The Enigmatic Anarchist

Jacqueline Jones

Lucy Parsons's life was rife with contradictions. But her commitment to workers' emancipation was never in doubt.

Lucy Parsons circa 1886. Library of Congress

Interview by

Lucy Parsons is often lionized as a pioneering black radical, a powerful writer and orator who championed workers’ emancipation through organizations like the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), while flouting racist conventions with her white husband, Albert Parsons.

But while this sketch carries the patina of truth, it is, like so many aspects of Parsons, rife with contradictions. Throughout her life, Parsons hid her background as an African American and a former slave, instead claiming she was of Mexican and Native American descent. She refrained from denouncing the plight of black workers, focusing almost exclusively on an urban working class composed primarily of European immigrants. And despite being a delegate at the founding convention of the IWW in 1905, her involvement with the radical union thereafter was minimal.

Yet her journey from slave to nationally recognized radical voice, her tireless advocacy for workers, and her undeniable bravery in the face of murderous state repression made her stand out in an era full of notable leftists.

Parsons largely faded from the popular imagination following her death in 1942. It wasn’t until 1976 that the first biography of her, Lucy Parsons: An American Revolutionary by Carolyn Ashbaugh, was published. The second — Goddess of Anarchy: The Life and Times of Lucy Parsons, American Radical by Jacqueline Jones was just released by Basic Books. Jacobin recently spoke with Jones, a renowned historian at the University of Texas, about Parsons’s political evolution, her lifetime of tribulations, and her many, many faces.


In light of the old anarchist slogan “no gods, no masters,” it seems natural that Lucy Parsons, an ex-slave, would be attracted to anarchism, but her political evolution was not so simple. Can you explain how she went from freedwoman to anarchist?

JJ

The development of Lucy Parsons’s political ideology was entwined with that of her husband, Albert Parsons. As a teenager, Albert served in the Confederate Army, but he lacked any principled commitment to the Southern cause. After the war, Albert returned to Waco, Texas, and became active in the Republican Party. He played a major role in helping freedmen register and vote, and urged them to seize their rights as free and equal citizens. It was during this period that Albert realized he possessed considerable talent as a powerful, even fearless, orator. Gradually, he developed political ambitions, as evidenced by his attempt to curry favor with prominent Republicans in Texas.

He and Lucy married in 1872, when Republicans controlled the state government and (at least in some areas) approved of interracial marriage. The Democrats regained control of the state the following year, prompting the couple to flee to Chicago, where they settled in a German immigrant community. He worked as a printer, and she set up shop as a seamstress.

Albert and Lucy partook of German immigrants’ radical sensibilities and embraced socialism. Just as Texas Republicans challenged the powerful Democratic Party and its commitment to slavery, so Chicago socialists challenged both major political parties and their commitment to capitalism.

Albert once again relished his role as an outsider and thorn in the side of the establishment. Several times in the late 1870s, he ran for local office on the socialist ticket but lost every time. He and Lucy became convinced that the franchise was a poor vehicle for class revolution. They pointed out that many workers could not afford to take time off from their jobs to vote, the two major parties had a tenacious hold on the loyalties of the white laboring classes, and the political process itself was corrupted by the influence of big money and greedy lawmakers.

In the early 1880s, the Parsonses abandoned the ballot box and turned to anarchism. They argued that partisan politics was a waste of time and that workers’ direct action against the capitalist system was the only true path to revolution. They noted that technological innovation in the workplace was eliminating jobs for not only factory workers but the middle classes as well. Soon, they claimed, few Americans would be able to afford to purchase the goods made in this country and, at that point, capitalism would collapse. Then workers would organize themselves into specialized trade unions, which would serve as the embryos of a new, egalitarian society — one driven by the welfare of the collective and not by the profit-seeking of a few. This new society would have no need for wages or for war.

Lucy Parsons remained committed to these ideas throughout her long life, even in the face of evidence that the capitalist system was flexible, able to accommodate many new workers, and to create many new kinds of jobs.

Can you describe the impact of the Haymarket Affair on Lucy?

JJ

During the Great Railroad Strike of the summer of 1877 — when Albert made a name for himself as an orator and labor organizer — the Chicago police mobilized as if for battle and attacked protesters, wounding and killing even those meeting indoors for peaceful purposes. The Parsonses and other radicals became convinced that the laboring classes must defend themselves against the police, private security guards, and federal troops armed with rifles, cannon, and Gatling guns. These radicals began to urge workers to take up arms to protect themselves and their families.

The meeting organized by anarchists in Chicago’s Haymarket Square the evening of May 4, 1886, was a direct response to police attacks on striking workers, who were agitating for an eight-hour day. The Haymarket rally was a peaceful one until eighty policemen arrived in the square and someone threw a bomb, killing seven officers and wounding untold numbers of people.

Later, during the trial, state prosecutors admitted that they could not determine who threw the bomb, but went ahead and charged seven anarchists with murder and conspiracy. According to the state, these men, including Albert Parsons, were guilty by their association with Chicago’s anarchist press. In November of 1887, four of the defendants, including Albert, were hanged.

