Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 205

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 205


This is the grave of Lucy Parsons.

Despite her gravestone claiming she was born in 1859, Lucy Gonzalez was probably born around 1853, probably in Texas. She was born a slave. Parsons later claimed to be entirely Mexican and Native American heritage and not African-American. This is almost certainly not true and was likely created by her in Reconstruction-era Texas to escape the political and personal dangers of blackness. Scholars have speculated a good bit about all of this, but it’s impossible to know.

In 1872, she married a young newspaper reporter named Albert Parsons, a former Confederate soldier who now identified as a Republican supporter of Reconstruction. Parsons was, of course, white, and he and Lucy had to flee the South because of their interracial marriage. They went to Chicago, where they became involved in the growing socialist political scene there. Much of this was run by German immigrants, some of whom had fled to the U.S. to escape political repression in Germany. Despite their indifference and often even hostility to the Americans they saw as saps and suckers for capitalism, Parsons managed to get in with these Germans, particularly as he began embracing anarchism. Lucy was right there with him in this political journey. She wrote for several socialist and anarchist newspapers in the 1880s. Her life changed forever when Albert was arrested after the Haymarket bombing and unjustly charged with conspiracy to murder, for which he was executed. Being the activist wife of a Haymarket martyr brought her great personal tragedy but certainly also gave her a lot of political credence.

The execution of Albert in no way shut up Lucy Parsons. She remained an organizer and agitator for the rest of her very long life. First, she complied a book of Albert’s writings, published in 1889. She probably holds more responsibility than anyone for the Haymarket Martyrs becoming international figures, all of which led to May 1 becoming the workers’ holiday. She wrote for anarchist journals in the United States and Europe and took a trip to Europe to meet other leftist leaders in 1888. She had her own periodical for awhile in 1892, Freedom: A Revolutionary Anarchist-Communist Monthly, but like so many leftist papers, it folded quickly.

A tough person who would not back down from any fight, Parsons was also ideologically rigid and held Victorian gender norms, so when younger women such as Emma Goldman challenged gender and sexual norms as part of their critique of society, Parsons vocally opposed them as taking away from the core class struggle. She and Goldman developed a life-long hatred of each other. Parsons basically called Goldman a fraud for spending her life speaking to middle class audiences for money (harsh, but not entirely unfair) while Goldman said Parsons was riding her husband’s coattails (totally unfair). Goldman might have been more fun and modern and easy for modern leftists to embrace, but Parsons wasn’t wrong. On the other hand, Goldman pointed out correctly that Parsons’ ideological purity led to the sort of condemnation of other leftists for obscure points that got in the way of targeting capitalism. Ah, the left, always fighting among each other.

Parsons attended the founding of the Industrial Workers of the World in Chicago in 1905, which brought radicals from around the nation to figure out some kind of organization to bring together all the world’s workers. Like most of these other radicals, she had very little to do with the IWW after this, but always supported its broad aims. And that’s not to say she wasn’t a real organizer. She absolutely was. One of her biggest events was in 1915, where she organized a 1500 person march against hunger and poverty that brought in middle class activists such as Jane Addams, but even the American Federation of Labor, which usually kept a good distance from radicals such as Parsons. The march itself started at Hull House and led to a violent police crackdown and Parsons’ arrest. She faced all sorts of police harassment through her life. For instance, she and a friend were arrested in Los Angeles in 1913 for disseminating radical literature and in 1914 in San Francisco for “inciting to riot” when the 1,000 people who had gathered to hear her speak followed her to the police station when the cops broke up the talk. She also engaged in many solidarity actions with those participating in the Mexican Revolution, raising money for Mexican citizens in Texas arrested while trying to cross back into Mexico to join the revolutionary forces.

In later life, Parsons probably joined the Communist Party, although there is evidently some dispute about this. In any case, she spent much of the 1920s and 1930s working on causes such as freeing the many unjustly imprisoned African Americans around the nation, particularly the Scottsboro Boys. Interestingly, this was really the first time she focused heavily on the issues facing the black community in pretty much her whole organizing and agitating career, despite her racial background, but then again, she always denied being black. She wrote articles against lynching over the years, but these weren’t sustained campaigns. She continued as an activist and organizer to the very end of her life. Her later speeches inspired a young Chicago activist named Studs Terkel. She died in 1942 in a house fire. The Chicago police seized her entire library immediately upon her death, having feared her for decades.

Lucy Parsons is buried in Forest Home Cemetery, Forest Park, Illinois.

If you would like to contribute to this series visiting more of this nation’s radicals and organizers, as well as women who should be much better known and celebrated in our public memory of the past than they are, you can help defray the travel costs by donating here. It is highly appreciated. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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