Reconstructing the Great Speeches – Lucy Parsons: “I am an Anarchist”

Lucy Parsons had three strikes against her.  Who will remember a woman who fought for the rights of women to vote and to be equal to men in 1900?  Who will remember an African American who fought against White Supremacy and lynchings of Blacks in 1900?  Who will remember an Anarchist who fought for the rights of workers against the giant corporations in 1900?  Now tell me how many people will remember and even admire a Black woman Anarchist who dedicated her life to fighting all three battles? 

Today, you would have to look carefully to find her name in any history book.  She is often little more than a footnote despite being one of the bravest Americans who ever lived.  I know of no statues for Lucy.  I know of no stamps ever issued with Lucy’s picture on them.  I know of no coins that were ever struck with a facsimile of Lucy.  You can find several books written on the life of Lucy Parsons which prove her courage and determination in the face of more adversity than most people will ever know, but you will find no streets or buildings named after her either. 

Context:

Lucy Eldine Gonzalez Parsons (born Lucia Carter, 1851 – March 7, 1942) was born in Virginia.   Her mother was an African American slave.  Her father may have been her mother’s slave owner.  Of the three strikes against Lucy in 1900, by far the most egregious was her advocacy of Anarchism.  Bad enough being a former slave in Texas.  Bad enough being a woman who does not know her place in society.  But when you add to this mix, the fact that she was an avowed, dedicated, and passionate Anarchist, you now have a recipe for a hate that to this day has not subsided in the country.

There is still racism in America, yes.  There is still sexism in America, yes.  However, these are becoming increasingly unacceptable in America.  The #MeToo Movement and the Black Lives Matter Movement have emerged as new armies to lead a rising tide of protests directed against these two evils.  But where is the movement against giant corporations that relegates workers to second class citizens?  Corporations where senior managers make 400 times what the average worker makes.  Corporations where unions are denigrated and ever so much care is made to prevent workers from forming or joining a union.  Corporations that on a whim will close a factory and take their plants to another country.  Corporations that pay less taxes than a worker in those corporations. 

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“Never be deceived that the rich will allow you to vote away their wealth.”  ― Lucy Parsons: Freedom, Equality & Solidarity – Writings & Speeches, 1878-1937

Lucy was a feminist and a woman who fought against white supremacy and corporate greed in a time when either position would make her an outcast.  However, nothing in 1900 or in 2020 America could be a worse stigma than to be labeled as an Anarchist.  Americans have been brainwashed to hate Socialists, Communists and Anarchists.  Among the three, Anarchists are easily the most reviled, hated and despised in this country.  When the average person thinks of an Anarchist, they conjure up a picture of a wild unkempt unshaven dirty man in a large overcoat.  The man has hidden a bomb somewhere in the middle of a capitalist icon like the NY Stock Exchange or the World Trade Center and he has timed it to explode in the middle of a busy business day.  His purpose is to kill as many capitalists as he can.    

“Strike not for a few cents more an hour, because the price of living will be raised faster still, but strike for all you earn, be content with nothing less.”  — Lucy Parsons

Do you know what Anarchists want?  Do you know what Anarchists Believe?  Wikipedia gives the following summary for the theory of Anarchism:

“Anarchism is a political philosophy and movement that rejects all involuntary, coercive forms of hierarchy. It calls for the abolition of the state which it holds to be undesirable, unnecessary, and harmful. It is usually described alongside libertarian Marxism as the libertarian wing (libertarian socialism) of the socialist movement and as having a historical association with anti-capitalism and socialism.”  — Wikipedia

I will not deny that there have been examples of extremism among Anarchists.  There have certainly been bombings and attacks against symbols of capitalism.  Lucy herself at one time said:

“Let every dirty, lousy tramp arm himself with a revolver or a knife and lay in wait on the steps of the palaces of the rich and stab or shoot the owners as they come out. Let us kill them without mercy, and let it be a war of extermination.” — Lucy Parsons

