Monday, December 26, 2011

Lucy Parsons: So Badass it Took 89 Years and a Fire to Stop Her

Lucy Parsons, 1886, age 33.

Lucy Eldine Gonzalez Parsons was born a slave, in Texas, in 1853. So she's automatically tougher than you, right off the bat. Let there be no mistake about that. Strap in, though, because her life didn't get a whole lot easier from there.

She married a white former Confederate soldier, named Albert Parsons in 1871. The marriage wasn't legal, since he was white, and they were in Texas, in, as I may have mentioned, 1871, but Lucy Parsons wasn't going to let a little thing like that stop her, and she married the hell out of him anyway, because he was almost as awesome as she was, and after being a slave, Lucy had probably had entirely enough of people telling her what to do to last her the rest of her goddamn life, thank you very much. The two soon found that Reconstruction-era Texans did not take kindly to marriages between white men and women of mixed black, Native American, and Mexican ancestry, who were, by the way, campaigning together for an end to racial segregation and restrictions on interracial marriage. At all. Lucy's husband was working to register black voters when he was shot in the leg and threatened with lynching, whereupon the couple decided, quite understandably, that they had had about enough of Texas. In 1873, they moved to Chicago.

You'd think Chicago would've been better for our brave young couple, and for a while, you'd be right. Albert found work as a printer, and everything was great, until a massive railroad strike in 1877. Albert and Lucy both supported the strike, and Albert ended up giving a speech to 25,000 workers advocating peaceful means of protest. Obviously, we can't be having THAT, so he was fired from his job at the Chicago Times and blacklisted for helping to organize workers.

With Albert unable to find work, Lucy stepped up to the proverbial plate, opening a dress shop to support her and her husband. And hey, as long as she had a shop, she figured, she might as well start hosting meetings of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. Because involvement with organized labor had worked out so well for her husband. Whatever; she was passionate about it, so she went for it, making it clear, not for the first, or the last time, that she basically did not understand the concept of fear. I should probably mention that she was pregnant with her first child at the time, and working full time as the only wage earner in the household. But she still felt she had time for some political activism. Pregnancy slows most people down. Most people are not Lucy Parsons.

It was around this time that Lucy started to get truly radical. I am using "radical" here both in the sense of "advocating for fundamental change in society by targeting the root of problems like poverty and injustice," and also in the early 1990's sense of "completely amazing." How radical did Lucy Parsons become in the 1880s? Well, she and her husband ended up helping to found an anarchist publication, and she began writing for The Socialist and The Alarm. She argued, in word and in print, that violent and direct action, or the threat of it, was the only way to win the demands of the workers. Oh, and she started openly calling herself an anarchist. Remember, she was doing all this while being black and female in the 1880s. By this time, she was considered more dangerous than her husband. You know, the guy advocating peaceful measures. She wasn't doing that; she was doing the other thing. As far as she was concerned, wage slavery was just like slavery-slavery, and it took a war to end that, so it seemed logical that armed conflict would be necessary to end this. That was what she preached. By the 1920s, she was considered "more dangerous than a thousand rioters" by the Chicago police, but we're getting to that.

If Albert Parsons' name sounds familiar to you, it's because of a riot in a place called Haymarket Square, which I really hope does sound familiar to you. As you probably know, many civilians, and eight policemen were killed there, seven of the policemen by friendly fire, one of them by a possible anarchist bomb. Now, Albert wasn't there at the time. As in, he was not physically present at the time the bomb was thrown into the crowd of policemen, and therefore extremely unlikely to have been the one who did the throwing, unless he had a hell of a good arm. Since Albert Parson's years as a pitcher for the Paris Commune Reds, a team in his local anarchist baseball league, were long behind him, I don't think he was up to it. Especially since I just made that baseball thing up. And there is absolutely no reason to think he was in any way involved with plans to throw said bomb. But he was one of the men accused in the murder of the one cop not killed by other cops.

Albert went into hiding as soon as he was falsely accused, but he only stayed in hiding until the trial date, whereupon he walked right into the courthouse, turned himself in, and sat with his fellow defendants. Because you don't get to marry Lucy Parsons unless you are a stone cold badass. Lucy, by the way, had been arrested multiple times while Albert was in hiding on the suspicion that she knew where he was. They even kicked around the idea of arresting her as a conspirator in the death of the police officer, but decided not to, because they figured that a woman wouldn't do something like that, because, you know, bombs are unfeminine or something, and they were afraid that a jury would be too likely to sympathize with a bunch of dudes accused of a crime along with a lady, and that the dudes might therefore not get the death penalty.

This will hopefully go down in history as the stupidest reason ever given for not arresting someone for something they didn't do.

Albert was convicted on roughly zero evidence, and, along with four other men, sentenced to hang, more because the judge and jury wanted to make an example for all the other anarchists and labor activists out there than because anyone thought they were actually involved with murder. Lucy was about as happy with that as you would expect. She began touring the country, speaking about the injustice of what was going to happen to her husband for his political beliefs, and appealing for clemency. The police basically went on tour with her, arresting her, barring her from buildings where she was supposed to speak, sometimes by physically boarding up the doors, and being an overall obnoxious, harrass-y nuisance. Meanwhile, the labor movement itself took a sharp turn away from supporting the Haymarket defendants, since, you know, they were making them look bad, being all falsely accused and stuff, what were they thinking? Lucy stuck with her husband and the rest of the accused, arguing that not only were they innocent of any wrongdoing, but that the policemen were responsible for getting their own fool selves killed. It didn't really matter what she said, though; anarchy was being put on trial, almost literally. The prosecution hung red and black flags up around the courtroom, just to remind the jury what they should be afraid of.

