[Marxism] The Life and Times of Lucy Parsons

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Dec 4 08:49:47 MST 2017

NY Review of Books, DECEMBER 21, 2017 ISSUE
Street Fighting Woman
by Eric Foner

Goddess of Anarchy: The Life and Times of Lucy Parsons, American Radical
by Jacqueline Jones
Basic Books, 464 pp., $32.00

With its economic instability, mass immigration, corrupting influence of 
money on politics, and ever-increasing gap between the rich and everyone 
else, our current era bears more than a slight resemblance to the late 
nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, dubbed by Mark Twain the 
Gilded Age. There are also striking differences. Back then, 
larger-than-life radical organizers—Eugene V. Debs, Emma Goldman, Bill 
Haywood, and others—traversed the country, calling on the working class 
to rise up against its oppressors. Today’s critics of the capitalist 
order such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren seem tame by comparison.

In her time, Lucy Parsons was as celebrated a radical orator as Debs and 
the others. Born a slave in Virginia in 1851, she lived into the 1940s, 
witnessing vast transformations in the American economic and political 
order but also the persistent exploitation of American workers. She 
became a prolific writer and speaker on behalf of anarchism, free 
speech, and labor organization. But she has been largely forgotten, or 
treated as an afterthought compared with her husband, Albert, an 
anarchist executed after Chicago’s Haymarket bombing of 1886. Thanks to 
Goddess of Anarchy, Jacqueline Jones’s new biography, readers finally 
have a penetrating account of Parsons’s long, remarkable life.

One of the most influential historians of her generation, Jones is the 
author of books that sweep across centuries. Her previous works include 
a pioneering history of black women’s labor in America, a study of the 
evolution of the underclass, an account of four centuries of black and 
white labor, and a history of “the myth of race” from the colonial era 
to the present. Again and again, Jones returns to the complex 
connections between racial and class inequality in American history.

Jones makes clear that Lucy Parsons deserves attention apart from her 
martyred husband. Originally named Lucia, she was removed with other 
slaves to Texas by her owner (probably also her father, Jones believes) 
during the Civil War to prevent them from seeking refuge with the Union 
army. Educated after becoming free at a school established by a northern 
teacher, she fell in love with Albert Parsons, the descendant of early 
New England settlers, whose father had moved to Alabama in the 1830s. 
(Parsons had fought on the Confederate side and managed to survive four 
years of bloody fighting.) During Reconstruction, when Congress rewrote 
laws and the Constitution to grant legal and political equality to the 
emancipated slaves, Parsons embraced these radical changes. He moved to 
Texas, where his brother ran a newspaper, and became one of the few 
white leaders of the state’s predominantly black Republican Party. (Most 
of the other white members in Texas were German immigrants who had 
remained loyal to the Union and suffered severe reprisals under the 

Parsons worked as a journalist, political operative, and officer of the 
state militia as it sought to put down violence against blacks. He 
emerged as a spellbinding speaker, addressing crowds of up to a thousand 
freedpeople. Reconstruction was a violent time, and nowhere as violent 
as in Texas, where armed bands committed many atrocities against former 
slaves and their allies. The life of a Republican leader was hardly 
secure, and became even more dangerous when Albert and Lucia wed in 
1872—interracial marriages were frowned upon, to say the least, by white 
Texans. Albert was assaulted, shot at, and threatened with lynching.

Soon after white supremacist Democrats regained control of the state 
government in 1873, the couple left for Chicago. En route, in good 
American fashion, Lucia reinvented herself. She changed her name to Lucy 
and henceforth described her ancestry as Mexican and Indian (although on 
the birth certificate of her son, born in 1879, she identified his race 
as Negro). Passing for white has always been an option for light-skinned 
blacks. Lucy’s complexion made this impossible; she did, however, try to 
shed the stigma of slave origins. She and her husband never set foot in 
Texas again.

Chicago in the 1870s was home to a militant labor movement and the site 
of bread riots and mass strikes. Albert Parsons joined the small 
Socialistic Labor Party and picked up where he had left off as a public 
speaker, quickly making the transition from denouncing the southern 
planter class to assailing northern capitalists, and from condemning 
chattel slavery to demanding the abolition of wage slavery. “My enemies 
in the southern states consisted of those who oppressed the black 
slave,” he proclaimed. “My enemies in the North are among those who 
would perpetuate the slavery of the wage workers.”

