Lucy Parsons (c. 1851-1942) was considered to be a dangerous and extreme anarchist — the kind of orator and writer that could move her audiences — who were the labor force of that era. The folks she spoke to were the working class who had to work long hours and suffer in poor working conditions. While some now believe Parsons to be a feminist and union organizer, it was a fact that she struck fear and dread into the police and the business class of the day.
The daring and intense anarchist was widely known during her time, even while she promoted the use of violence, but in the last few decades, Parsons seems to have been largely left behind to history. However, when someone passes, what they stood for does not disappear, nor are they really forgotten. The book by Dr. Jacqueline Jones of the University of Texas at Austin illustrates Parsons’ long life, from being active in the labor movement, being present at the Haymarket Riot, defending the Scottsboro Boys and being an advocate for free speech. In this email interview, Jones writes about Parsons in “The Goddess of Anarchy: The Life and Times of Lucy Parsons, American Radical.”
Ithaca Times: How did you come to write about Lucy Parsons, and what drew you to her story as feminist and labor organizer in your book “Goddess of Anarchy: The Life and Times of Lucy Parsons, American Radical?”
Jacqueline Jones: I had heard of her, but I also knew the first and only biography of her was written in 1976 (by Carolyn Ashbaugh), and that it was time to revisit Parsons using new online sources now available. Ashbaugh was not able to find out anything about Parsons’ pre-Waco life; in contrast, I located newspaper evidence that showed she had been born to an enslaved woman in Virginia in 1851, and forcibly removed with her mother and siblings to Texas during the war. Parsons was quite the celebrity (if a notorious one) in her lifetime, and I thought more people should know about her.
I would not however call her either a “feminist” or a “labor organizer.” She never used the former term, and of course thought that neither men nor women should vote. In her public pronouncements, at least, she presented herself as a prim Victorian wife and mother, later widow. Also, she didn’t have much interest in working as a labor organizer; she gave rousing speeches to rile up her supporters and cause fear in her enemies; but she didn’t have the patience to go from shop to shop and urge women (or men) to join a union.
IT: Lucy Parsons was able to talk and write a great deal, while working for needed changes, such as working for the eight-hour work day. But can you talk about what compelled her to struggle and stay true to her principals for needed changes? What was it that drove her to work for equality and justice?
JJ: I think she cared deeply about injustice toward white working class men and women. But note that she evinced no interest in Blacks in Chicago—or in the rest of the country, for that matter. She was not very practical, as in some cases at least her raw, angry rhetoric caused more harm than good. The famous union organizer Mary “Mother” Jones objected to Parsons and her comrades because they used harsh rhetoric, denigrated American symbols and institutions, and (according to Jones) tainted the whole working class with their radicalism.
I think Parsons enjoyed performing, as it were; she was never so happy as when she was making a rousing speech or dodging the police from one street corner to the next. She was primarily a writer and an orator, not an organizer.
IT: Can you talk about the time in 1905, when Parsons founded the Industrial Workers of the World, known as the “Wobblies,” and the fact she was the only woman to speak at the international labor union event?
JJ: If you will read that section in my book you will see that the organizers of the meeting (Bill Haywood and others) invited her to appear out of respect for her as the widow of a Haymarket martyr. They did not intend to have her speak until she insisted on doing so. Later she toured the Northwest, selling the biography of her husband and other materials; but she never really worked as an organizer for the IWW.
IT: Lucy Parsons was known for taking the long view in the struggles she undertook, but what do you feel her legacy is and the message she left behind for the future?
JJ: This is hard to say; her claim to fame was her speeches, and of course we cannot hear those now, so her influence has faded. Over the course of her lifetime though she kept alive the flame of the Haymarket martyrs, and the memory of the biased judge and jury that convicted them. A lot of her listeners [were] thrilled [by] her radical rhetoric.
However, as I mention above, she was not interested in the plight of Black workers (or Chinese immigrants for that matter). Too, she never admitted in public that she had been born a slave. Rather, at different points in her life she claimed to be the daughter of a Mexican and a Native American. Since she was light-skinned (she was probably the daughter of her owner), she could perpetuate the fiction that she was Indian or Mexican. I think she feared that white workers would not listen to her if they thought she was a former slave. Since she left no private papers, all we know about her comes from what her friends and supporters wrote about her, and what the newspapers said about her; she remains a mystery, even today.