By JM Wong, May 1, 2021
On this year’s May Day, as we grieve and witness the calamity of state-sponsored or state- manufactured violence; the premature (because utterly preventable) COVID epidemic deaths raging from India to Brazil due to fascist governments more invested in power than people; and the unceasing state lynchings from Columbus, Ohio to North Carolina and Seattle, Washington — we need the memories that Lucy Parsons bequeathed our struggles for which this day, International Workers Day, was created.
Lucy Parsons should be a household name at any May Day celebration. She had a vision of freedom for the working classes who had been made by histories of colonialism, slavery, settler violence, and migration. Her vision challenged the internationalism of capitalists who professed a right to universal exploitation while creating borders and racial systems to divide those they exploited or killed. Today, Parsons’ erasure is part of the whitewashing of labor history in the United States that abets American empire. Remembering her is a reminder that she and so many others, even in the belly of the beast, left us the foundation and resources for a workers’ internationalism that revokes capitalist claims to exploitation and reconstructs our global connections for the purposes of shared freedom.
Parsons (1851–1942) was a deeply respected Black anarchist in the radical labor movement in the turn of the 20th century. A descendant of slaves and a founding member of the radical labor union the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), Parsons was outspoken against lynching and slavery in the South and organized in defense of the Scottsboro Boys in the early 1930s. “I am an anarchist,” Parsons proclaimed in an early speech, characterizing her politics as defiant of oppressive political rule. Her legacy unearths a vision of labor history that is intertwined with resistance against white supremacy, that had not yet succumbed to the white nationalism and xenophobia of other labor formations of her time, most notably the Knights of Labor.