The Haymarket trial came to symbolize the state-sponsored persecution of anarchists, a corrupt judicial system, a complicit mainstream press, and the enduring vulnerability of all workers to well-armed police forces. Many famous socialists and anarchists, including Eugene Debs and Emma Goldman, later said that they were radicalized by Haymarket.

Albert was incarcerated between June 1886 and his death the following year. During that time, Lucy launched her own career as an orator and agitator, traveling the country to raise money for the defense. In the process, she became a national celebrity for her fiery denunciations of the Chicago police and political establishment. She began her speeches with the defiant and unapologetic “I am an anarchist!” The crowds who came to hear her found on the stage not a pathetic, grieving widow, but a defiant woman eager to provoke — even shock — her listeners.

How did Lucy’s character and politics contrast with the popular understanding and depiction of anarchists at the time?

JJ

First, I should note that the “popular understanding and depiction of anarchists at the time” — especially after the Haymarket bombing — promoted certain stereotypes that proved enduring. Editors, reporters, clergy, politicians, social reformers, and political cartoonists all portrayed the anarchist as a bewhiskered, unkempt, wild-eyed man ready to lob a canister of dynamite into an unsuspecting crowd of innocent men, women, and children. That was one of the reasons that people were so fascinated by Lucy Parsons. Elegant and dignified in her bearing, always dressed in the latest fashion, she upended this stereotype in a dramatic way.

The late nineteenth century saw a fracturing of the anarchist persuasion. (It would be difficult to call it a movement.) Parsons and her close comrades represented what would come to be called anarcho-syndicalism. They believed that trade unions were the embryos of the good society. In contrast, some anarchists were extreme individualists who shied away from associations of all kinds, even voluntary ones. Goldman represented what we might call cultural anarchism, with its emphasis on the free expression of not only ideas but also sexual feelings and artistic impulses. Finally, the German anarchist Johann Most promoted the idea that the attentat, or “propaganda of the deed,” was the key to revolution — a brief, violent act that would galvanize the masses and serve as the catalyst for the overthrow of capitalism.

Lucy Parsons at times seemed at least rhetorically committed to the attentat, but as I argue in the book, she used provocative rhetoric primarily to frighten Chicago authorities — to convince them of the latent power of the laboring classes — and there is no indication that she ever plotted an instance of violence herself. During the first two decades of the twentieth century, when followers of the Italian immigrant and anarchist Luigi Galleani were advocating and practicing assassination and the destruction of property, Parsons was careful to distance herself from him and his support for murder and mayhem.

I’ll add that she herself was not a good example of, shall we say, an open-minded theorist, willing to change her views in response to circumstances. She ignored the growth of a consumer culture, a powerful force in the lives of many workers of both sexes and all ages and backgrounds. She remained oblivious to the importance of certain symbols and values for most native-born white workers — the American flag and the church, for example. And she did not anticipate the way that an emerging welfare state could take the edge off radical protest and make large numbers of workers even more devoted to the Democratic Party than ever before.

At first glance, the title of your book, Goddess of Anarchy, might strike readers as an oxymoron (again, “no gods, no masters”), but I think it fittingly captures the contradictions of Lucy’s life. What were some of the opposing circumstances, influences, and aspirations that she had to contend with?

JJ

I should make it clear that the book’s title is a label affixed to Lucy Parsons by the Chicago Citizens’ Association, a group of businessmen who feared her and the appeal she held for the masses of white working men. I used that label for the title because it suggests her power and influence as a radical speaker, and because people at the time commented on her beauty.

When she first launched her speaking career, she devised a fictional identity for herself, claiming that she was the daughter of Mexican and Native American parents. (She was light-skinned and, according to many people, of indeterminate origins.) I think she felt this new identity would give her more credibility with her white working-class audiences. Neither she nor Albert ever evinced much sympathy for the plight of African Americans, and indeed both demonized blacks as strikebreakers and as enemies of white workers.

Lucy took care to fashion her public image in other ways. She presented herself as a prim Victorian wife and mother, when in fact she was a sexual free spirit — one of her love affairs ended in spectacular fashion, splashed across the headlines of local Chicago papers. She also claimed that the nuclear family was the foundational building block of the good society, yet, in 1899, she had her own son, Albert Jr, committed to an insane asylum because he defied her wishes and tried to join the US Army. He languished in the asylum for twenty years before he died, and there is no evidence that Parsons ever visited him in that time.

Lucy was a notoriously difficult person according to those who knew her well. She was a prolific writer and editor, an eloquent speaker, and an influential agitator. At the same time, she felt she could never be honest about her past.

Her owner had forcibly removed her, her mother, and younger brother from their home in the east during the Civil War and established a new plantation in McLennan County, Texas. After the war, violence on the countryside forced her family to flee to the small town of Waco. There she met a black man named Oliver Benton who paid her tuition at the local school for freed children. Benton later claimed that Lucy was his wife and that he was the father of the child she bore. (Apparently, the infant died when only a few months old.) When she left Waco in 1873, she left behind Benton, her mother, and her younger siblings.

