May 1 is celebrated internationally as a day to honor workers and the achievements of the working class. Across the globe, millions march. What many don't know is that the history behind the day is found in the United States and that one of its founders was Lucy Gonzalez Parsons.
Lucy Gonzalez Parsons is an enigma. Her early life is not documented and she often told different stories about her early life. While some say she was born into slavery, she denied any African American heritage. Some believe her father was was a Muscogee man named John Waller and that her mother was a Mexican woman named Marie del Gather. She said she was Mexican and Native American and had been born in Texas. Sometimes she said she was born in Virginia. After the Civil War, she may have been married to a freedman named Oliver Gaithings.
We don't really know.
What we do know is that she was an influential, radical, labor activist, anarchist, and writer who is an important part of the May Day story and the history of the US labor movement.
We do know that in 1870, Lucy Gonzalez (or Waller) married Albert Parsons, a white southerner. By 1873, they moved to Chicago. Some speculate that they moved to escape the racism of Texas.
in Chicago, Lucy and Albert became leaders in the labor movement and when the great strike of 1877 erupted, Albert became known as an eloquent anarchist leader. Lucy wrote for radical newspapers, including The Alarm, which she and Albert founded. Her 1884 article, "To Tramps: The Unemployed, the Disinherited, and Miserable" called on the disfranchised to "Learn the art of explosives" because the powerful would only pay attention to them if there was a violent action or the threat of a violent action.
In 1886, organizers called for a general strike demanding an 8 hour day with no cut in pay. Nationally, 350,000 workers walked off their jobs on May 1. On May 3, police attacked workers at the McCormick Reaper Works. Four workers were killed. The following day, organizers organized a peaceful meeting at Hay Market Square and hundreds gathered. Parsons was among the speakers that day. That night, police ordered the rally to disperse and an unknown person threw a bomb into the oncoming police. Several policemen and participants died. Many were injured. Albert and several others were convicted and after appeals that went all the way to the Supreme Court, Parsons was hanged along with four others.
Lucy continued to organize, helping to found the International Workers of the World (the "Wobblies") and in the 1920s she began working with the nascent Communist Party. She was still speaking publicly at rallies at age 88. In 1942, a fire killed her at her home. The FBI confiscated her enormous private library and all her papers. They claim to have handed them over to the National Archives but no one has been able to locate them either with the FBI or the NARA.
Even in death, the powerful sought to silence her words for future generations.
Lucy Parsons. Lucy Gonzalez. Lucy Waller. An enigmatic woman who devoted her life to demanding justice for workers. I will be thinking of her today as I march with others from El Paso to the middle of the international bridge to meet Mexican workers.
Lucy Gonzalez Parsons presente!