But when you measure the violence perpetrated by the rich against the poor in this country, the scales would surely tip against the “dirty lousy tramps.”  Measure the instances of violence by Anarchists versus the instances of violence by Corporations trying to prevent workers from organizing.  Measure the instances of violence by Corporations against workers speaking out against racism and sexism in those same companies.  Measure the number of times, Corporation leaders have gone to jail for white collar crimes versus the number of people who have gone to jail for trying to rob a bank.  Without listing each of these, I can assure you the scales tip well in the favor of large Corporations against the average citizen.  Is it any wonder, that activists sometimes lose their cool and resort to violence when violence is continually directed against them? 

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In 1886, Lucy’s husband, who had been heavily involved in campaigning for the eight-hour workday, was arrested, tried, and sentenced to death.  He was hung on November 11, 1887, by the state of Illinois.  He was found guilty of conspiracy in the Haymarket Affair, sometimes called the Haymarket Riot. 

“It began as a peaceful rally in support of workers striking for an eight-hour work day, the day after police killed one and injured several workers.  An unknown person threw a dynamite bomb at the police as they acted to disperse the meeting, and the bomb blast and ensuing gunfire resulted in the deaths of seven police officers and at least four civilians; dozens of others were wounded.”Wikipedia

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Mark the words above.  It began as a peaceful really EVEN after the day before police had killed one and injured several other workers.  These words should resonate today as not unusual behavior on the part of police everywhere in this country.  Even today, we see peaceful protesters dispersed by police using violent tactics which are uncalled for.  The police are called to “protect and serve” but many Americans today want to know who it is they protect and who it is that they serve.  It certainly does not seem that they serve the poor or even the middle class.  With few exceptions, it would seem that they exist to “protect and serve” the assets of the rich and wealthy. 

I am an Anarchist Speech:

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This particular speech was given by Lucy to help raise funds for her husband’s defense.  Albert R. Parsons was a white Republican who had once served as a Confederate soldier but was now an organizer and labor leader. 

“I am an anarchist. I suppose you came here, the most of you, to see what I a real, live anarchist looked like. I suppose some of you expected to see me with a bomb in one hand and a flaming torch in the other but are disappointed in seeing neither. If such has been your ideas regarding an anarchist, you deserved to be disappointed. Anarchists are peaceable, law abiding people.” 

Lucy went directly to the issue.  Haymarket had created an image of radical bomb throwing fanatics bent on destroying democracy.  She started her speech by attacking this image and challenging assumptions regarding what an Anarchist was.  She noted they were peaceful law-abiding citizens.  Not an easy concept to accept when you understand that every force in a capitalistic society is aimed at protecting the greed and avarice that the government allows to reign in the marketplace.

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“Do you wonder why there are Anarchists in this country, in this great land of liberty, as you love to call it? Go to New York. Go through the byways and alleys of that great city. Count the myriads starving; count the multiplied thousands who are homeless; number those who work harder than slaves and live on less and have fewer comforts than the meanest slaves. You will be dumbfounded by your discoveries, you who have paid no attention to these poor, save as objects of charity and commiseration.”

Lucy succinctly but powerfully lays out the reason that she and so many others are Anarchists.  Look at the poverty that exists in our country today.   

  • In 2018, the highest earning 20% of families made more than half of all U.S. Income
  • S. has the highest level of income inequality among the G7 countries
  • The income gap between Blacks and Whites has not changed since 1970
  • The richest U.S. families are the only group to have gained wealth since the Great Recession

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Data from the Pew Research Center.

If it is still bad today, can you imagine what it was like in the early 1900’s when there was no social security, no unemployment benefits, no pensions or retirement programs, no welfare programs and no workmen’s compensation.  People were little more than wage slaves to an industrial system that had displaced small family farms and was hell bent on creating the greatest profits they could for the owners.  It did not matter who was hurt on the job or who had a family to support.  The early 20th Century production system was well depicted by Charlie Chaplin in his famous movie “Modern Times.” 

