Lucy Parsons, Freedom, Equality and Solidarity: Writings and Speeches, 1878-1937

By Cochran, David | Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Lucy Parsons, Freedom, Equality and Solidarity: Writings and Speeches, 1878-1937


Cochran, David, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society


Lucy Parsons, Freedom, Equality and Solidarity: Writings and Speeches, 1878-1937. Edited and introduced by Gale Ahrens. Afterword by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr Publishing Company, 2003. Pp. 192. Illus. Paper, $17.00).

When Chicago's Park District Board named a vest-pocket park on the city's northwest side after Lucy Parsons in 2004, the local police union vigorously protested. After all, police representatives argued, Parsons had been a life-long agitator, widow of the executed Haymarket anarchist Albert Parsons, who had herself advocated of propaganda in her famous 1884 speech "To Tramps" that oppressed workers "Learn the use of explosives!" Parsons, no doubt, would be pleased to know that, more than sixty years after her death in 1942, she still can rattle the cages of the forces of social order.

Parsons's place in the history of American radicalism usually focuses on her connection to the 1886 Haymarket Square bombing and subsequent trial, in which her husband, Albert, was one of eight anarchist labor leaders convicted of murder and one of four eventually executed for the crime. But as this valuable anthology demonstrates, Lucy Parsons's career extended far beyond a single entry on the historical stage. In the decade before the Haymarket Affair, she had already established herself as a leading figure in Chicago's labor movement, having been one of the founders of the Working Women's Union in 1879, a pioneering effort at organizing women workers. And for a halfcentury after Albert's hanging, Lucy continued to educate and agitate for the rights of labor, women, African Americans, and the dispossessed.

Much about Lucy's early life is unknown, but it is likely that she was born a slave in Texas around 1853, of mixed black, Mexican, and Indian ancestry. In the early 187Os she married Albert Parsons, a printer and former Confederate soldier who had become a Radical Republican, and, a few years later, the two relocated to Chicago where they became involved in the city's labor movement. The two moved steadily leftward in their politics, from reformism to anarchism, and in 1883 they helped found the International Working People's Association and the next year Albert began publishing and editing the labor paper Alarm, to which Lucy contributed regularly. The Parsonses and other Chicago anarchists played a major role in organizing the original May Day demonstration on 1 May 1886, in which more than 100,000 workers demonstrated for an eight-hour workday, which was the context in which the Haymarket tragedy played out when the bomb exploded three days later.

After Albert's death, Lucy continued to speak on a broad range of issues, drawing connections between the rights of workers, women (including the right to birth control), children, and racial minorities. In more than sixty years of radical organizing and agitating, Parsons associated with a wide variety of organizations and, yet, as this collection shows, there remained a strong element of consistency in her thinking. …

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