’s paper and became a lecturer and activist in her own right.

Due to their heavy political involvement, Albert Parsons was blacklisted. In response, Lucy became the primary financial provider for the family by opening a dress shop.

Lucy and Albert were leaders of a strike in Chicago on May 1, 1886, in support of the eight-hour workday. However, Lucy believed: “[T]he eight-hour day is antiquated. … Today we should be agitating for a five-hour workday.” A few days later, a bomb exploded as police dispersed a rally in Chicago’s Haymarket Square. Police blamed Albert, Lucy and other leaders for the ensuing violent confrontation in which seven police officers were killed and many others present were killed or wounded; activists were arrested and charged for the incident.

Parsons rose to notoriety in the labor movement for her defense of the eight activists arrested. Albert Parsons, and four other activists were executed in 1887 on charges they had conspired in the notorious 1886 Haymarket Riot, which ultimately led to the international celebration of May Day in subsequent years .

Widowed with two children, Parsons continued to struggle. In 1892, she founded the paper Freedom, and continued to advocate, write and organize against the oppression of working people.

In 1905, she helped form the Industrial Workers of the World. She was a founding member of the Chicago chapter and wrote for the organization’s paper. Drafted as a speaker at the IWW founding convention, Lucy used this opportunity to speak to the tactics required to end oppression and for success in strikes and outlined her vision:

Now, what do we mean when we say revolutionary Socialist?

We mean that the land shall belong to the landless, the tools to the toiler, and the products to the producers. . . . I believe that if every man and every woman who works, or who toils in the mines, mills, the workshops, the fields, the factories and the farms of our broad America should decide in their minds that they shall have that which of right belongs to them, and that no idler shall live upon their toil . . . then there is no army that is large enough to overcome you, for you yourselves constitute the army. . . .

Parsons continued to fight for the rights of all up until her death in 1942. Her focus was always on the eradication of oppression of all working people through the defeat of capitalism.

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