TAYA GRAHAM: The struggle for workers rights has deep roots in this country, and it’s easy to forget the things we take for granted like weekends and a 40 hour work week would not exist without it. As the movement to make $15 the national minimum wage continues, history can and should inform the present. One figure of the past that is regaining renewed attention is a woman who’s outsized life continues to have impact today.
Her name was Lucy Parsons and her integral role in the labor movement is just one facet of a remarkable life that spanned two different centuries, and encompassed a variety of social movements that changed the way we live today. Born to a slave and into slavery, married to a man involved in the Haymarket Bombing and one of the most forceful voices for the country’s working class, Lucy Parsons was a tireless advocate for labor.
Her incredible story and the meaning of her legacy is now the subject of a new book, The Goddess of Anarchy, and to talk about the book and the fascinating life of its subject is professor Jacqueline Jones. Jones is the LNC Temple chair of history at the University of Austin Texas. Professor Jones is the author of several books, including A Dreadful Deceit: The Myth of Race in the Colonial Era to Obama’s America, Labor of Labor, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family From Slavery to the Present, and of course, Goddess of Anarchy on Lucy Parsons.
Her scholarly awards include the Bancroft Prize in American History and she’s a Pulitzer Prize finalist in the category of American History. Professor Jones, thank you so much for joining us.
JACQUELINE JONES: Thank you for having me.
TAYA GRAHAM: Just to start, for people who don’t know about Lucy Parsons, who was she and how did she get involved in both the labor and anarchist movements?
JACQUELINE JONES: Lucy Parsons was born in 1851 to an enslaved woman in Virginia and she died in Chicago is 1942. So, she lived a very long life, a life of drama and tumult. She married Albert Parsons, who was a Confederate veteran who turned to Republican politics right after the Civil War and the two of them, after they got married in 1872, moved to Chicago where Lucy lived the rest of her life.
Albert Parsons is well known. He was one of the so-called Haymarket Martyrs. He was executed in November of 1887 for his alleged role in the Haymarket Bombing. The year before, he did not throw the bomb that killed seven policemen and wounded many others. And in fact, no one knows to this day who the real bomb thrower was but he was an anarchist and with three of his comrades, he was executed in November of 1887.
TAYA GRAHAM: I was just going to ask you, for those who aren’t familiar with the Haymarket Bombing, can you just give us a brief overview and what its impact was on the labor movement?
JACQUELINE JONES: Yes. On May 1st, 1886, many workers in Chicago and throughout the country went on strike to agitate for the eight hour day. Albert Parsons was a speaker at that meeting. It was a peaceful meeting but 80 police officers arrived to shut the meeting down and as they appeared in Haymarket Square,someone threw a bomb from a nearby alley that killed several policemen and wounded many other people.
The authorities, as I said, never found out who threw the bomb but they quickly rounded up those whom they considered the most radical in Chicago, and those were anarchists. Albert Parsons was a well known radical newspaper editor. He, together with six other men were charged with murder and conspiracy. All of these men had something to do with the press. They were speakers, they were editors, they were orators and they were all anarchists as well. So, it was really the police who were going after the anarchists.
As one person said, “Anarchy wasn’t on trial as much as these men.” In any case, Albert was hanged on November 11th, 1887 along with three other men for this crime. While he was incarcerated from the summer of 1886 until he was hanged, his wife, Lucy Parsons, launched a national speaking tour. She traveled all over the country in order to raise money for the defense of her husband and the others.
And it was during this period that she really had national exposure. She presented herself to a national audience, she made up a story about her origins. She claimed that she was the daughter of Hispanic and Native American parents but she rapidly became very well known, infamous to the authorities as a very powerful orator.
TAYA GRAHAM: As you said, she becomes an orator, she picks up and takes off the tour that her husband left for her after he passed and goes around the country speaking. So, she was a bold woman to say the least. She marries a white man, which I believe was illegal throughout the country at the time, who was hung for his-
JACQUELINE JONES: Well-
TAYA GRAHAM: Oh, I’m sorry. Go ahead.
JACQUELINE JONES: Let me interrupt you there for a moment because you would think, yes, in Texas, interracial marriage would be illegal but interestingly enough, the Republicans held power in the state for about a year, 1871 to 1872, and it was during that period that Albert found a willing officiant, I think it was probably a friend of his, the mayor of Waco, Texas, who was willing to perform the marriage. In fact, they were legally married in Texas. Now, within a year, the Democrats would take over the state and presumably, their marriage was not lawful in the eyes of these authorities. In any case, they fled to Chicago.
