The life of Lucy Parsons and the struggles for peace and justice she engaged provide remarkable insight about the history of the American labor movement and the anarchist struggles of the time. Born in Texas, 1853, probably as a slave, Lucy Parsons was an African, Native and Mexican-American anarchist labor activist who fought against the injustices of poverty, racism, capitalism and the state her entire life. After moving to Chicago with her husband, Albert, in 1873, she began organizing workers and led thousands of them out on strike protesting poor working conditions, long hours and abuses of capitalism. After Albert, along with seven other anarchists, were eventually imprisoned or hung by the state for their beliefs in anarchism, Lucy Parsons achieved international fame in their defense and as a powerful orator and activist in her own right. The impact of Lucy Parsons on the history of the American anarchist and labor movements has served as an inspiration spanning now three centuries of social movements.
While most people remember Lucy Parsons in relation to the events surrounding her husband, Albert Parsons, and their comrades' executions (known as the Haymarket affair), Lucy's own legacy and passions have a long and courageous life history all their own. Lucy was known for her writings, her courage as a dissident woman of color, her unbending commitment to social justice, and, most of all, her powerful, fiery public speeches. She led tens of thousands of workers into the streets in mass protests, drew enormous crowds wherever she spoke and was considered a dangerous, explosive and robust threat to authorities across the United States. For over 30 years her lectures were shut down by the police, often arresting her before she ever reached the podium. Hearing Lucy speak at all was a rare opportunity that sparked a passion for rebellion in working and poor people from coast to coast. The Chicago police labeled Lucy Parsons "more dangerous than a thousand rioters."
Lucy made her living as a dress maker, spending the remainder of her time raising her 2 children and constantly working on behalf of a plethora of social justice causes. Much of her time was devoted to free speech fights by default, as her own ability to speak, like her executed husband, was always at stake. She also dedicated herself to the struggles of African-Americans, as in the case of the Scottsboro Eight in Alabama, and wrote articles condemning lynchings in the south. As a woman of color standing up during times of extreme racism and gender oppression, she earned the mark of a prominent feminist and early civil rights pioneer. Her later work included defense of other anarchists and labor activists on trial for false charges, such as Sacco and Vanzetti and Tom Mooney and Warren Billings. Lucy spent her later years working with the International Labor Defense (a broad-based, but communist-founded, class war prisoners' support group, which has led to a historic fallacy that Lucy was a member of the Communist Party - she was not) and speaking at May Day events and rallies.
Lucy's biggest commitment as an activist was always with the anarchist labor movement, as she spent most of her energy engaging in anarcho-syndicalist struggles against capitalism and employers. Her outlook was grounded firmly in class analysis, and believed that issues such as racism were primarily the product of class inequalities. Alongside militant anarchist labor activists of the day she believed superficial divisions among workers must be put aside so that workers around the world could join together, strike and overthrow their corporate, and thus government, masters. Lucy was a member of the Knights of Labor, one of the first serious labor federations in the country, and a founding member of the International Working People's Association, an early anarcho-syndicalist labor organization. In 1905 she helped found the Industrial Workers of the World, which advanced some of the basic ideas of the IWPA, expanded them and led a wave of massive strikes and labor actions for decades.
Lucy Parsons' commitment to her causes, her fame surrounding the Haymarket affair, and her powerful orations had an enormous influence in world history in general and US labor history in particular. While today she is hardly remembered and ignored by conventional histories of the United States, the legacy of her struggles and her influence within these movements have left a trail of inspiration and passion that merits further attention by all those interested in human freedom, equality and social justice.