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 3,000 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.
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 U.S. 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 America’s 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.” Historian John McClendon writes that she is notable for being the “first black activist to associate with the revolutionary left in America.”
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.
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.”
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.
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