Wednesday, March 07, 2007

More Dangerous Than a Thousand Rioters

Lucy Parsons died on this day in 1942 in a house fire in Chicago at the age of 89.

Although she is remembered as an uncompromising radical labor activist, marriage may have been the central theme and concern in her life: it inspired her earliest activism, in partnership with her husband; it provided a model of the voluntary, self-governing, self-empowering labor unions which she supported, and provided a context for her interest in hunger policy, birth control and divorce rights; and her vigorous defense of the institution of marriage in the face of her comrades' support of free love caused her estrangement from radical movement leaders such as Emma Goldman. Half Creek and half Mexican, Lucy Waller met Albert Parsons, a former Confederate soldier turned radical Republican and married him in 1871 in Texas. Because interracial marriages were harshly viewed in the South, the couple moved to Chicago, where they became involved in the Socialist Labor Party.

While Albert Parsons gained fame as a speaker at labor rallies (causing him to be fired from his printing job with the Chicago Tribune), Lucy opened a dress shop to support their family while writing radical publications such as The Alarm and The Socialist. Anti-labor authorities began to see Lucy as a more dangerous player in the labor movement; she was a woman who lived unconventionally, not solely as a wife and mother, but as a radical activist who advocated violence or the threat of violence as the only effective means for laborers to gain their basic rights from the captains of capitalism.

After the 1886 May Day strike and the Haymarket protest resulted in violence and police assaults, Albert went into hiding, and Lucy was arrested -- although she would not be charged along with the other Haymarket defendants for conspiracy to commit murder, since the Chicago prosecutors felt that it was unlikely that a jury would send a woman (a mother of two) to the gallows.

She fought tirelessly to save the Haymarket defendants, including her husband, but failed to beat the coalition of Chicago authorities and big business who wanted to shut down labor unrest, and when she brought her two children to visit their father one last time, she was arrested, stripped and thrown into a jail cell, where she sat naked while Albert was executed on November 11, 1887. At the same time, she waged a battle against conservative forces within the Knights of Labor, a union she helped to establish, when Terence Powderly came out against the Haymarket martyrs.

If she wasn't already strongly committed to radicalism, after losing her husband it was an obsession for her, causing her to part company with the growing number of moderate labor union leaders who were beginning to join the Democratic Party in 1890. With Big Bill Haywood and others, she was at the vanguard of the radical movement as a founder of the International Workers of the World (1905), and organized the Chicago anti-hunger demonstrations of 1915, leading a coalition of the American Federation of Labor, the Socialist Party and Jane Addams' Hull House in demanding the decentralization of federal hunger policy. Finding less and less support for her vision of laborer-empowerment within traditional labor unions, she worked through the U.S. Communist Party from 1925 onward. During the 1920s and 30s, the Chicago police still regarded 60/70-something Lucy Parsons as "more dangerous than a thousand rioters," and her papers were seized by the police from the ruins of her house after the fire in which she was killed.

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