By Caeli Thibeault
History has a way of forgetting to mention common people when great discoveries or revolutions are discussed. Only the elite tend to be mentioned, but history was forced to remember one woman who would not be ignored, one woman who fought with an intense passion for what she believed in, justice for the working class. Lucy Gonzalez Parsons was not only a member of the working class, she was a woman of African American, Native American, and Mexican ancestry. It was through her powerful speeches, radical pamphlets, and brave marches that she will forever be remembered as one of the most committed and dedicated women to her cause.
Not much is known of Lucy’s younger years; she was a very private person. However, it is known that she spent time in Waco, Texas, with her husband, Albert Parsons, a white radical Republican. The circumstances surrounding their marriage have been questioned. It is said that they may not have been officially married. Still, they were ostracized by Texans because of their interracial marriage. Waco was the scene of intense racial brutality. Perhaps watching this kind of injustice lighted the spark of fire that eventually raged in Lucy.
Lucy and Albert moved to Chicago in 1873. They lived in a number of small, poor working-class apartments with their two children, Albert Jr. and Lulu. Albert worked as a printer and became actively involved in the Social Democratic Party of North America, the Knights of Labor, and the Working-men’s Party. The Chicago group of the Working-men’s Party met at the Parsons’ home. It was here that Lucy became intimately involved with socialist politics and began the long and demanding road to justice for the working class. She became a writer for the Alarm, a radical workers’ paper edited by her husband. The paper addressed such issues as the eight-hour work day and racial persecutions. Lucy also led a series of revolutionary marches, the most popular being the May 1st march in 1886, when the whole city of Chicago was shut down for a strike in support of the eight-hour work day. Lucy and Albert led the masses of peaceful singing demonstrators down Michigan Avenue. Three days later this peace was disrupted at Haymarket Square by a riot that ultimately resulted in the death of her husband. Lucy’s whole world was turned upside down.
Lucy Parsons is probably best remembered for her involvement in the Haymarket tragedy. Her husband and with six others were hanged for starting the riot, and became affectionately known as the “Haymarket Martyrs” by supporters. They were blamed for the bomb that was thrown at the policemen on the scene. As Albert sat in prison waiting for his execution, Lucy was busy writing and selling pamphlets titled, “Was It a Fair Trial?” After looking at all the options, both Lucy and Albert agreed that he must die as a martyr, rather than sign any letters asking for mercy, as some of the other Haymarket Martyrs had done. Knowing this, Lucy still continued to maintain a good attitude and even joked with reporters: “If it is true, I know how [the bomb] got there. They were placed there by the jail officials, who would do anything to stem the tide of public opinion which is now in favor of commuting the sentences of the Anarchists. Why didn’t they do a better job to make the conspiracy complete? They should have put a bomb in Lingg’s cell, a fuse in Fischer’s, dynamite in Parsons’ and percussion caps in Engel’s. That would have been a good job and would have made a complete conspiracy.”
Lucy could still joke about the antics of the police on November 6, five days before the scheduled executions. On November 11, before a crowd of two hundred, Albert Parsons was silenced forever. But Albert’s death did not stop Lucy. After an intense period of mourning, she was more determined than ever to fight for freedom for the working class.
Lucy spent most of her life after her husband’s death fighting police over her First Amendment rights. She was known as being “more dangerous than a thousand rioters” by the Chicago police and for good reasons. She was a forceful and articulate radical speaker and writer who spoke and wrote with terrifying intensity when the occasion demanded it. Her speeches on anarchism, industrial unionism, and labor defense were dramatic and persuasive. The police knew the power of her lectures and were eager to break them up. Even thirty years after the Haymarket Riot, the chance to hear Lucy speak was treasured. On one rare occasion Lucy was allowed to speak to thousands of unemployed at Metropolitan Hall in Chicago. She began: “Now is my harvest time. I attempt no concealment of the fact that I, with other true hearted anarchists, will take advantage of your present condition to teach you the principles of the true faith. You are the sole producers; why should you not consume? . . . Your salvation lies in stirring you to desperate action. The present social system is rotten from top to bottom. You must see this and realize the time has come to destroy it.”
Lucy loved being active in anything that had to do with the cause. She wrote, “Owing to a misunderstanding and the slow exit of the large audience, I missed being with the ‘mob’ of marchers. I have been kicking myself about this ever since.” She became a familiar sight at workers’ demonstrations and Chicago street corners selling her publication of The Life of Albert R. Parsons, Famous Speeches of the Chicago Martyrs, and other revolutionary and anarchist papers.
Among other things, Lucy, known as “Queen of the Hoboes”, helped form the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), led the march on the new Chicago Board of Trade (known by some as the Board of Thieves), started two of her own radical papers, Freedom (1891) and The Liberator (1905), and continued to sell pamphlets and papers anywhere she could. And all this while she worked her fingers to the bone sewing to support her two children. With Albert gone, Lucy was now a single parent.
Lucy Parsons’ struggles and accomplishments were evidence of the passion this woman had for justice and what she believed in. The dedication and commitment she had to the working class will not be forgotten. She was the one who gave them pride and encouraged them, the one who told them, “Shoulder to shoulder with one accord you should rise and take what is yours.” Lucy Parsons was a firebrand who knew what it took to get a reaction. As she said in a 1937 issue of The One Big Union Monthly, “Oh, Misery, I have drunk thy cup of sorrow to its dregs, but I am still a rebel!”
Her dedication is to be admired and followed.