Black History Month tends to concentrate on a few already-famous (male) icons, whom you can name as well as I can, rather than looking at the people who should be famous but aren’t. I recently heard Brittany Packnett talking about Pauli Murray as one important example. I wrote here in January about Mary Church Terrell and Sarah Parker Remond, black suffragists who also fit that bill. There are dozens of others, of course.
One of my favorite characters in all of American history is Lucy Parsons; Zaron Burnett III has a fantastic take on her in How a Freed Slave Wrote the Playbook for People Power. He backs his historical comparison up even further than this quotation shows:
As the top one percent conspired to grab tighter control over the business and politics spheres of the day, profits were prioritized over people. Legislation was passed by store-bought politicians. Gross inequality made the country’s other problems fester like a neglected wound. To complicate matters, tensions were heightened on the ground level by a growing backlash against the waves of immigrants arriving on the nation’s shores. Xenophobia and bigotry were on the rise. This happens when people feel financially insecure. It’s one of the surest indicators that hearts will turn cold, prejudiced. It reliably divides people.
Onto this anxious scene burst a young, wildly charismatic woman of color, equally intelligent and beautiful. She proclaimed economic inequality morally wrong. An avowed socialist, she crisscrossed the country making her case for a better, more equitable United States. Of course the rich and powerful despised this moralistic young woman who seemingly came out of nowhere, gifted with a devastating magnetism that she wielded like a weapon in her fight to advocate for a better country. They tried to dismiss her. That failed. They tried to make her look foolish in the press. That, too, failed. She would not be denied. She had a moral fire that burned within, radiating from the inside out. This radical brilliance paired well with her flair for publicity.
The year was 1886. The woman was Lucy Parsons.
The comparison to AOC is amusing, and dead on target, but not as interesting as Parsons herself. Burnett walks us through her role as the mother of nonviolent resistance:
My conception of the strike of the future is not to strike and go out and starve, but to strike and remain in and take possession of the necessary property of production.
He interrogates her attitudes toward race, which were perhaps less disturbing in 1886 than they can feel in 2019. The daughter of a slave, Parsons was light-skinned and married a white man, and seems to have been content to have been identified as “Spanish-Indian.” Her biographer, Jacqueline Jones, has done enormous work to clarify Parsons’ actual history, and the results of her research can be found in Goddess of Anarchy: The Life and Times of Lucy Parsons, American Radical. He then links these issues to a discussion of the contemporary role of identity politics in radical politics.
Parsons and her husband Albert were involved in the political tensions leading up to the Haymarket Affair. Albert and six other men were sentenced to death because some unidentifiable person on the edge of the demonstration threw a bomb; Albert was eventually executed. Lucy had fought tirelessly for his release and was very public about the government’s refusal to let her and her two children say goodbye.
She lived another 60 years and she never stopped fighting for justice, socialism, and an equitable society. When she died, as Burnett points out, “American women” had had the right to vote for 22 years, but it would be 22 years more until black women gained that right in any degree of actuality.
Burnett sets forth the “playbook” she created, and he does it well.His comparisons to AOC and other rising women of color are apt. However, Parsons herself shines through this article, as she did in life, holding the reader’s interest and making us want to know more — and to do more.
Help make her a household name; talk about her every chance you get.