Sunday, 20 June 2021

Remembering Albert Parsons : Haymarket Martyr

On June 20, 1848, early-American socialist,  and later anarchist newspaper editor, orator, and labor activist. Albert Richard Parsons was born in Montgomery, Alabama, one of the ten children of the of a shoe and leather factory owner originally from Maine.  His parents both died when he was a small child, leaving him to be raised by his eldest brother who was married and the proprietor of a small newspaper in Tyler, Texas.  In 1859, at the age of 11, Parsons left his brothers to go live with a sister in Waco, Texas. Parsons attended school for about a year before leaving to become an apprentice at the Galveston Daily News. 
The coming of the American Civil War in 1861, at 13 years old, Parsons volunteered to fight for the Confederate States of America.  His unit was the "Lone Star Greys." Parsons' first military exploit was in an artillery company.  After his first enlistment, Parsons left Fort Sabine to join the 12th Regiment of the Texas Cavalry and saw battle during three separate campaigns.  After the war, Parsons returned to Waco, Texas and traded his mule for 40 acres of standing corn.  He hired ex-slaves to help with the harvest and netted a sufficient sum to pay for six months' tuition at Waco University, today known as Baylor, a private Baptist University. 
After college, Parsons left to take up working in a printing office before launching his own newspaper, the Waco Spectator, in 1868.  In his paper Parsons took the unpopular position of accepting the terms of Reconstruction measures aimed at securing the political rights of former slaves.  In this supercharged political atmosphere, Parsons' paper was soon terminated.  In 1869, Parsons got a job as a traveling correspondent and business agent for the Houston Daily Telegraph, during which time he met Lucy Ella Gonzales (or Waller), a biracial woman who I've written about previously here :-.  The pair would marry in 1872 and his wife would later become a political activist and one of the founders of the Industrial Workers of the World..
In 1870, Parsons was the beneficiary of Republican political patronage when he was appointed Assistant Assessor of United States Internal Revenue under the administration of Ulysses S.Grant. 
He also worked as a secretary of the Texas State Senate before being appointed Chief Deputy Collector of the Internal Revenue at Austin, Texas.  In the summer of 1873, Parsons travelled extensively through the Midwestern United States as a representative of the Texas Agriculturalist, while initially living in Texas, conservative general disapproval and further pressure from the Ku Klux Klan caused the two to move to Chicago. 
He became a correspondent for the Chicago Times, worked for aid societies, and, believing there to be strong parallels between Chicago’s urban poor and dispossessed blacks and whites in his native South, and became active in union politics with both the dying National Labor Union and the emerging Knights of Labor.  He ran for various local and national offices, including United States Congress, on the Workingman’s Party ticket. Both Albert and Lucy joined the Socialist Labor Party in 1876. They also helped to found the International Working People Association (IWPA), a labor organization that promoted racial and sexual equality.
He backed the railroad strikers in 1877, championed the 8-hour workday, and was instrumental in May Day marches and strikes in Chicago and elsewhere.At this time Parsons was one of the foremost speakers in the English language on behalf  of the socialist cause, but growing disenchanted with the corruption he saw as inherent to the mainstream political process, Parsons abandoned democratic socialism for anarchism in the 1880s, and opened his own anarchist newspaper, The Alarm.  Endorsing a national walkout in support of the 8-hour work day and protesting violent police intervention against the striking workers of the McCormick Reaper Works.
On May 1, 1886, Parsons, with his wife Lucy and two children, led 80,000 people down Michigan Avenue, in what is regarded as the first-ever May Day Parade, in support of the eight-hour workday. In the midst of the labor strike for an eight hour work day, and in protest to the police brutality that caused the deaths of four workers,   Parsons addressed a rally at Haymarket Square on May 4. which was set up in protest of what happened a few days before.  
Parsons originally declined to speak at the Haymarket fearing it would cause violence by holding the rally outdoors but would change his mind. The mayor of Chicago was even there and noticed that it was a peaceful gathering, but he left when it looked like it was going to rain.  Worried about his children when the weather changed, Parsons, his wife Lucy, and their children left for Zeph's Hall on Lake Street and were followed by several of the protesters.  The event ended around 10 p.m. and as the audience was already drifting away, policemen came and forcefully told the crowd to disperse.  
