Once upon a time, there was a huge financial crash. Banks panicked and threatened the world economy. Desperate to save capitalism and the monetary system, the U.S. government opted not to punish the bankers. Instead they partnered with them to enact new, disastrous economic policies that raised interest rates. Anxiety rose with inflation. The uncontainable crisis spread. It threatened the financial health of anyone who held debts. The economic prospects of average Americans tanked, pulled down by the arrogance of the bankers who’d conspired with the titans of the new tech boom. Until it all went bust.

Eventually, the engines of industry roared back. Business moguls regained the reins. The few Americans who still possessed fabulous, scandalous, outrageous wealth became famous for their good fortune. They were born at the perfect moment to enjoy a rising tide of newfound international wealth and power, generated by the tech-based economic revolution.

But for the People, it must’ve seemed like every industry was in revolution. The old ways, the old days, the old bosses, the old country — they were all being replaced or disrupted. Despite the return of prosperity to the stock market, any benefits seemed to defy economic gravity. They only trickled up to the wealthy. Much like the strike plate of an overused anvil, the vast majority of working people felt beat down. Used as a crucible for someone else’s wealth creation, they struggled to survive. Many Americans still brought home paychecks as life-sustaining as thin soup. People had no expectation of having a better life than their parents had. They just hoped it wouldn’t be much worse.

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.

When Lucy Parsons openly advocated for socialism in the United States, newspapers across the country hyped her in bold type as “the most notorious woman in America.” She was Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, 130 years ago. In her fearlessness, in her commitment to solidarity with disadvantaged people, we can still discover old truths and vital lessons, some power moves for how to overcome.

Listen carefully, you can almost hear Lucy Parsons as she whispers across time, “We’ve been here before.”

Strike Back With the Undeniable Power of Direct Action

“Her creed is education, agitation, evolution, with an occasional revolution thrown in to keep things lively.”
— 1900 Chicago newspaper article about Lucy Parsons

Gandhi usually gets the credit, but did you know Lucy Parsons was first to call for nonviolent resistance? She invented it as a tactic for social change a full year before Gandhi ever mentioned it in public, and 25 years before he put it into practice to oppose British colonialism.

In her 1905 speech “The Strike of the Future,” Parsons addressed the first convention of the Industrial Workers of the World. She was one of two women invited, and the only one to speak. (The other woman was Mary Harris “Mother” Jones.) In her address, Parsons urged all the men in attendance to engage in nonviolent direct actions, to seize the means of production with a sit-in.

Nature has (…) placed in this earth all the material of wealth that is necessary to make men and women happy. (…) We simply lack the intelligence to take possession of that which we have produced. (…) My conception of the future method of taking possession of this is that of the general strike: that is my conception of it. The trouble with all the strikes in the past has been this: the workingmen like the teamsters in our cities, these hard-working teamsters, strike and go out and starve. Their children starve. Their wives get discouraged. (…) That is the way with the strikes in the past. 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.

You could call Lucy Parsons the grandmother of all the nonviolent movements around the world. Her idea “to strike and remain in” was a direct inspiration not just to Gandhi, but to the 1930s labor movement in the U.S. and its sit-down strikers. She also inspired early Civil Rights activists who first used sit-ins at lunch counters across the South to protest segregation. Martin Luther King Jr. made her practice of nonviolent direct action the cornerstone of his philosophy of moral engagement. This same spirit of open defiance and peaceful demand shows up in the anti-war demonstrations of the Vietnam War. It went international in the Arab Spring movement. It directly challenged capitalism with the Occupy movement. It’s timeless as it is powerful. Use it.

Power move: Make your opposition uncomfortable. Tell them that the status quo will not be permitted to continue, even if that means you have to personally offer your body as an obstacle. As activist Mario Savio said, “There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it — that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!”

It’s All Identity Politics, People Are Who You’re Fighting for

Of course, it was certainly rare for any American in 1886 to follow the lead of a woman who was born into chattel slavery. This may be why the story on the street was that Parsons was mixed: part Spanish, part Native, and part Mexican. While Albert Parsons — Lucy’s husband and a newspaper publisher — insisted she was no “dusky negress,” it’s interesting that the person who was principally responsible for the rumors of her alleged mixed background was Lucy Parsons herself. She was dodging 19th century critics who shouted the equivalent of “identity politics!” back before it was cool.

