A multidimensional pioneer, Lucy González Parsons (1853-1942) not only was one of the first minority activists to associate openly with left radical social movements, she emerged as a leader in organizations primarily composed of white males. In her associations with anarchist, socialist, and communist organizations, González Parsons took up the causes of workers, women, and minorities, as well as the homeless and unemployed.
González Parsons's origins are shrouded in mystery. Much of the mystery is due to her own conflicting accounts of her place of birth, name, date of marriage, and national origins. The best record dating her birth indicates sometime in March of 1853, and her birthplace was probably on a plantation in Hill County, Texas. She publicly denied her African ancestry and claimed only a Native American and Mexican mixed heritage. According to Carolyn Ashbaugh in Lucy Parsons, American Revolutionary, however, there is a very strong probability that she was born a slave, and there is historical evidence that she lived with a former slave of African descent, Oliver Gathing, before her union with Albert Parsons in 1871.
Albert Parsons, a confederate soldier in his youth, was a radical Republican and was the subject of violent mob attacks both as a result of his politics and his marriage to a woman of darker hue. (Albert Parsons was white.) Texas's hostile environment as a Ku Klux Klan stronghold made the couple's departure imperative, and in 1873 they took up residence in Chicago.
Experienced Chicago Labor Unrest
Albert and Lucy Parsons arrived in Chicago during a period stamped by an economic crisis and intense labor unrest. The clashes between workers, whose material conditions had eroded drastically, and capitalists, who had enlisted armed support, were daily public encounters. Albert Parsons was a printer by trade, and the couple made their home in a poor working class community. Living among Chicago's impoverished yet militant workers was the catalyst for the Parsons' political transformation from radical Republicanism to radical labor movement activism. The Parsons had two children: Albert Richard, born in 1879, and Lula Eda, born in 1881. Lula Eda died in 1889 from lympodenomia.
Their initial association with the political left was through the Social Democratic Party and the First International, founded by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. It was through this contact that the Parsons became aware of the socialist ideology of Marxism. Their ties to these groups, however, were short-lived, since both organizations were disbanded in 1876, the year the Parsons became affiliated. In the wake of the dissolution of the Social Democratic Party and the First International, they joined the Workingmen's Party of the United States.
Minority Socialists Emerged
The Chicago chapter of the Workingmen's Party (WPUSA) held many of its meetings in the Parsons' home. Albert, as a representative of the WPUSA, vied in the 1877 local elections for ward alderman. The year 1877 was a crucial turning point in the history of the United States. It marked the end of the Reconstruction era and the start of the first general strike ever witnessed in this country, the great railroad strike of 1877. While the WPUSA did not start the strike, it was the most active political party to lend organized support to it. It attempted to infuse the strike with socialist propaganda. Out of the strike and the political womb of the WPUSA were born the first minority socialists in the United States, Lucy González Parsons and Peter H. Clark. Clark had joined the Workingmen's Party in March of 1877 and was affiliated with the Cincinnati branch.
While the party's work around the strike had considerably enhanced its visibility and membership roll, a political division resulted in the formation of a new party in December of 1877, the Socialistic Labor Party (SLP). (In 1892, the name became the Socialist Labor Party.) The SLP organ, the Socialist, became a means for González Parsons to express her views on the struggles of the working class. In addition to poems, she penned articles denouncing the capitalist class and describing the plight of the workers. González Parsons combined writing for the Socialist, speaking for the Working Women's Union, and motherhood. The Working Women's Union, founded sometime in the mid-1870s, pressed women's issues before the SLP and demanded women's suffrage as a party platform item, as well as equal pay for men and women.
By the early 1880s, both González Parsons and Peter H. Clark had left the SLP. Clark departed due to the neglect of a specific program addressing the issue of black people, while González Parsons left to join the International Working People's Association (IWPA). The IWPA was an anarchist organization; it called for the abolition of the state, cooperative production, and autonomy of workers through voluntary association. The foremost problem of the SLP, in González Parsons's view, was its reformism; that is, its peaceful approach to transforming capitalist social relations.
Advocated Violent Overthrow of Capitalism
The IWPA was open to all methods that would lead to the overthrow of capitalism. According to Carolyn Ashbaugh, González Parsons stated: "Let every dirty, lousy tramp arm himself with a revolver or knife on the steps of the palace of the rich and stab or shoot their owners as they come out. Let us kill them without mercy, and let it be a war of extermination and without pity." González Parsons had no illusions about the peaceful transfer of power, nor any belief in the peaceful coexistence of capitalism and labor. However, she did cling to one of the SLP's illusions, that racism would immediately be eradicated in class struggle. The SLP believed further that the origin of racist violence was not in racism, but in the dependency of minorities as workers.
Though González Parsons belittled the complexity of the relationship of racism to capitalism, she, unlike most minority leaders in 1886, called for armed resistance. According to Foner, she made the point, "You are not absolutely defenseless. For the torch of the incendiary, which has been known with impunity, cannot be wrested from you."
This statement is most revolutionary and radical, especially when placed in the context of minority political leadership. For example, the year 1886 was the high tide of Booker T. Washington's accommodationist posture. On May 1, 1886, González Parsons was a key leader in the strike at Haymarket Square, Chicago, for an eight-hour work day. The strike ultimately resulted in a bombing and the arrest of Albert Parsons and seven other activists. Lucy González Parsons attempted to rally a defense of the "Haymarket Eight" and made over 40 speeches in a tour of 17 states as part of this effort. In 1887, however, Albert Parsons was executed, along with three of his comrades.
González Parsons Founded Newspaper
The added tragedy of the death of her daughter shortly following her husband's execution did not discourage González Parsons's involvement in radical politics. In 1892 she started her paper, Freedom, which covered such issues as lynching and peonage of black sharecroppers. By 1905, she became a founding member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). The IWW's political line espoused the independence of trade unions and their control of the wealth and power. González Parsons insisted that women, Mexican migrant workers, other minorities, and even the unemployed, be full and equal members of the IWW. She also worked closely with William "Big Bill" Haywood and Elizabeth "The Rebel Girl" Gurly Flynn, both of whom later joined the Communist Party.
Organizing the homeless and unemployed, González Parsons led significant battles in San Francisco in 1914 and Chicago in 1915. The cause of political prisoners became a central focus for her in the 1920s and she joined the International Defense Fund. She was involved in the cases of Tom Mooney, the trade unionist, the "Scottsboro Boys," and Angelo Herndon. She was elected to serve on the national committee of the ILD in 1927. In 1939, she became a member of the Communist Party.
In 1942 González Parsons died in a fire in her home, which was subsequently ransacked by government authorities. Papers, books, and other sources that captured the long life of a veteran of the political movements of the left were removed. Lucy González Parsons's legacy was preserved, however, by the younger members of the Communist Party, for whom she had been a source of knowledge, experience, and political wisdom.
Ashbaugh, Carolyn, Lucy Parsons, American Revolutionary, Charles H. Kerr Publishing Company, 1976.
Foner, Philip S., American Socialism and Black Americans, Greenwood Press, 1977.
Hine, Darlene Clark, ed., Black Women in America, Carlson Publishing, 1993.
Katz, William L., The Black West, Open Hand Publishing, 1987.
Parsons, Lucy, ed., Famous Speeches of the Eight Chicago Anarchists, Arno Press and the New York Times, 1969.
Salem, Dorothy, ed., African American Women: A Biographical Dictionary, Garland, 1993.