January 17, 1915 – Labor Activist Lucy Parsons Leads March of Unemployed in Chicago

Lucy Gonzalez was born a slave in approximately March, 1853 of mixed heritage. In 1871, Lucy married Albert Parsons, a white Texan and former Confederate soldier who had become a radical Republican after the Civil War. Since the Ku Klux Klan presence in Texas was strong, it was too dangerous to sustain an interracial marriage there, so the couple moved to Chicago in 1873.

Lucy Parsons in 1920

In Chicago, Lucy and Albert Parsons became involved first in the Social Democratic Party, and when that organization folded, the Workingmen’s Party of the United States (WPUSA, known after 1892 as the Socialist Labor Party, or SLP). The Chicago chapter met in the Parsons home.

Lucy Parsons began her career as a writer for the WPUSA’s paper, the “Socialist,” and as a lecturer speaking for the WPUSA and the Working Women’s Union.

She and her husband Albert left the WPUSA in the 1880s and joined an anarchist organization, the International Working People’s Association (IWPA), believing that only violence would move working people to overthrow capitalism, and for racism to be ended.

In May, 1886, both Lucy Parsons and Albert Parsons were leaders of a strike in Chicago for an eight-hour work day. The strike ended in violence and eight of the anarchists were arrested, including Albert Parsons. They were accused of responsibility for a bomb which killed between four and seven police officers, though witnesses testified that none of the eight threw the bomb. The strike came to be called the Haymarket Riot.

Albert Parsons was among the four who were executed. Their daughter died shortly after.

Albert Parsons

Lucy started a paper, “Freedom,” in 1892, and continued writing, speaking, and organizing. She worked with, among others, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. In 1905 Lucy Parsons was among those who founded the Industrial Workers of the World (“Wobblies”) with others including Mother Jones, starting an IWW newspaper in Chicago.

In 1914 Lucy Parsons led protests in San Francisco. On this day in history, January 17, 1915, Lucy led a march of between 10,000 and 15,000 workers in Chicago. As explained by history professor Erik Loomis on the blog Lawyers, Guns and Money, the winter of 1915 had been extremely cold, exacerbating the unemployment crisis in Chicago. The situation created thousands of homeless people, including increasing numbers of women and children.

Professor Loomis contends that not only did being the wife of a Haymarket martyr lend Parsons political credence, but in addition she knew how to organize a public protest. She decided to hold an unemployment march. She was able to organize other radicals to put it together, and get handbills printed up and passed around the city.

It was during this protest that famous union hymn “Solidarity Forever” was completed by Ralph Chaplin. Here is a version of it performed by Pete Seeger:

In spite of the fact that “the speeches at the rally were relatively tame,” and the banners unfurled had no messages more “revolutionary” than“Hunger” and “Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread,” the police came out in force.

According to the “Chicago Daily Tribune,” of January 18, 1915:

Shots were fired, clothes were torn, eyes blackened, and heads cracked while clubs, blackjacks, and revolver butts were used with bruising effect on heads, arms and knuckles.”

At each intersection along the route of the march arrests are made, and those taken prisoner charged with rioting, unlawful assemblage and parading without a license.

Parsons and twenty others, six women and fifteen men, were arrested. The papers the next day painted the march as an anarchist melee, accepting accounts by the police rather than by participants and witnesses.

But Parsons persisted. She herself led another march on January 31. Professor Loomis wrote:

Seeing the success of the march and concerned about unemployment generally, a second march was scheduled for February 12. This had the backing of not only Jane Addams, but also the American Federation of Labor and the Socialist Party, which was pretty moderate in its actions. . . . After that second march, which also had tens of thousands of people attending, the city agreed to a temporary employment program that would build sidewalks, shovel snow, and fill pot holes.”

Parsons continued to give fiery speeches in Chicago into her 80s, where she inspired Studs Terkel. He later said in an interview:

…I heard Lucy Parsons speak a couple of times. I’ll never forget. It was Lucy Parsons. An old, old woman was speaking, tattered clothes, sort of genteelly dressed, poorly dressed, but genteel. And she spoke, but she was fiery when she spoke. And they passed the hat. And someone passed her flowered hat around. I remember a guy dropping a bucket in. ‘Oh, my god, this guy!’ This guy’s an old, battered Wobbly. I knew him; he lived at the hotel. He didn’t have much, though he dropped a buck in. He said, ‘I’m doing this for Lucy Parsons.’ So, that’s my—that’s as close as I’ve come to the Haymarket people, but it was quite moving. I remember that. That was in the ’30s, as far—as recent as the—as recent as the ’30s, but it’s long after Haymarket. And these are memories.”

Parsons died on March 7, 1942, in a house fire in the Avondale Community Area of Chicago. She was believed to be 89 years old.

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