Lucy Parsons: ‘More Dangerous Than A Thousand Rioters’

The strongest argument that can be made as to why all radical activists should study the life and works of Lucy Parsons is that the FBI wants you to know nothing about her.


Lucy Parsons died in 1942, at the age of 89, in a house fire in Chicago — the city in which she lived most of her life. The ashes had hardly cooled before the Chicago police raided the remains of her home, confiscated all 3000 volumes of literature and writings on “sex, socialism and anarchy,” which constituted her personal library, and turned it over to the FBI. Tragically, and despite her comrades’ repeated inquiries, this treasure trove of revolutionary material was never again to see the light of day.[1]


Indeed, the Chicago police had ample reason to want to bury Parsons’ legacy as quickly as possible. In their own words, she was “more dangerous than a thousand rioters.” For virtually the entirety of the last 40 years of her life, the Chicago police tried to bar her from making any public speeches, and routinely arrested her for the ‘crime’ of handing out revolutionary pamphlets on the street. Famed labor historian Studs Terkel even noted how rare of a privilege it was to hear Parsons address a large audience in her later years, owing to the constant police harassment.


Overlooked by history

Partially because so much of her own writings were ‘disappeared’ by the government, and partially because she was a revolutionary woman of color speaking out against the injustices of a capitalist society run by white men, Lucy Parsons is one of the least known of the major figures in the history of revolutionary socialism in the US. Much like her long-time comrades and friends, Eugene Debs, William “Big Bill” Haywood and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Lucy Parsons made a tremendous contribution to the birth of the United States' turn-of-the-century, revolutionary working-class movement; a movement which continues to this day to shape the character of class struggle and revolutionary politics in this country.


Historian Robin Kelley argues that Lucy Parsons was not only “the most prominent black woman radical of the late nineteenth century,” but was also “one of the brightest lights in the history of revolutionary socialism.”[2] Historian John McClendon writes that she is notable for being the “first black activist to associate with the revolutionary left in America.”[3]


More often than not, however, if Lucy Parsons is mentioned as an historical figure, she is noted merely as the “wife of Albert Parsons,” a man who had gained international notoriety after he was executed in 1887 by the state of Illinois for his revolutionary activities.

Unfortunately, this slight extends beyond solely ‘mainstream’ historians, including supposedly left-wing intellectuals as well. For instance, in the 1960s, the feminist editors of Radcliffe College’s three-volume work, Notable American Women, decided to leave Parsons out of their study on the grounds that she was “largely propelled by her husband’s fate” and was a “pathetic figure, living in the past and crying injustice” after her husband’s execution.[4]


Even contemporaries of Lucy Parsons, such as the popular anarchist-feminist Emma Goldman (with whom Lucy Parsons became a life-long political opponent), accused Parsons of being an otherwise unimportant opportunist who simply rode upon the cape of her husband’s martyrdom, describing her as nothing more than one of those wives of “anarchists who marry women who are millions of miles removed from their ideas.”[5]

None of this, however, is to diminish the historical importance of Albert Parsons and the events leading up to his execution; and while it is true that Lucy Parsons spent much of her life addressing the crime that was her husband’s murder at the hands of the capitalist state, nonetheless, her political activity and impact on history extend far beyond the scope of that single tragedy. In fact, the work that she lent her energies to in the years following Albert’s execution are of equal (if not greater) importance than anything he had been able to add to the fight for workers’ emancipation in the course of a life that was sadly cut short.


'Whose Lucy Parsons?'

In one sense, Lucy Parsons defies easy political categorisation. Throughout her life she referred to herself alternatively (and sometimes all at once) as an anarchist, socialist, communist and syndicalist. She worked with socialist groups in the 1870s and anarchist groups in the 1880s. She was part of the founding of the Socialist Party in the 1890s and the revolutionary-syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World in the early 1900s. Finally, the last two decades of her life would see her working with the Communist Party.


