CHICAGO, July 3 — The sounds of exploding firecrackers, loud music and kids shouting at a block party on the street outside punctuated the narrative spun by Roger and Samuel inside Casa Aztlan, a long-time bastion of organizing in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. The people outside were celebrating American Independence Day, while the visiting Brits were telling stories about American history that happened here in Chicago and shaped U.S. society as we know it today, yet are largely unknown by most Americans.
Samuel and Roger (who don’t use their last names publicly) are members of the Bristol Radical History Group, which aims to reveal hidden histories and critique, debunk or expand upon accepted ones, from the mainstream versions we learn in school to the work of other radical historians and trade union scribes. They also focus on making these histories relevant to events and struggles of today.
On Tuesday, before a small crowd in nearly 100-degree heat, they spoke about Industrial Workers of the World co-founder Lucy Parsons — specifically, her often-overlooked role in the labor movement and her ground-breaking radicalism and feminism. As Roger and Samuel described her, Parsons was a fiercely class conscious and independent spirit, denied her due by Communist, Anarchist, Socialist, feminist and mainstream establishments that didn’t quite know what to make of her.
Roger described visiting Forest Home/ Waldheim Cemetery in the Chicago suburbs — which is “like Disneyland” to labor history buffs thanks to all the luminary organizers buried there — and being saddened to see that Lucy Parsons had only a small flat headstone, compared to the impressive monuments and markers afforded other residents like Emma Goldman.
Samuel juxtaposed Parsons with Goldman and described the animosity between the two women. While Goldman found her audience largely among the middle- or upper-class intelligentsia in New York, he said, Parsons was “in militant working class Chicago.” While Goldman is widely known for her views on free love, Samuel noted that Parsons also advocated freedom of sexuality, but saw it as tangential to the struggle for workers’ rights and economic equality. He thinks this is one of the reasons that more than a century later, Parsons is not as famous as Goldman. At the time, the two women frequently traded barbs, and Samuel said their research shows that Parsons’ substantive critiques of Goldman were met with “catty, snotty” insults; Goldman referred to Parsons dismissively as merely the widow of “our martyr Albert Parsons” — hanged after the infamous Haymarket Affair — and accused her of riding her husband’s coattails (or “cape”).
In a 1976 book published by Chicago’s Charles H. Kerr Publishing Co., Carolyn Ashbaugh described the rivalry:
Lucy Parsons’ feminism, which analyzed women’s oppression as a function of capitalism, was founded on working class values. Emma Goldman’s feminism took on an abstract character of freedom for women in all things, in all times, and in all places; her feminism became separate from its working class origins. Goldman represented the feminism being advocated in the anarchist movement of the 1890s [and after]. The intellectual anarchists questioned Lucy Parsons about her attitudes on the women’s question.
Lucy Parsons continued to tour the U.S. speaking and organizing for decades after the execution of her husband and comrades, even as her eyesight and health were failing. She died in a house fire on the city’s north side in 1942, and police raided the home “while it was still smoking,” in Samuel’s words, seizing about 3,000 documents that he said are still in FBI custody, despite the efforts to obtain them. “Why do they continue to hold the papers of someone who died [seven decades ago]?” Roger asked. “What are they afraid of?”
Samuel told me that British and American unions today should look to the labor movement of Parsons’ era as a model for more bold and militant tactics and more community involvement. He and Roger said the labor movement today is too disconnected from the community, lacking the deep local support that gave power to the railroad workers and also the coal miners who were on strike for a year in the United Kingdom in 1984. Samuel is a member of Britain’s national public health workers union, which, like U.S. public sector and health care unions, is under attack today. He said union health workers are seeing their jobs and pensions disappear as Britain shifts to a health care system more like that in the U.S.
Along with raising Parson’s profile, Samuel and Roger said their presentation was also meant to remind people of the militancy of U.S. labor movements of the past. They spoke about the great Railroad Strike of 1877, which set the stage for the 1886 battle for the 8‑hour-day and saw railroad workers and their families and neighbors blocking tracks across the industrial heartland and east coast. Roger noted that the workers, most of whom were not unionized, burned train stations, destroyed locomotives and fought back with arms against brutal crackdowns by militias, the National Guard and even federal troops in all-out violent confrontations. He said:
The state response to the strike was absolutely vile…there was not much negotiation going on…they absolutely crushed the strike…But these workers were not victims, they took on the state with arms…it was a massive outbreak of class war.
After the Lucy Parsons presentation, history group member Owen described the intriguing and mysterious life and work of journalist and itinerant laborer B. Traven, who won Oscars for the film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and much acclaim for books about workers, bandits and power struggles between the haves and have-nots, including The Cotton Pickers and The Ghost Ship. He noted that even as a well-known writer, Traven worked odd jobs, including driving cattle and manning an oil rig, and he always insisted that the typesetter who printed his work was just as important to the outcome as Traven was himself.
In a culture obsessed with the latest exploits of the Kardashians or the cast of Jersey Shore, the lives of Parsons and Traven, as described by the history group members, are more fascinating, inspiring and provocative than any modern-day celebrity — not to mention their political and historical importance. While they will never be hot topics on TMZ or Twitter, through grassroots efforts like the Bristol Radical History Group and Charles H. Kerr (which also published Parsons’ writings and speeches), hopefully more people will delve into these stories that are still highly relevant and vibrant today.