Lucy Parsons: A ‘Dangerous’ Radical Woman

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Lucy Parsons was many things. A wife, a mother, an activist, a self-proclaimed anarchist and part of the reason that racism was “openly challenged in the United States Courts” for the first time.

Born in Texas sometime around 1853, there is little known of Parsons’ early upbringing (however, it is very likely that her parents were slaves). With a mix of Native American, African American and Mexican ancestry, Parsons often attributed her darker skin tone to her Mexican heritage, which allowed her to go by various names throughout her life. 

Both Parsons and her husband, Albert Parsons (a former confederate soldier and a white radical Republican), were heavily involved in politics. 

After Albert lost his job as a printer for the Chicago Times, Parsons opened a dress shop where she and her friend Lizzie Swank held meetings for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union or the ILGWU. 

Parsons was unapologetically herself. Not afraid of speaking her mind, she wrote for several radical publications where she criticized issues like unfair wages. Her generally outspoken nature, refusal to be a homemaker, etc., caused Parsons to be viewed as “dangerous” and much more of a threat than her husband. In fact, there was a period of time where Parsons was under consistent police surveillance.

Despite these assumptions, in the late 1800s, Albert was arrested for his “involvement” in The Haymarket Affair

Leading up to the events of The Haymarket Affair, many workers were fighting to achieve eight-hour days with no pay cuts. 

The movement (which began May 1st of 1886) quickly turned violent when police fired at a crowd during a May 3. strike at McCormick Harvest Works. Sometime after, radicals called a meeting at Haymarket Square to discuss the incident. During this time, a bomb was set off by an unknown individual. Albert was one of the eight men accused, arrested, put on trial, and sentenced to death by hanging (despite not being present at the square meeting.)

This caused a shift in Parson’s activism and she began touring the country to gather support and spread the word about the trial.

“I am an anarchist. I suppose you came here, the most of you, to see what a real, live anarchist looked like. I suppose some of you expected to see me with a bomb in one hand and a flaming torch in the other, but are disappointed in seeing neither,” said Parsons in a speech.

Despite her efforts, Albert was sentenced to death in 1887, causing Parsons and her two children to live in poverty.

Parsons continued to be a trailblazer after her husband’s death and was heavily involved in the 1931 Scottsboro Trial. The monumental trial concerned eight Black men convicted of raping two white women on a train to Memphis. 

It was the first time racism was “openly challenged in the United States.”

Parsons, who began work with the Communist Party in 1925, eventually became involved with the group’s coalition for International Labor Defense or the ILD. 

The ILD launched a campaign with enough traction to cause one of the accusers to rescind her testimony, allowing the death penalty to be dropped for the eight accused men (the youngest being just 13) who still faced lengthy prison sentences despite being innocent.

Parsons remained a devoted activist until her untimely death in a 1942 accidental fire; she was 89 years old.

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