A bomb thrown into the square exploded, killing one policeman and wounding others. Gunfire erupted, resulting in 7 deaths and many others wounded. Witnesses identified Rudolph Schnaubelt as the bomb thrower, though arrested, he was released without charge. He soon fled to Argentina and was never heard from again. It would later be suspected and claimed by some that Schnaubelt was actually paid by the police to throw the bomb to start the pandemonium and break up the demonstration. After Scnaubelt's release, the police arrested Samuel Fielden, August Spies, Adolph Fisher, Louis Lingg, Oscar Neebe, Michael Schwab and George Engel. Knowing that the police would immediately search for him, Parsons left Chicago by train at midnight, heading for Geneva, Illinois to stay with compatriot William Holmes. Parsons further evaded the police, shortly after his arrival in Geneva, by traveling to Waukesha, Wisconsin, where he stayed with the Hoan family, whose father sympathized with Parsons’s beliefs. 
 Parsons stayed in Wisconsin until the first day of the Haymarket trial, June 21, 1886. He surrendered by dramatically and unexpectedly entering the court. He, along with six others, were convicted at trial and sentenced to death. Despite pleas to do so, Parsons did not write to Governor Oglesby to have his sentence commuted. Many believed that, had he asked, Parsons would not have been executed. Parsons felt that the only way to save the others was to align himself with them.
During the trial, a number of witnesses were able to prove that none of the eight convicted had thrown the bomb. At this point, prosecution set towards charging all eight with conspiracy to commit murder, arguing that speeches and articles written by the individuals influenced the unknown bomber to his actions. Written works, as well as conversations reported by infiltrators (the police had spies that infiltrated anarchist meetings), were used to show that the men thought violence could be used as a revolutionary tool. Sadly, despite the lack of evidence and the preposterous charge, all eight men were found guilty. Parsons, Spies, Fisher, Lingg, Engel were sentenced to death. Neebe, Fielden and Scwab were sentenced to life imprisonment.
On November 10, 1887, condemned prisoner Louis Lingg killed himself in his cell with a blasting cap hidden in a cigar. Parsons likely could have had his sentence commuted to life in prison rather than death, but he refused to write the letter asking the governor to do so, as this would be an admission of guilt. While awaiting execution he wrote his memoirs and edited a collection of writings, Anarchism: Its Philosophy and Scientific Basis, which included some of Marx’s writings on political economy, essays on anarchism by Peter Kropotkin and Elisée Reclus, and the trial speeches of himself and his fellow defendants. His references to anarchy being the next step in progressive evolution illustrate the influence of Kropotkin and Réclus.  
The next day Engel, Fischer, Parsons an Spies were taken to the gallows in white robes and hoods. They sang the Marsellaise, then the anthem of the international revolutionary movement. According to witnesses , in the moments before the men were hanged .Spies shouted, " The time will come when our silence, will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today!" As Parsons himself  was about to be hanged he cried out,“Will I be allowed to speak, O men of America? Let me speak Sheriff Matson! Let the voice of the People be heard!”Witnesses reported that the condemned men did not die immediately when they dropped, but strangled to death slowly, a sight which left many speakers visibly shaken.
The Haymarket affair is now generally considered significant as the origin of the International May Day observances for workers,  when in July 1889, a delegate from the American Federation of Labor recommended at a Labor conference in Paris that May 1  be set aside as International Labour Day in memory of the Haymarket martyrs and the injustice metered out to them, and has become a powerful reminder of the international struggle for workers rights, that I for one try not to forget.
Rather than suppressing labor and radical movements the events of 1886 and the execution of the Chicago Anarchists,  actually mobilised and galvanised a new generation of radicals and revolutionaries. Emma Goldman a young immigrant at the time later pointed to the Haymarket affair as her political birth. Lucy Parsons widow of Albert Parsons , called up on the poor to direct their anger at those responsible - the rich. In 1938 , fifty-two years after the Haymarket riot , workdays in the United States were legally made eight hours by the Fair Labor Standards Act. It is up to us to keep the memory of the  Haymarket martyrs and Albert Parsons alive. to learn the lessons of their struggle so that they did not die in vain, acting as enduring symbols of labors struggles for justice.
With the following link you can read  the enduring  brief autobiography of Albert Parsons, Haymarket martyr, written from prison, it's well worth it.

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