Until recently, most biographies claimed Parsons was born in Texas. But according to a recently-published biography, Goddess of Anarchy: The Life and Times of Lucy Parsons, American Radical, we can correct the record about her place of birth and early life. Thanks to exhaustive research and painstaking checks of available records and census reports by her biographer Jacqueline Jones, we now know that Lucy Parsons was born the daughter of a slave in 1851, in Virginia.

Most likely, as Jones writes, the “fairer-skinned Lucia was the daughter of her master (that was the rumor around town) or another white man.” Which means she was quite likely the product of rape by her mother’s master. As a teen, Parsons was dragged west by her family’s owner when the former Confederate surgeon chose to migrate to Waco during the Civil War. After the Union won, she and her family became freedmen and freedwomen, the common terms for liberated Black people.

In 1872, the tall and strikingly beautiful 21-year-old met a white veteran and they fell in love. Although Albert Parsons was a Texan and had fought for the Confederacy, the hell of the battlefield had radicalized him. After the war, the young journalist started a progressive newspaper, the Waco Spectator. It became his new weapon of choice, which he used to fight for a better world for all. He steadfastly believed socialism was the best tool for building that world. Naturally, he and Lucy gravitated to each other.

But before these two firebrands could transform Texas into a hotbed for socialist revolution, in the election of 1872, one year after the Parsons married, Texas Republicans lost big across the Lone Star state. With the return of racist Democrat power in the post-Reconstruction period, Texas was no longer safe for an interracial couple. A report on racist violence in the post-Civil War south that was submitted to Congress in 1871, found that “in nine counties in South Carolina, there were 35 lynchings, 262 black men and women were severely beaten, and over 100 homes were burned.” To avoid similar violence in Texas, the interracial couple fled to Chicago, which at the time was known as an international nexus for socialism and anarchism thanks to European immigrants, who brought their politics with them to the New World.

When the Parsons arrived in the Windy City in 1873, they were welcomed by a whole community of like-minded radicals, most of whom were German. Albert Parsons quickly became famous among them, mostly because there were very few English-speaking socialists at the time. To ensure her safety, Albert told people his wife Lucy was a “charming young Spanish-Indian maiden.” This was at her insistence. For reasons only she knows, Lucy Parsons lied about the fact that she was born a slave her entire life. She denied that she was black. Perhaps she did it so that her horizons could not, and would not, be limited by American racism. She denied race — hers, as well as its purpose to divide. Instead, her focus was the liberation of all working people.

She was once asked by a reporter from a Chicago newspaper if the ambition of her life was still the same, if she still wanted to “fire the engine that shall run the guillotine to cut off the heads of the capitalists.”

Parsons replied, “That is my religion.”

She was a devout radical, a woman of the people, armed with a socialist dream. But in a time when lynchings still often made headlines, as racial violence continued to bloody the South, for a journalist and public speaker to say next to nothing about it speaks volumes. And Parsons’s silence on the subject seems to clearly indicate her stance.

Her attitude towards race wouldn’t play today. And it shouldn’t. Parsons’s lies and her silence functioned similarly to deny her identity to advance the greater cause of all people. She subsumed herself to liberate everyone else. That’s the wrong sacrifice. By now, we should all know that identities can’t be denied. They can’t be pushed off to the side while we fight for some greater good. In many cases, the right to exist as we are is what we are fighting for.

Regardless of how Parsons’ rejection of her own identity may sound today, we shouldn’t rush to judge why she denied her blackness. We don’t know exactly why she did it. As her biographer Jones explains, Parsons “rejected a personal historical or ethnic identity in favor of presenting herself as the champion of the laboring classes; that, she thought was all that people needed to know about her.“ The only self-evident truth is this: Lucy Parsons was a woman way ahead of her time, a black woman unwilling to be limited by her nation’s racism and sexism. Her greater aim was the same.