 

“Well, the bomb exploded, the arrests were made and then came that great judicial farce, beginning on June 21. The jury was impaneled. Is there a Knight of Labor here? Then know that a Knight of Labor was not considered competent enough to serve on that jury. ‘Are you a Knight of Labor?’ ‘Have you any sympathy with labor organizations?’ were the questions asked each talisman. If an affirmative answer was given, the talisman was bounced.”

The jury to try the men accused of conspiracy in the Haymarket bombing was not impartially selected.   The judge at the time intervened to ensure that a jury prejudicial to the defendants would be selected.  Ms. Parsons destroyed the alleged fairness and impartiality of the jury process in her speech, but it would do little good.  More than one hundred years have passed since this trial and I would bet that it would be almost impossible today to find a jury that would not convict an avowed anarchist even before his/her trial had started. 

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“Liberty has been named anarchy. If this verdict is carried out it will be the death knell of America’s liberty. You and your children will be slaves. You will have liberty if you can pay for it. If this verdict is carried out, place the flag of our country at half-mast and write on every fold ‘shame.’”

anarchists1The thought that “you will have liberty if you can pay for it” rings true 100 years after Lucy spoke these sad and forlorn words.  Today we say “politics and courts are ruled by the Golden Rule.  He who has the money makes the rules.”  We all know that it takes money to get a law passed or else why are there so many lobbyists in the halls of congress.  We also know that rich people get a better break in court because their money buys them better lawyers.  We also know that poor people fare less well with our law enforcement agencies than do rich people.  When was the last time you heard of a police officer stopping someone in Palms Springs or La Jolla for a broken taillight? 

People who enter the criminal justice system are overwhelmingly poor. Two-thirds detained in jails report annual incomes under $12,000 prior to arrest.  Incarceration contributes to poverty by creating employment barriers; reducing earnings and decreasing economic security through criminal debt, fees and fines; making access to public benefits difficult or impossible; and disrupting communities where formerly incarcerated people reside.”The Relationship between Poverty & Mass Incarceration

The last line in Lucy Parson’s speech was “Bread is freedom and freedom is bread.”  This line was taken from a poem called “Freedom” written by her husband Albert Parsons.  The last four lines in his poem speak to the thought underlying this phrase:

When thou speak’st: Enough is done!

Break this two-fold yoke in twain;

Break thy want’s enslaving chain;

Break thy slavery’s want and dread;

Bread is freedom, freedom bread.

Those who work for others have no freedom.  The wage earner depends for his bread on the beneficence of his capitalistic benefactor.  To toil for himself and to earn his own bread is to achieve freedom for the wage earner.  The attitude of an Anarchist is that all goods produced belong to the man or woman who produces them.  In a corporation, all the work and labor are divided equally and thus the profits and outputs should be divided equally.  The manager works forty hours per week.  The secretary works forty hours per week. The production employee works forty hours per week.  The Anarchist believes that since each works the same amount of time, each should get nearly the same amount of pay.  An Anarchist would be horrified at the fact than in the USA, CEO compensation has grown 940% since 1978 while typical worker compensation has risen only 12% during that time.  (See Report by Mishel and Wolfe, 2019)

It is not a case of “treat everyone the same.”  No one wants a system where everyone is treated the same.  It is a case of treating everyone to equal measures of equity and equality.  We have a long way to go in this country before we understand how applying these ideas would make for a happier and more just society.  We are still a country that believes in the idea that the more money and wealth a person has, the better that person is and the happier their lives are.  Nothing could be further from the truth.    

“Happiness comes from spiritual wealth, not material wealth… Happiness comes from giving, not getting. If we try hard to bring happiness to others, we cannot stop it from coming to us also. To get joy, we must give it, and to keep joy, we must scatter it.”  — John Templeton

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