Lift Every Voice: African American Oratory, 1787-1900

By Philip S. Foner; Robert James Branham | Go to book overview

115 I AM AN ANARCHIST

Lucy E. Parsons

Lucy E. Parsons ( 1853-1942) was quite literally a revolutionary woman. She was a leading figure of American anarchism and the radical labor movement whose personal motto and advice to "tramps, the unemployed, disinherited and miserable" was simple: "learn the use of explosives." She was also an electrifying speaker whose orations have been unpublished and largely forgotten.

Born (perhaps in slavery) in Waco, Texas, she married Albert R. Parsons, a white journalist who was shot in the effort to register black voters. With Klan activity on the rise in Waco and the threatened enforcement of antimiscegenation law, Albert and Lucy left for Chicago, arriving in 1873. Chicago in the mid-1870s was a hotbed of radical organizing in response to unemployment and destitution on a vast scale during the prolonged recession. Lucy and Albert Parsons became actively involved in the Knights of Labor and the Socialist Revolutionary Clubs, editing a radical paper, the Alarm, and participating in numerous demonstrations. By the early 1880s, they were disillusioned with electoral politics and instead supported "military organization and the study of revolutionary tactics."

On May 1, 1886, Lucy and Albert Parsons helped organize a general strike in support of the eight-hour working day. Two days later, strikers at the McCormick Harvester factory were gunned down by police. On May 4, Albert was among the featured speakers at a rally held in Chicago's Haymarket Square to protest the killings. As the rally was dispersing, a bomb was thrown by an unidentified assailant, killing a police officer. Albert Parsons and eight others were arrested. For speaking in such a way as to inspire the bomber to violence, Parsons was convicted in October 1886 and was sentenced to die on December 3. After the sentence was pronounced, Lucy Parsons took her husband's hand and said: "I now go forth to take your place." Within hours of the sentencing, Lucy Parsons was aboard a train to Cincinnati, the first stop on a sevenweek speaking tour designed to raise the more than twelve thousand dollars needed to appeal the case to the Illinois Supreme Court. She created a furor almost wherever she went, attracting venomous press coverage and provoking police harassment and occasional arrest. Her audiences ranged from a few dozen in cases where the authorities succeeded in discouraging attendance to more than five thousand at New York's Cooper Union.

Lucy Parsons's initial speaking tour succeeded in gaining attention and badly needed funds for her husband's appeal. On November 27, a

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