I believe that her decisions to assume a new identity — as the champion of the white laboring classes — and immerse herself in the German immigrant community took an emotional toll on her. She was fiercely protective of her privacy, always dissembling, always calculating. As I note in the book, just being Lucy Parsons must have been exhausting.

You mention that Lucy never “evinced much sympathy for the plight of African Americans,” but the Industrial Workers of the World, of which she was a founding member, was — at least in principle — antiracist at a time when most unions traded in racism. What were her views on race?

JJ

It is difficult to pinpoint her views on race or black folks in general because she never wrote about them. However, there might be an easy and quite reasonable answer to this question: that she denied her own background as a former slave, and distanced herself from African Americans in general, because she thought that her constituency — white men of the urban laboring classes — would not grant her the degree of respect and credibility she deserved had they known she was of African descent.

I would note here that although she attended and spoke at the founding meeting of the IWW, she did not identify strongly with that particular organization, except to the extent that it represented a robust defense of the First Amendment. (The local head of the Chicago Wobblies disparaged Parsons and her comrades as “anarchist freaks.”)

She did at one point urge Southern blacks to strike back violently against their oppressors, noting that their vulnerabilities stemmed from their legal liabilities and lack of rights, and not their “race” per se.

The era during which Lucy lived was the era of yellow journalism, as well as the first Red Scare. Considering the tint of reportage and official documents of the time, how difficult was it to find reliable sources on her life?

JJ

Parsons left little in the way of personal papers — diaries, letters, and so forth — so I had to piece together her life from sources such as census reports and newspaper articles. The mainstream press covered her obsessively, and many papers all over the country recorded her speeches, described her appearance, and passed judgment on her personal life, as well as her political views. Predictably, reporters described her in sensationalistic terms as they would any object of their curiosity. They detailed the texture of her hair and the shape of her nose, as well as the shoes, jewelry, and hats she wore.

On her national tours, she delivered variations of her standard lecture, and press stenographers recorded those talks fairly accurately. I should add here that she was a prolific writer, and I was able to read many of the articles she wrote not only for her own anarchist papers — Freedom (1890–1902) and Liberator (1906) — but also for a wide variety of radical publications, from the late 1870s until her death in 1942.

She was private about her personal life. However, she famously feuded with well-known figures, such as Debs and Goldman, and the papers covered those spats as well. Details of her love life made headlines (when she spurned a lover and, in at least one case, hauled him into court), as did her decision to have her son committed.

Despite the awe she inspired at times in her life, Parsons was already being forgotten before her death and remained largely so thereafter. Why was Parsons almost lost to time?

JJ

In Chicago at least, Parsons was definitely not forgotten while she was alive. She continued to speak at Haymarket commemorations, strikers’ rallies, and May Day celebrations almost up until the time of her death. She remained an icon among white workers and a newfound heroine of labor among the city’s small band of communists.

Still, in some respects, Lucy was a victim of her own success. Beginning in the early twentieth century, she became the keeper of the eternal flame of the Haymarket martyrs and devoted the rest of her life to writing and speaking about the unjust judicial system that had claimed the life of her husband and his three comrades. She thereby subsumed her own personality and politics under his memory.

What lessons do Parsons’s life and her work offer to socialists today?

JJ

Like her socialist and anarchist comrades, Lucy Parsons was prescient about a whole host of issues that continue to confront us today — the growing gap between rich and poor, the mixed effects of technology in the workplace, the inability of the two major parties to address injustices and inequalities, the struggles of ordinary workers, the persistent attacks on labor unions and the idea of collective action in general, and the threat to free speech and peaceful assembly. She read widely and thought deeply about history, as well as economic and political theory. She was a courageous defender of freedom of speech.

At the same time, the Chicago anarchists engaged in a kind of anti-clerical, European-style labor organizing and agitation that was ill-suited to that city’s workforce then (and since). The anarchists denigrated the right to vote. They ridiculed the church and national institutions of all kinds, including the three branches of the US government. They considered reforming the system to be a form of complicity in it. They pushed the boundaries of the First Amendment by urging a militant kind of worker self-defense, one that veered into an advocacy of violence against businessmen and the police. They did not appreciate the ways that racial, religious, and ethnic loyalties could divide workers, nor did they anticipate the ways that consumer culture would transform class relations and all of American society.

Finally, Parsons’s own career stands as a stark reminder of, on the one hand, the unique history and struggles of workers of African descent and, on the other, the economic forces which continue to affect workers regardless of their skills or background. To paraphrase the Reverend Jesse Jackson, when the factory lights go out, all workers — regardless of skin color — look the same. Today, America’s tribalistic politics serve as a persistent, stubborn barrier to the kind of class unity needed to challenge the current racist, authoritarian regime in Washington.