By Saswat Pattanayak
No legal case in American history has been more cited than The Scottsboro Trial. Nine young African American men, aged 13 and up, were jailed in Scottsboro, Alabama to await trial over an accusation that they had raped two white women on a train in the Spring of 1931.
The nature of racism in this instance was not the novelty – indeed, American society was witness to countless false charges brought against the black people. However, The Scottsboro Trial became a landmark via the manner in which racism for the first time was fiercely and openly challenged in the United States.
When the entire country was refusing to take side of Scottsboro Nine, it was the Communist Party which came to aid the young men. International Labor Defense – a coalition formed by the communists to defend Scottsboro Nine benefitted from the active involvement of a black woman on their national board – a pioneering champion of labor classes in America – Lucy Parsons (1853-1942).
Class, Race and Gender
Parsons’ commitments towards freedom of the young Black Communist Angelo Herndon in Georgia, Tom Mooney in California, and for the Scottsoboro Nine in Alabama were unflinching. Parsons recognized the class system in America as the prime factor in perpetuating racism. She was the foremost American feminist to declare that race, gender and sexuality are not oppressed identities by themselves. It is the economic class that determines the level of oppression people of minorities have to confront. Notwithstanding her social location of being a black and a woman, Parsons declared that a black person in America is exploited not because she/he is black. “It is because he is poor. It is because he is dependent. Because he is poorer as a class than his white wage-slave brother of the North.”
Lucy Parsons was a relentless defender of working class rights. To contain her popularity, the media portrayed her more as the wife of Albert Parsons – a Haymarket martyr, who was murdered by the state of Illinois, while demanding for eight-hour working day on November 11, 1887. While identifying her with Albert’s causes, history textbooks – both liberal and conservative – seldom mention Parsons as the radical torchbearer of American communist movement.
Parsons’ commitment to the cause of international communism often embarrassed the United States administration. FBI confiscated her library comprising over 1,500 books and progressive works soon after her accidental death – thus preventing the country of having access to her radicalism. But those that witnessed Parsons‘ oratory and benefitted from her skills of organizing labor knew of Parsons‘ disdain towards anarchism which she felt was not capable of leading the masses onto revolutions.
Following Bolshevik Revolution in Soviet Union, IWW would witness several of its main organizers joining the Communist Party. Parsons, along with Bill Haywood and Elizabeth Flynn were among the pioneering American communists. Parsons not only had officially joined the Communist Party of the United States, she was also vocally opposed to distractions within revolutionary movements.
Parsons condemned celebrated anarchist Emma Goldman for “addressing large middle-class audiences”. Whereas Lucy Parsons‘ feminism considered women’s oppression as a function of capitalism, Emma Goldman was clearly not in favor of a vanguard party taking up feminist causes. Parsons in her dedication towards working class liberation movements never lost sight of her goal, never compromised on her principled stands on the side of the working poor, and never aspired for mere social acceptance or glory.
Voice of Dissent
Parsons was among the first women to join the founding convention of IWW. She thundered: “We, the women of this country, have no ballot even if we wished to use it. But we have our labor. Wherever wages are to be reduced, the capitalist class uses women to reduce them.”
In The Agitator, dated November 1, 1912 she referred to Haymarket martyrs thus: “Our comrades were not murdered by the state because they had any connection with the bombthrowing, but because they were active in organizing the wage-slaves. The capitalist class didn’t want to find the bombthrower; this class foolishly believed that by putting to death the active spirits of the labor movement of the time, it could frighten the working class back to slavery.”
She had no illusions about capitalistic world order. Parsons called for armed overthrow of the American ruling class. She refused to buy into an argument that the origin of racist violence was in racism. Instead, Parsons viewed racism as a necessary byproduct of capitalism. In 1886, she called for armed resistance to the working class: “You are not absolutely defenseless. For the torch of the incendiary, which has been known with impunity, cannot be wrested from you!”
For Parsons, her personal losses meant nothing; her oppression as a woman meant less. She was dedicated to usher in changes for the entire humanity – changes that would alter the world order in favor of the working poor class.
Even as a founding member of IWW, she was not willing to let the world’s largest labor union function in a romanticized manner. She radicalized the IWW by demanding that women, Mexican migrant workers and even the unemployed become full and equal members.
With her clarity of vision, lifelong devotion towards communist causes, her strict adherence to radical demands for a societal replacement of class structure, Lucy Parsons remains the most shining example of an American woman who turned her disadvantaged social locations of race and gender, to one of formidable strength – raising herself to bring about emancipated working class consciousness.