The fact that she allowed her ideas on revolution and revolutionary organisation to adapt so much over the years have led some present-day activists to feel the need to “rescue” her in order to firmly place her under the banner of their particular ideology to the exclusion of all others. For instance, the anarchist author Gale Ahrens, in the Introduction to her otherwise useful collection of Lucy Parsons’ writings and speeches, waxes near apoplectic at the thought that anyone would consider Lucy Parsons a communist. The origin of her ire is the only existing biography of Lucy Parsons, written by Carolyn Ashbuagh, in which Ashbaugh concludes that Lucy Parsons officially joined the Communist Party in 1939.


Despite the fact that this conclusion is backed up by several interviews conducted by Ashbaugh with contemporaries of Lucy Parsons (both friend and foe), and Lucy Parsons’ own words, which reveal the fact that by the 1930s she was publicly referring to herself as “connected with” the Communist Party, Ahrens feels the need to take pains to attack what, in her words, is an “unlikely image of Lucy Parsons as Communist — or worse, as The Anarchist Who Became a Communist.”[6]


Clearly for Ahrens there is nothing worse than an anarchist becoming a communist. However, the actual writings and actions of Lucy Parsons herself reveal that this aversion to communism is wholly that of Ahrens, and is not something that Parsons shared in the least. As one anarchist writer has correctly pointed out regarding those, like Ahrens, who would attempt to declare that Lucy Parsons was one thing by simply lopping off those pieces of her life that indicate she was also something else, “Gale Ahrens’ documentary history was an attempt to rescue Parsons ‘for the anarchist movement.’ In doing so Ahrens provides anarchism with another hero but does little to demystify Parsons’ legacy. Indeed, the real question is not whose hero Lucy Parsons is, but how we can learn from her struggle and how her history can provide a better understanding of American radicalism.”[7]


Perhaps the most egregious example of this type of pick-and-choose approach to Lucy Parsons’ legacy is the Lucy Parsons Project website, which posits itself as a “tribute to Lucy Parsons, her work, and the causes she championed.”[8] This would all be well and good if the website actually lived up to its promise. While useful insofar as it provides some of Parsons’ own writings and speeches, it unfortunately does her a major disservice by creating a distorted, incomplete picture of what constituted her political life.


While one can find on this website a myriad of writings on anarchism (including those by and about Emma Goldman, who Parsons grew to utterly despise by the end of her life), as well as links to several dozen contemporary anarchist websites, one will not find any writings by or about Karl Marx, anything about the successes of the Russian revolution of 1917, nor links to any contemporary socialist websites (not to mention any specifically anti-racist media), though these were all major, if not defining, contributors to Lucy Parsons’ political worldview.


Finally, I would be remiss if I did not note the other side of this trend, which can be seen in erroneous attempts to declare that at no point in Parsons’ life did she ever actually espouse anarchist ideas, which Ashbaugh appears wont to do in her biography. This, of course, is plainly not true.


In the end, while people like Emma Goldman considered Lucy Parsons an "opportunist" for working with different revolutionary organisations and letting her politics evolve over the years, I would argue that this is actually her greatest attribute. Unlike Goldman, Lucy Parsons retained a firm, unwavering commitment throughout her entire life to identifying with, and struggling for, the liberation of working people as a class from the chains of capitalist exploitation, while simultaneously being open to a number of different forms in which that liberation might be brought about.


For Lucy Parsons, the aegis under which workers (and by extension, herself) were best able to fight for their social emancipation was not important. If a new type of organization or tactic in the class struggle was developed that seemed an advance over that which preceded it, Parsons did not miss a beat in throwing herself into the work of this new-found creation. Lucy Parsons had only one loyalty — to the downtrodden, oppressed, abused, and exploited. In the end, she measured an organization or an action, not by what label it could be categorized under, but how effective it was in moving this latter group of people into revolutionary action. It is for this reason, and not ‘opportunism,’ that Lucy Parsons was so quick to latch on to new organizations and ideas that emerged in the course of what she considered to be the great and ongoing war between labor and capital.


Lucy Parsons becomes a socialist

Little is known of Lucy Parsons’ exact origins, in no small part because she herself was quite circumspect about this matter. Today, most historians agree that Parsons was likely born circa 1853, in Texas, and quite possibly grew up as a slave on a plantation. Documentary evidence suggests that she was of mixed African, Mexican, and Native American heritage. Nonetheless, it’s worth noting that she actually denied being of African ancestry, though theories abound as to why she may have claimed this.[9]