Power move: Building on Parsons’ principled and moralistic approach, Ocasio-Cortez has managed to focus on the issues of our day and articulate a path forward without lying about who she is or downplaying any aspect of her identity. Just as Lucy Parsons reminds us that all politics is personal, Ocasio-Cortez reminds us the personal is always political. Many politicians and pundits these days treat politics like it’s a game, scored with points, defined by winners and losers. But politics is how policies affect individuals; how policies limit or support the futures of families, deny or allow for the full expression of a person, ensure and respect the rights of individuals, including their access to medicine and family planning. What’s personal is the root of politics.

The term “identity politics” is meant derisively. It’s to suggest that, for example, fighting for the rights of gay Americans was politically divisive. That comes from that game mentality. Fighting for the rights of people to live out their identities is good politics, a winning strategy; it’s unifying. To avoid dismissal of her and her work as “identity politics,” Parsons denied her identity, herself. Today, when Ocasio-Cortez speaks, she equally focuses on all working people, but she is herself. She’s authentic. And she understands that all politics is identity politics. Our rights and freedoms get expressed as our individual identities, that pursuit of happiness, that’s what we’re fighting for. As Ocasio-Cortez puts it, in her fight for the working class she speaks to people’s needs, their individual needs. She gets that we should and must bring our whole identities to any fight we aim to win.

Make Demands, Have Confrontations, and Always Keep Marching

In 1886, Lucy Parsons led the very first May Day march, creating an international holiday still celebrated today. She marched hand-in-hand with Albert and their two children; 80,000 marchers followed behind her, along with 100,000 others who marched in cities across the states. It was a rousing success for the labor movement. But just a few days later, as if to retaliate and suppress their success, Pinkerton strikebreakers and Chicago police killed and wounded workers from the McCormick Reaper Works. In response, the Parsons decided to capitalize on the movement’s momentum and strength by organizing a new protest, this time of police violence, which would take place the next day at the Haymarket Square.

The May 4th protest was a massive success — at first. The mayor of Chicago even showed up and applauded the peaceful demonstration. But after he left, police moved in to disperse the remaining protestors. As Albert and Lucy Parsons led their people away from the square, an unknown assailant threw a bomb into the crowd. Boom! It killed seven police officers and an innocent citizen. The burgeoning labor movement would never be the same.

The press of the day dubbed it the Haymarket Riot, and its organizers were depicted as murderous anarchists, bomb-tossing Socialists, akin to a domestic terrorist today. Lucy and Albert Parsons recognized the new danger. Albert immediately went on the lam. Lucy stayed behind and covered for him, lying to any authorities who darkened their door while she organized protests and fundraisers on the low. (The internet didn’t invent crowdfunding, that’s for sure.)

When the murder trial began on June 21, 1886, Albert returned to town and turned himself in to face the judge with his fellow activists. Everyone in Chicago knew the court was biased. It was a sham. The trial was a piece of theater intended to reassert the rule of law and order, not to provide honest justice. In August of that same year, at the conclusion of the trial, Judge Joseph E Gary read the verdict. Guilty. Seven men, including Albert, were sentenced to hang by the neck until they were dead.

As her husband languished in prison awaiting execution, Lucy Parsons went on a speaking tour, desperate to raise funds for a new trial that would set her husband and the other innocent men free. Newspapers of the day reported that one Chicago official described Parsons as “more dangerous than a thousand rioters.” She was that powerful as a public speaker. She was that stubborn for progress, that willing to give her time and her body to making the world better than it was, and she did that while counting down the days until her love would be murdered by the land that claimed to be the home of the free and the brave. This former slave would show them what free and brave truly looked like. She turned her pain into power.

Today, the Mothers of the Movement do the same thing. They mourn publicly, selflessly, powerfully. At the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Geneva Reed-Veal, mother of Sandra Bland, flanked by other Mothers of the Movement, spoke to the nation about the injustices done to her daughter. She spoke out about how the police murdered her child. She presented her daughter’s story, and her pain to the people. She made the tremendous sacrifice to mourn in public. It’s a truly brave choice to speak out like that, the same way Parsons did, using their voices to ensure the public be aware of the danger, and to prevent it happening to anyone else.