During the national railroad strike of 1877, thousands of demonstrators 
clashed on Chicago’s streets with police and armed veterans’ 
organizations, leaving over thirty workers dead. Afterward, Parsons lost 
his job as a printer and was blacklisted; Lucy, an accomplished 
seamstress, supported the two of them by establishing a clothing shop. 
That same year, Parsons ran for local office as a socialist and did so 
for the next three years. But he received only a tiny number of votes. 
This lack of electoral success, combined with the labor militancy he 
witnessed in 1877, convinced him and his wife that violent upheaval, not 
the ballot box, was the path to social transformation. The two renounced 
the electoral system and joined the city’s anarchist movement.

Anarchists in Chicago were almost entirely immigrants from Germany. 
Jones suggests that his experience working with Germans in Texas made 
Parsons comfortable with their Chicago counterparts. As a descendant of 
colonial Puritans and virtually the anarchists’ only English-speaking 
orator, Parsons was especially valuable to the movement—his presence 
proved that anarchism was not simply a foreign import.

Meanwhile, Lucy Parsons engaged in a program of self-education, 
attending weekly anarchist meetings and devouring radical books and 
newspapers. She soon established herself as a talented writer and 
lecturer. Her article “A Word to Tramps” in The Alarm, a periodical 
edited by her husband, became a widely reproduced “staple of anarchist 
propaganda.” In another piece, “Communistic Monopoly,” she joined 
numerous other radical writers of the era—Edward Bellamy being the most 
famous—who made their point by transporting a character to a future 
utopia. Unlike his authoritarian socialism, in her model of the good 
society small local associations, including trade unions and religious 
groups, governed the social order.

As American-born anarchists, Albert and Lucy Parsons were a minority 
within a minority. Their outlook, however, had more in common with that 
of their German associates than with other native-born anarchists, whose 
views represented an extreme version of common American values—suspicion 
of the state and celebration of unfettered individualism. European 
anarchists tended to be more collectivist in orientation. Their 
ideology, sometimes called anarcho-syndicalism, envisioned labor unions, 
not liberated individuals, taking over the functions of government. 
However, while many Chicago Germans denounced existing unions as 
hopelessly reformist, Lucy worked with the Chicago Working Women’s Union 
and Albert with the Knights of Labor and the Chicago Eight-Hour League.

One issue on which the couple fully agreed with other anarchists was 
their forthright advocacy of violence. They hailed dynamite, invented by 
Alfred Nobel in the 1860s, as the great equalizer in the class struggle. 
Dynamite would even the odds between a weak and fractured working class 
and the economic and political elite (which time and again proved quite 
willing to use violence to promote its own interests). Johann Most, the 
leading anarchist in Germany, preached the propaganda of the deed: acts 
of violence would awaken class consciousness and inspire a working-class 
uprising. He urged his followers to plant bombs not only in government 
buildings but, among other places, in ballrooms of the rich and churches.

Albert and Lucy Parsons, too, celebrated violence. Lucy urged tramps to 
“learn the use of explosives.” Albert advised members of one audience to 
“buy a Colt’s navy revolver, a Winchester rifle, and ten pounds of 
dynamite.” The Alarm published articles on how to make dynamite bombs. 
Despite their heated rhetoric, Albert and Lucy do not seem to have 
committed any acts of violence themselves. But others did. In Europe, 
Irish revolutionaries planted dynamite bombs in London and anarchists 
assassinated Tsar Alexander II of Russia and King Umberto I of Italy. In 
1901 an anarchist assassinated President William McKinley. In 1910 the 
McNamara brothers, two radical unionists, bombed the Los Angeles Times 
building. An anarchist was probably responsible for the Wall Street 
bombing of 1920.

Today, after Timothy McVeigh, Osama bin Laden, and ISIS, loose talk 
celebrating violence seems rather less exhilarating than in the 
Parsonses’ era. Jones makes it clear that she believes their advocacy of 
violence was “largely harmless.” Few workers seem to have taken it 
seriously. A local newspaper, reporting on one of Chicago’s Sunday labor 
picnics, reported that after speakers harangued the crowd to arm 
themselves, listeners did—with beer. Jones points out that the 
Parsonses’ language was entirely counterproductive, needlessly 
frightening law-abiding citizens and allowing authorities to tar all 
radicals with the brush of insurrection.

