What on earth do an anarchist protest, a Thanksgiving-day parade, and a seamstress have in common?

Thinking in Public

This article features Dr. Jacqueline Jones, Professor and Chair of the History Department; Ellen C. Temple Chair in Women’s History and Mastin Gentry White Professor of Southern History

Decades before oversized balloons of Felix the Cat and Mickey Mouse filled American skies during  commercially-sponsored Thanksgiving day parades, a very different object was flown–the black flag of the International Working People’s Association (IWPA). While many Americans celebrated the holiday by giving thanks and partaking in the now-traditional turkey dinner, the anarchist organization protested turn-of-the-century American industrial capitalism in the streets of Chicago. With banners reading “Shall we thank our Lords for our Misery, Destitution, and Poverty?” and  “The Turkeys and Champagne upon the Tables of our grateful Capitalists are very cheap. We paid for them!”, the organization reflected upon the plight of working class men and women.

Leaders of the IWPA protest included Albert Parsons, who would be charged with the 1886 bombing in Chicago’s Haymarket Square. However, one of the most influential figures present was not Parsons, but his wife, Lucy. In addition to sewing these banners, Lucy Parsons championed anarchist causes through her writing and speeches. Like many anarchists (and socialists), Lucy felt American political parties represented the interests of the elite. Dismayed by the perceived government corruption, the growing divide between rich and poor, and the displacement of factory workers by machines, she searched for an alternative economic model. Lucy argued replacing the capitalism business model with voluntary trade unions–groups of people who worked together, eliminating the need for wages or profits–would better society.

Historian Jacqueline Jones’ recent biography, Goddess of Anarchy, explores Parsons’ path to becoming a national voice of American anarchists. Claiming to be the daughter of Mexican and Native American parents, Parsons was actually born to an enslaved woman in Virginia. Over time, she reinvented her identity, believing her background had little relevance, especially when she embarked on a national speaking tour. When interviewed by a reporter in Cincinnati about her past, then 35-year-old Parsons retorted, “I am not a candidate for office, and the public have no right to my past.” Parsons’ message transcended race, gender, and socioeconomic status (although she may have felt that posing Mexican and Native American lent her more credibility with a white audience).

Lucy Parsons was a woman of contradictions. As Jones describes, she was “famous and infamous. And she was prescient about what we’re facing today: the growing gap between rich and poor, the effect of technological innovation in the workplace, the inability of Democrats and Republicans to address gross injustice. The contradictions and ironies in her life make her fascinating.”

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