Lucy kept campaigning, stirred up a lot of sympathy, and got famous in the process, but it unfortunately didn't do all that much good from the perspective of a bunch of guys in jail about to be hanged. The governor of Illinois was having none of Lucy, or anyone else in the world's objections; he was under too much political pressure to hang the anarchists, evidence be damned. On the day of the execution, Lucy brought her two children to see their father one last time. Instead of being allowed to see him, all three were arrested. Lucy was forced to strip naked, and left in a cold cell (November 11th in fucking Chicago cold) with her children, until after her husband had been executed. Once he was safely dead, she was left for a few more hours, then finally allowed to get dressed, and released, humiliated and grief-stricken.

At this point, Lucy was angry. Not regular person angry, either. She was a grieving, anarchist, former slave, single mother with two kids and an unjustly executed husband angry. I'm not sure how much rage the human body can actually contain, but I'm pretty sure Lucy had enough in her by this time that small objects left in her presence would burst into flames. I mean, it seems only reasonable. Enough rage that, if she were living in a fictional universe created by Joss Whedon or someone like that, she would probably develop telekinesis. (The tendency of real people to fail to develop super powers when their life gets sad is one of the main issues I have with reality.)

Left with a weekly pension of eight bucks a week by an organization founded to help the widows of the Haymarket martyrs, and not much else, Lucy went right back to her revolutionary activities, terrifying the fuck out of the police, who sometimes arrested her pre-emptively before she could even begin her speeches. Over the course of her long life, Lucy Parsons was a fierce advocate for women's rights, the rights of workers, and free speech. She was the second woman to join the Industrial Workers of the World, eventually taking over the job of editing the Liberator, a newspaper put out by the IWW. She used her position to write about women's issues, including the right to access to birth control, and the right to divorce, and remarry. She gradually shifted to the Communist party, beginning in 1925, officially joining them in 1939. She prefigured the idea of sit-down strikes and factory takeovers with the idea that a strike should consist of the workers seizing the means of production. She verbally ripped the shit out of anyone who recommended patience and compliance over revolution and reform.

She came into conflict with other anarchists, notably this blog's namesake, Emma Goldman, over her opposition to the idea of free love. Maybe it was because of how much shit she took for her own marriage, maybe not, but Lucy believed that marriage and the family were natural for human beings, and opposed anarchists who advocated for free love, which was a substantial number of anarchists. This really just goes to show that she was enough of a badass to stand up, not only against the establishment, but against the rest of the opposition to the establishment, something she and Emma actually had in common. One does not throw down against Emma Goldman lightly, but Lucy Parsons was more than tough enough to handle it. I'm not going to speak to which of them was right about that issue; I think it's enough to say that they both had strong views and they both refused to back down. Though they started out as friends, at least according to Lucy, by the end of their lives the two of them couldn't stand each other. Honestly, I think they were both really wrong about each other, and that's sad. Emma thought Lucy was an opportunist who used her husband's death to gain personal fame, and who jumped on any cause's bandwagon she could, and Lucy thought Emma betrayed the cause and sold out to the capitalist establishment when she denounced the Soviet Union. Hilariously, Lucy was pissed enough about Emma turning on the Soviet Union to refer to her, in her retaliatory denunciation of Emma, as her great friend for the past thirty years, presumably just to make the rejection sting more. Both of them were wrong about the other, and it's a shame, because it would've been way cooler if they had been friends. We can add "and is best friends with Lucy Parsons" to my alternate universe, Emma Goldman as anarchist steamship pirate idea.

In her later years, Lucy worked with the International Labor Defense, a Communist group, to defend the Scottsboro Eight and Angelo Herndon. She worked hard to expose the way the justice system was used as a tool of oppression, just like she had when she was trying to defend her husband. It was the first time she had been back to the South since leaving Texas. Recall that the last time she had been to the South, people had been shooting at her husband. I may have mentioned this before, but Lucy Parsons was a tough lady.

Lucy's work with racial issues was very much influenced by the fact that she, like a lot of anarchists and communists at the time, (and to this day) thought of race as less relevant than class. Once class was eliminated, she believed, there would be no racial issues. A misguided idea she shared with a hell of a lot of people. It didn't stop her from working against lynchings and other forms of racial violence and oppression, though. Remember, she was into both reform and revolution.

Here she is in 1920, still going strong.

So that's Lucy Parsons. She died at the age of 89, in a house fire, and was still actively speaking and inspiring people to the end. If being 89 didn't stop her from doing that, I see no reason why being dead should. A truly brave woman, and a tireless opponent of oppression, Lucy Parsons deserves to be remembered and respected for her work and her activism.

Causes: Anarchist, communist, anarcha-feminist, regular feminist, anti-racist
Specific lessons for modern activists: People in Texas might not approve of your marriage. Fuck those people.