TAYA GRAHAM: Wow, that’s amazing. She marries a white man, which is illegal throughout most of the country. She goes on to become a wildly popular speaker. I guess I’m just wondering how did a Black woman navigate all these trenchant movements and not just survive but she actually thrived?
JACQUELINE JONES: Well, her origins were indeterminate. You couldn’t really tell by looking at her what ethnicity she was, and she took advantage of that. She was light skinned, and as I said, claimed a fictional identity for herself. I think she felt she’d have more credibility among white workers if she presented herself as Native American and Hispanic rather than talking at all about her origins as an enslaved person.
She had a lot to navigate, a woman. She was a powerful speaker, she was very fashionable, people commented on her elegant dress and her eloquence as a speaker. She was fierce, she pushed the boundaries to the first amendment, she urged her followers to learn the use of explosives rhetoric, very violent, very uncompromising. And I think she was probably happiest when she was dodging the police who really tried to silence her, not only in Chicago but throughout the country wherever she spoke.
TAYA GRAHAM: I’m glad you touched on race and how she created a fictional origin story on her because she wrote that a Black man was terrorized because he was poor an dependent, not because of the color of his skin. So, she believed that the idea of race should not be part of anarchist thought. Is this because she was using the early Marxist analysis, which is race and gender blind or was she seeing a new form of Black liberation?
JACQUELINE JONES: That’s a good question and it’s hard to tell because she speaks of race very infrequently, so we have to put together several elements here. One is that one article she wrote about Black people in the south being vulnerable because they’re poor and they lack rights, and not necessarily because of the color of their skin. At the same time, I should note that she and Albert and their comrades were not sympathetic to Black workers in Chicago or really anywhere else in the country. She took pains not to speak about Black workers in her exhortations to the laboring classes.
She often, too, lumped, I think Black workers with Chinese as a threat to white workers and also as groups who would service strikebreakers if they could. So, there is this element of demonizing Black workers. Although, I will say she didn’t say much at all about the prejudice and the discrimination faced by Black people in Chicago or anywhere else in the country.
On the one hand, we can see her, yes, in that Marxist tradition of saying that Black workers are a subset of the laboring class. Race is not really an issue here as much as economic oppression but I think Lucy Parsons’ take on the Black community was more complicated than that.
TAYA GRAHAM: Now, you mentioned that she was constantly being monitored by the police. How did that affect her and why were the police so cutely interested in her?
JACQUELINE JONES: They feared her. They feared her power over large, enthusiastic audiences of workers. As I said, her rhetoric was uncompromising, she constantly denounced the judge and the prosecutor in the Haymarket Trial. She said she would like to run the guillotine that chopped off the heads of the capitalist tyrants. She talked about dynamite and its use as the leveling agent, making the playing field between workers and capitalists more even.
Her rhetoric was very heated, very provocative and she could hold a large audience in her thrall for hours at a time, get the workers all riled up. She was really quite the speaker, and I will say, she was more an orator than a labor organizer. She really did not have the patience to organize workers in any real way. She tried that for a while with a Working Women’s Union in Chicago and found meeting with seamstresses and holding meetings in the evening really was not her forte.
She was much happier to be in front of a large crowd knowing that undercover detectives were in the crowd, seeing the officers in their blue uniforms surrounding the hall, waiting to pounce on her and she enjoyed that. It was, I think, exhilarating for her.
TAYA GRAHAM: It seems like she really did enjoy the spotlight and it sounds like, in essence, she was an anarchist. What did being an anarchist mean then and how did her beliefs inform her approach? Basically, how did she become an anarchist?
JACQUELINE JONES: She and Albert became socialists soon after they moved to Chicago in 1873. They settled in a German immigrant community in Chicago and that was really, the heart of radical socialism in Chicago at the time. Albert ran for office on the socialist ticket. In the late 1870s, he lost every time, and the process, he really felt that the ballot box was corrupt, that the political process itself was not an effective means for workers to affect the revolution, to seize power and make a new day. By the early 1880s, he and Lucy were calling themselves anarchists.
Basically, what that meant to them was that they rejected voting. They did not think that voting was worth the time or the effort. They felt that a more direct form of action was necessary. I should point out here that there were several strings of anarchism and the term was used very loosely. Lucy and Albert, I think their distinguishing characteristic was their disdain for voting.