On the day Parsons called “that gloomy morning of November 11, 1887,” she had been on the road for months. She’d been furiously busy, still raising funds for her husband’s defense, speaking to whomever would listen. She spoke before crowds at famous venues like Cooper Union in New York. She spoke in humble settings, like in Cleveland, where she addressed her audience from atop a chair she’d dragged into the street after the owner of the venue refused to let her use his stage. She spoke and spoke, she was a one-woman nineteenth century GoFundMe campaign.

Harper’s Weekly, writing at the time about Parsons, concluded that the Chicago police, “feared this one woman more than all the chief Anarchists combined. By her talk and other means of instilling their devilish sentiments into the minds of the people, she could at all times escape arrest and do tenfold more harm than the men.”

Although she was able to strike fear in the hearts of the Chicago police and win national and even international fame for her efforts, Parsons, with all her oratory power and personal magnetism, failed to save her husband. His execution was scheduled for November 11, 1887. Lucy returned to Chicago in time to demand justice for her husband once more. But her pleas met stony silence. So, she asked to say goodbye instead.

“I took our two little children to jail to bid my beloved husband farewell. I found the jail roped off with heavy cables. Policemen with pistols walked in the inclosure,” Parsons recalled in 1937, on the 50th anniversary of her husband’s execution. “I asked them to allow us to go to our loved one before they murdered him. They said nothing.”

Police had no compassion in their hearts for the wife of a radical. They didn’t seem to mind having to see her suffer. Plus, after the Haymarket Bombing, public sentiment turned against any men accused of being bomb-throwing anarchists. The law no longer felt a requirement for decency. Ironically, it was the People who kept the Law in check.

This has not changed.

The New York Times reported that after the noose was tightened around his neck, Albert Parsons spoke at a volume fit for the theater, loud, clear and resolute, “Let the voice of the people be heard, O…” but he did not finish.

The trap door swung open, the rope snapped taut, and the police snatched Albert’s life away with just the cruel application of gravity.

In a letter Albert penned to Lucy from his death row cell, he passionately denied death’s power to divide them. Knowing his death was certain, he’d asked her a final request:

You, I bequeath to the people, a woman of the people. I have one request to make of you: Commit no rash act to yourself when I am gone, but take up the great cause of Socialism where I am compelled to lay it down.

That’s exactly what she did for the rest of her natural life.

Power move: To show your pain in public can be devastating — for those who carry the trauma, and equally for the ones who witness the enduring legacy of such pain. Parsons would not let the injustice of her husband’s execution break her spirit or silence her. She would not go quietly away as her enemies wished she would. Instead, she took her pain to the people, she shamed the Powers-that-Be, the ones who acted so cruelly, she spoke to the People of her pain to make sure others were aware of the injustice. She did as Maggie Kuhn once said: “Leave safety behind. Put your body on the line. Stand before the people you fear and speak your mind — even if your voice shakes.”

Arm Yourself With a Long Memory

I first learned about Lucy Parsons from the folksinger Utah Phillips. In the twilight of his long career, Phillips recorded an album with folk singer Ani DiFranco. It was called My Fellow Workers. Together, they crafted an album celebrating the long history of the Labor movement in the U.S. In his song, “Shoot or Stab Them,” Phillips recounted a story of Lucy Parsons from near the end of her life.

One time, she was speaking at a big May Day rally, back in the Haymarket, in the middle-1930s, She was incredibly old. She was led carefully up to the rostrum, a multitude of people there, She had her hair tied back in a tight white bun, Her face a mask of deeply incised lines, deep-set beady black eyes, she was the image of everybody’s great-grandmother. She hunched over that podium, hawk-like, and fixed that multitude with those beady black eyes, and said, ‘What I want is for every greasy, grimy tramp to arm himself with a knife or a gun, and stationing himself at the doorways of the rich, shoot or stab them as they come out.’ She was just pissed. Now, see, I’m a pacifist, but I admire her spunk, by god.