To explain why the couple insisted on using such shocking language, 
Jones develops an elaborate scenario in which a symbiotic relationship 
developed between the Parsonses, the mainstream press, and the police. 
Albert and Lucy knew that advocacy of violence would attract attention 
the tiny anarchist movement could not otherwise enjoy. Reporters eagerly 
recounted their fiery speeches and interviews because such articles sold 
newspapers. Albert seems to have known the identity of undercover police 
agents who attended anarchist meetings. When they were present, he spoke 
even more vividly of violent class warfare so that their reports would 
rattle the city’s establishment. Meanwhile, police reports about his 
language justified the city’s pouring more and more public money into 
what would later be called its Red Squad. This interpretation seems too 
conspiratorial to be entirely persuasive. Another possibility is that 
the Parsonses believed in what they were saying and how they said it.

The turning point in Lucy’s life was her husband’s trial and execution. 
On May 4, 1886, a mass rally took place at Haymarket Square to protest 
the killing of four men when police opened fire during an altercation 
between strikers and strikebreakers at the giant McCormick agricultural 
machinery factory. Albert delivered one of the rally’s speeches, after 
which he and Lucy repaired to a local saloon. As the gathering was 
winding down, someone threw a dynamite bomb, killing a policeman. At 
least ten other people later succumbed to injuries, some from gunshot 
wounds, although it remains unclear if anarchists or police fired the shots.

Eight prominent anarchists (five immigrants from Germany, one from 
England, an American of German descent, and Albert Parsons) were put on 
trial for murder and conspiracy. The proceedings were notably unfair, 
beginning with the decision to try all eight together. Only two of the 
men had been present when the bomb was thrown, and Parsons had not even 
attended the meeting the evening before when the rally was planned. The 
judge openly displayed bias against the defendants and spent part of his 
time flirting with female admirers in the audience. The prosecutor told 
the jury to convict because anarchy itself was on trial. For his part, 
Parsons claimed, falsely, that he had brought his two young children to 
the rally, allegedly proving that he did not anticipate violence. All 
eight men were convicted. After fruitless appeals, four, including 
Parsons, were hanged. Having survived the Civil War and the violence of 
Reconstruction Texas, Parsons went to his death in Illinois for a crime 
he did not commit.

With her husband in jail (where he received a steady stream of visitors, 
some bringing food, cigars, and other gifts), Lucy Parsons came into her 
own. She embarked on speaking tours to raise money for the expensive 
appeals process. She spoke at union halls and saloons, and at highly 
respectable venues such as Cooper Institute in New York City. She 
insisted on her husband’s innocence but refused to renounce her views 
(she began her speeches by proclaiming, “I am an anarchist”).

In interviews Parsons repeated the tale that she had been born in Texas 
of Mexican and Native American ancestry. The mainstream press reviled 
her as “a sanguinary Amazon.” Reporters obsessed over the exotic 
appearance of this “dusky representative of anarchy,” dwelling in detail 
on her coloring, hair, and elegant clothing (she did not present the 
image of an unkempt rabble-rouser). But working-class audiences, whether 
they agreed with her anarchist views or not, saw her as a symbol of the 
judicial system’s class bias, and she succeeded in raising significant 
sums of money. Albert would long be remembered as a working-class 
martyr. John Brown, Joe Hill, Sacco and Vanzetti, Julius and Ethel 
Rosenberg, and Albert Parsons—execution elevated all of them to a fame 
that transcended their particular political views and the crimes they 
did or did not commit.

Lucy Parsons lived for over half a century after her husband’s 
execution. For years she pursued her career as an anarchist speaker and 
writer. She became a prominent figure in Chicago’s vibrant reform 
culture, in which groups of all kinds, from labor radicals to Christian 
socialists and settlement house workers, debated ways to ameliorate the 
dire conditions of the urban working class. As Jones relates, 
middle-class reformers proved remarkably willing to listen to a radical 
like Parsons. She even spoke before the ultra-respectable Friendship 
Liberal League and New Century Club. Parsons became a stalwart advocate 
of free speech, engaging in frequent battles with the Chicago police, 
who tried to prevent her from lecturing and displaying anarchist flags. 
In the early twentieth century she joined the free-speech fights of the 
Industrial Workers of the World. These battles remind us how much our 
civil liberties owe to radicals—abolitionists, anarchists, free lovers, 
labor agitators, black militants—all of whom had to fight for the right 
to disseminate their ideas without official persecution.

Despite her husband’s fate, Lucy Parsons did not retreat from the 
advocacy of violence. “Rivers of blood,” she said in one speech, would 
have to flow before social justice could be achieved. By the early 
twentieth century, however, she seemed a relic of an earlier era. 
Anarchism was changing as urban intellectuals and bohemians claimed the 
label for themselves. These new recruits did not idealize violence and 
were more interested in shattering social taboos, especially with regard 
to sex, than liberating the working class. Parsons did not find this 
stance appealing. Not that she was sexually conventional. A few months 
after Albert’s execution she began living with a younger man, and other 
lovers followed. But open advocacy of sexual freedom offended her. 
Women, she said, “love the names of father, home and children too well” 
to embrace the idea of free love. When Emma Goldman published her 
autobiography in 1931, Parsons, now eighty, criticized the “sex stuff” 
in the book and wondered why Goldman felt it necessary to identify 
fifteen of her lovers.