And also, I should note that they thought that the building blocks of a good society were small voluntary associations like trade unions, that out of these voluntary associations would come a new world of cooperation and not competition. There were other anarchists who believed in what we might call radical individualism, a radical kind of libertarianism. There were others like Emma Goldman, who focused on liberating the senses for cultural, artistic and sexual purposes. Johann Most was a German immigrant anarchist who believed that a brief burst of violence was necessary to get the working classes to foment revolution.
So, there are different kinds of anarchists. I think Lucy and Albert, as I said, called themselves anarchists because they had withdrawn from partisan politics. And their views today strike us as very odd in the sense that they denigrated not only the right to vote but they denigrated all American institutions, the Constitution, the Congress, the president. They were very much against the church in any form, against organized religion. This was kind of a European tradition of labor organizing that the Parsons engaged in in Chicago and it really was not very effective among white workers, native born white workers.
TAYA GRAHAM: Even the more famous radical, Mother Jones felt that the incendiary tactics of anarchists like Lucy Parsons were doing more harm than good for the workers cause. Do you think the progressive movement benefits from radical action or suffers from it? For example, there are some historians that feel if Alice Paul’s hunger strikes, and sit ins and protests for the right for women to vote, if she didn’t do those more extreme actions, becoming jailed, hunger strikes, that the more moderate suffrages might not have seemed reasonable by comparison. Do we need to radical left in order to have reform? Do we need anarchists?
JACQUELINE JONES: Well, yes. I think we do. Mother Jones’ point, of course, was that the Parsons, with their radical rhetoric and their disruptive tactics, she was not a fan of marches through the street denouncing capitalists. She felt that by their actions, they tainted the whole labor movement and they set back the cause of Workers Rights because the authorities saw in all workers, even in moderate or progressive labor leaders, the taint of violence and anarchism. Certainly advocating violence, the overthrow of the capitalist system by assassination and other forms of murder and mayhem, those tactics are bound to fail, to backfire, to provoke a counter reaction, obviously.
But she’d talked about a new kind of world, a world, again, of cooperation, not capitalism or competition. Certainly, those voices are necessary to help us to think how we might make a better, more equal, more just world.
TAYA GRAHAM: Lucy Parson advocated for the use of violence to overthrow the systems that perpetuate income inequality, and today, more radical leftist groups like Antifa are being accused of the same tactics. What do you think radicals and revolutionaries can learn from her life?
JACQUELINE JONES: First of all, she’s very hard to pigeonhole. Right, left, libertarian, cooperative, impulse. It’s hard to pigeonhole her and I think her life reminds us that labels sometimes can be self defeating, that they can hinder our understanding of a true politics. She certainly was a workers advocate. At the same time, she was not an advocate for all workers. Her efforts were focused on Chicago, white workers, mainly factory workers and she did not have a universal sense of the vulnerabilities of all laborers, sharecroppers, native born, immigrant, Black, white, Asian and so forth.
She reminds us of the dangers, I think of singling out one kind of worker to agitate for. And her life too, I think represents a cautionary tale in the sense that her rhetoric outpaced her efforts, and by that I mean she was not a violent person on her own. As I said, she enjoyed the spotlight and she got a lot of headlines by her very radical rhetoric but in the end that rhetoric did not appeal to large members of the laboring classes.
So, just one other thing about anarchists today. I mean, one thing they might learn from Lucy Parsons is that she was a great believer in reading deeply and widely in history, and political theory and economics. And she and her comrades believed very much that their efforts were grounded in history. Today, I think some feel, “Just go out, disrupt a march. That’s sufficient. I think we need to think seriously about the kind of world we envision and then act accordingly.
TAYA GRAHAM: Professor Jones, if you could summarize her most substantive influence on the labor movement and workers, what would it be? How would you characterize her legacy?
JACQUELINE JONES: She was very prescient about many of the issues that we are familiar with today. She decried the growing gap between the rich and the poor. She believed that the two party system would be ineffective in addressing growing inequality. She was suspicious of Democrat and Republican politicians. She understood the mixed effects of technology in the workplace, and she was especially committed to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. I think that’s one of her great legacies today and one that has been overlooked.
She was a fearless speaker and although we know that she pushed the boundaries of the first amendment, at the same time, she was absolutely courageous in facing down employers, police, other authorities and it’s that commitment, I think, to a fearless kind of free expression that remains with us today.
TAYA GRAHAM: I think that is a wonderful thing to carry forward, a commitment and courage for positive change. I want to thank my guest, Professor Jones for joining me, and I want to thank you for joining me at The Real News Network.