Her anger is certainly understandable. If you think women are pissed today, imagine how a Black woman who had to lie about her race just so she would be taken seriously felt. A woman whose husband was murdered by the U.S. government. A woman born a slave, devoted to the struggle for freedom for all people, for all her days. When Parsons passed away, American women had only been able to vote for 22 years. That same right wasn’t guaranteed to Black women until 22 years after she died.

Power move: It’s no surprise that the powerful use and allow racism, misogyny, anti-semitism, xenophobia, and bigotry to divide. That’s been their playbook for millenia. So has behaving cruelly to profit in the short term, in a world where they already seem to possess nearly everything. From pharaohs, to kings, to emperors and presidents, this has been the way of the world. Never forget that. Expect it. A long memory helps. It helps you to not feel so overwhelmed, so overcome, so beaten down. This is just the latest chapter in a very long story. A long memory of what came before you can provide you with lessons and inspiration to keep fighting for that better world. It lets you know you’re not alone. We were handed this moment. It’s ours for a brief time, before we hand it off. We can’t drop it.

The Will of the People Is a Hammer

Lucy Parsons was still in Chicago when she died in a house fire on March 7, 1942. Even in death, her life was treated with cruelty by authorities who served to maintain the status quo for the Powers That Be. When the news of the fire broke, the Chicago police and the FBI descended on the charred remains of her home. Why? To ensure her legacy would be buried with her. They confiscated all of her books, letters, personal writing, newspaper clips, anything that might serve to memorialize her or spread her message of defiance. However, what those authorities failed to grasp was something Parsons once said.

There is no power on earth that can stop men and women who are determined to be free at all hazards. There is no power on earth so great as the power of intellect. It moves the world and it moves the earth.

This is doubtlessly true. Her intellect perseveres. Even more than that, perhaps the best message one can take away from the life of Lucy Parsons is: we’ve been here before.

Now, we are here again. The answer to the crisis is the same.

Once more, we have a nation beset by rising income inequality. Economic tensions exacerbate the frictions of our social bonds; xenophobia and bigotry are on the rise. But we also have good and true reason for hope, for a legitimate expectation we can build a better world, together.

Today, we see a new generation of women of color fighting for a better world. While the anarchist Lucy Parsons may have once instructed tramps to shoot or stab the wealthy, it’s her message of nonviolent direct action that today’s leaders intelligently employ. In elections all across the country, women of color are leading a non-violent overthrow of our government. This is the true power of the People. This is our nation, our government.

As James Baldwin wrote in his essay “We Can Change the World,” “The future is going to be worse than the past if we do not let the people who represent us know that it is our country. A government and a nation are not synonymous. We can change the government, and we will.”

While many now know the name Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, she’s not alone. We’re lucky to have a whole wave of women of color leading this new nonviolent revolution, and doing so in the spirit and tradition of Lucy Parsons. Whether it’s Ayanna Pressley, or Stacey Abrams, or Deb Haaland, or Ilhan Omar, this wave of powerful, committed women is inspiring the next generation of Americans to imagine a more equitable world, a more just world, a world where humanity is valued over profits, and based on the fact the People always have more power together than any small cadre of wealthy white men wish to claim. This is a good and true reason for hope.

The tool Lucy Parsons hands us is solidarity, with one simple command: wield solidarity like a hammer. Use it to knock down and destroy that which deserves to be razed, and equally use it to cleave together powerful new structures.

You want to help? Organize. Pick up that hammer. Help build. Or, if you prefer, help knock down a lead at the polls. Go door-to-door. Sacrifice your body by canvassing for a candidate you support. Use what so many fought and died for you to have: Vote. There’s a reason certain political leaders are scheming so hard to deny citizens their voice, their right to vote. It’s People Power. We have to flex it. While it’s notable that as an anarchist Parsons would likely not push you to vote, it’s equally true that her legacy is a constant call for action. Listen to her call. And know that we all owe a debt of gratitude to Lucy Parsons for showing us a way forward. Like fingers wrapped around the handle of a hammer: strong, defiant, together.