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Emanuel Garrett

Men and Women of Labor

Out of the Past

Albert Parsons
(June 24, 1848–Hanged, Nov. 11, 1887)

(25 April 1939)


From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 27, 25 April 1939, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

When the eight Haymarket Martyrs came to trial, the labor-hating press, judge and jury slobbered venomously about “foreigners” come to this country to destroy its good institutions. And true, seven of the eight had come to this country from abroad seeking a freedom they had been denied in their own countries. The eighth, however, was so American in ancestry that his accusers gagged with envy and frustration.

The first Parsons landed in New England in 1632. Various members of the family fought in the American Revolution; one of them was with Washington at Valley Forge; a great-grand uncle lost an arm at Bunker Hill.

Whether because or despite his heritage – Parsons became a labor agitator, so great a one that even had he not been martyred for his revolutionary beliefs, his name would still be revered by worker militants.

For Real Negro Emancipation

Born and reared in the South, he joined the Confederate Army as a youth of thirteen. It seemed the right thing to do – everybody was. But by the time the Civil War had ended, his neighbors, the Army Generals, and above all the Ku Klux Klan hated him for his opposition to slavery. And hated him bitterly, because he not only advocated Negro emancipation as provided for in the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, but really and whole heartedly stood for Negro equality. In Texas, to which he had gone, partly to be under the protection of his brother, General Parsons, he stumped for execution of the reconstructionist measures taken by the national government to destroy the economic power of the plantation lords, relics of a long past era.

Parsons found work in Texas as a printer’s devil. Having learned the trade, he worked on different newspapers and even founded his own, the Waco Spectator. During the years 1870–1873 he held a series of minor government posts – as chief deputy collector, etc. and visited many Texas cities on government business. On one of these he met, and later married, a Spanish-Indian girl (who it is said was also of part Negro extraction). Lucy Parsons became a colleague who joined in her husband’s work for human emancipation.

Parsons moved to Chicago in 1873. Here he immediately joined Typographical Union No. 6, and shortly afterwards helped organize the first branch of the Knights of Labor in Chicago. Interested in economic problems, he read the literature of socialism, became an ardent socialist, joined the Social-Democratic Party which merged with other groups to found the Workingmen’s Party in 1876.

Now it was that Parsons “unconsciously” became a labor agitator. The great Railroad Strike of 1877 had begun. Parsons one day in July addressed the strikers, explaining to them the program and purposes of his party – to use the ballot for securing control of production. The press seethed with fury. The Times fired him. The chief of police advised him to get out of town: “You ought to know better than to come up here from Texas and incite the working people to insurrection ... Why the Board of Trade would as leave hang you to a lamp post as not.” Parsons, of course, did not leave town, except as his revolutionary work, to which he henceforth devoted all his time, demanded. Workers looked up to him; union-men were all for him. Parsons had become a popular orator, a leading socialist.

Unlike his German comrades, Parsons was an aggressive leader of the 8-hour movement. In 1879, for example, he accepted the post as secretary of the 8-Hour League of Chicago.

Discouraged with the results of the ballot box, he turned to direct trade union action as against political action. In 1881 he joined with the left wing of the Workingmen’s Party to found the American section of the anarchist International. He was also present in 1883 at the founding conference of the revived International Workingmen’s Association. When the International began publication of Alarm in 1884, Parsons was appointed editor.

The year 1886 opened, the “revolutionary year” it has been called. The 8-hour movement was at its height. Workers were in motion, strikes frequent. In Chicago, the McCormick workers were on strike. On May 3, the police staged a brutal assault on the strikers. The next day a mass meeting was called to protest. August Spies, a prominent anarchist, was scheduled to speak. Arrived at the place of meeting (Haymarket Square), Spies saw few workers were assembled. Moving to a smaller location, Spies opened the meeting. Lacking speakers he asked a worker to find Parsons. Parsons came to the meeting, spoke, and a rain having begun to fall left the street to go to a hall. One of the speakers continued. The police arrived. A bomb was thrown – by whom it was never discovered. One policeman was killed, some others wounded.

Eight Are Accused

Parsons and seven others, including Spies, were charged with the crime. With a warrant out for his arrest, Parsons went into hiding. But when the day of trial came, Parsons entered the court and gave himself up so that he might face trial with his comrades – for the crime of being a revolutionist. The verdict of the jury was foregone. Five were sentenced to death, three to imprisonment.

Each of the eight made a final speech to the court. The accused turned accusers. Parsons, ill, spoke eight hours on two days. Opening with a short poem describing the lot of the worker he traced the development and meaning of capitalism, and the revolutionary struggle against it. “I am an internationalist. My patriotism covers more than the boundary lilies of a single state; the world is my country, all mankind my countrymen.”

A gigantic mass agitation that spread all over the world failed to secure the freedom of’ the eight. Staunch, defiant they faced their end. A preacher came in to give Parsons the last rites. Parsons told him that “Preachers are all Pharisees ... And I don’t desire to have anything to do with them,”

Parsons was led to the scaffold. As the rope was placed around his neck he tried to speak. “O men of America, let the voice of the people be heard ...” The hangman cut the rope.

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