There is much to praise in Goddess of Anarchy, including Jones’s 
thorough research, which has laid to rest uncertainty about Parsons’s 
origins, and the ways the book illuminates the rapidly changing economic 
and political circumstances in which Parsons operated. A work that could 
easily have descended into a confusing litany of tiny organizations, 
short-lived publications, and endless speaking tours retains clarity and 
coherence throughout. Lucy Parsons finally receives her due as a 
pioneering radical. As Jones points out, Parsons was hardly the only 
flamboyant and enthralling woman orator of the industrial era—one thinks 
also of Goldman, the Populist Mary Ellen Lease, and the labor radicals 
Mother Jones and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. But she was the only woman of 
color; indeed it is probable that no nonwhite person of the era other 
than Frederick Douglass addressed as many Americans. Jones takes Lucy 
Parsons seriously as a speaker and writer, rather than reducing her to 
an adjunct of her husband.

Ultimately, however, the portrait is not sympathetic. As Jones makes 
clear, Parsons pursued her goals, personal and political, with 
“ruthlessness.” Jones chides both Albert and Lucy for thinking of the 
working class as an abstraction, ignoring deep divisions along lines of 
ethnicity, religion, race, and craft, as well as the fact that most 
workers valued their democratic rights and did not view the ballot box 
as a trap.

Candid criticism is always preferable to hagiography. Jones, however, 
sometimes seems to measure both Parsonses against an ahistorical 
ideal—the radical attuned to the intersections of race and class, the 
nuances of political strategy, and the impact of language, whose private 
life reflected his or her political principles. Not surprisingly, by 
this standard Lucy is found wanting. So would almost any human being. 
The great Debs enjoyed racist humor. Goldman preached free love but flew 
into rages of jealousy over the womanizing of her lover Ben Reitman. 
“Did she live life as an anarchist?” Jones asks of Parsons. The answer 
is no: Parsons failed to pursue the “playful” kind of life other 
anarchists aspired to, or to break openly with “stifling social 
conventions.” She was not, in other words, a New Leftist.

A scholar deeply committed to revealing the history of racial 
inequality, Jones frequently takes Albert and Lucy Parsons to task for 
their “pronounced indifference to the plight of African-American 
laborers,” in both the South and Chicago. Blacks were the most 
downtrodden sector of the working class, but the Parsonses said almost 
nothing about the particular exploitation—disfranchisement, segregation, 
lynching, etc.—to which they were subjected. American radicals, Jones 
writes, should be judged by “a single dominant standard”: the degree to 
which they participate in a struggle against racism. Lucy Parsons fails 
this test, politically and personally. Indeed, the book’s most serious 
charge is that she refused to embrace her identity as a black woman and 
former slave. Parsons, Jones believes, should have spoken for her race.

It is difficult today to appreciate that earlier generations may not 
always have been as preoccupied with race as we are. The Parsonses 
assumed that the liberation of the working class would benefit blacks as 
much as whites. In one article, Lucy wrote about the plight of southern 
blacks, but attributed it mainly to poverty, not racial oppression. This 
analysis is open to criticism, but it was one adopted by Debs and many 
other white radicals. At various points in our history, moreover, black 
activists and social critics have also challenged the primacy of race. 
As Jonathan Holloway shows in Confronting the Veil (2003), this was the 
position of Abram Harris Jr., E. Franklin Frazier, and Ralph Bunche in 
important writings of the 1920s and 1930s.

The vexed question of the intersection of race and class has no single 
answer. But it seems misguided for Jones to conclude that Albert’s 
“indifference” to racial inequality in Chicago proves that his 
courageous efforts on behalf of blacks in Reconstruction Texas were 
“purely opportunistic,” or to criticize Lucy for going to great lengths 
to deny her “African heritage” (an intellectual and political concept 
less relevant in the late nineteenth century than today).

Political commitment is a choice, not an obligation. Throughout American 
history, some people of all backgrounds, like Lucy Parsons, have found 
it liberating to be part of an international movement with a 
universalist vision of social change, rather than seeing themselves 
primarily as members of a group apart. Then and now, DNA is not 
necessarily political destiny.

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