On this Labor Day I would like to honor the memory of Albert Richard Parsons. Parsons was born in Montgomery, Alabama on June 24, 1848. At age five Parsons became an orphan after the death of both parents. He was sent to Texas and was raised by his oldest brother. At age 11 Parsons moved to Waco, Texas to live with a sister. A year later he became an apprentice at the Galvaston Daily News. In 1861 at age 13 Parsons volunteered to fight for the Confederate States during the American Civil War. He became a member of an irregular unit known as the “Lone Star Grays” where he took part in the capture of Union Texas troops heading for Washington D.C. via the Gulf of Mexico. Later Parsons served as a “powder monkey” in an artillery unit and, at age 15, as a scout in the McInoly Scouts in Arkansas. After the war Parsons returned to Waco and started his own newspaper, the Spectator. “In it I advocated, with Gen. Longstreet,
the acceptance, in good faith, of the terms of surrender, and supported the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth constitutional amendments and the reconstruction measures securing the political rights of the colored people,” Parsons states in his memoirs. “I was strongly influenced in taking this step out of respect and love for the memory of dear old "Aunt Easter," then dead, and formerly a slave and house-servant of my brother's family, she having been my constant associate and practically raised me, with great kindness and a mother's love.” Parsons became a Republican and “...incurred thereby the hate and contumely of many of my former army comrades, neighbors, and the Ku Klux Klan. My political career was full of excitement and danger. I took the stump to vindicate my convictions. The lately enfranchised slaves over a large section of country came to know and idolize me as their friend and defender, while on the other hand I was regarded as a political heretic and traitor by many of my former associates.” In this dangerous and politically charged atmosphere Parsons shut down the Spectator and became a traveling correspondent for the Houston Daily Telegraph. During this time Parsons met Lucy Gonzalez whom he described as a “Spanish-Indian maiden.” The two were married three years later. Due to the dangers of an interracial marriage at the height of the Ku Klux Klan terror the two relocated to Chicago. There he moved away from the Republican Party and joined the Labor Party. He and his wife became active in labor organization, advocating for worker’s rights and an eight-hour work day. “My experience in the Labor Party had also taught me that bribery, intimidation, duplicity, corruption, and bulldozing grew out of the conditions which made the working people poor and the idlers rich, and that consequently the ballot-box could not be made an index to record the popular will until the existing debasing, impoverishing, and enslaving industrial conditions were first altered," he said in his memoirs. In 1883 he and his wife helped organize the International Working People Association. In 1884 he launched his own newspaper the Alarm. On May 1, 1886 Albert Parsons, Lucy Parsons and their two children led 80,000 people down Chicago’s Michigan Avenue in the first ever May Day parade in support of the eight-hour work day. Over the next few days 340,000 more workers joined the strike. On May 4th Parsons was one of the speakers at Haymarket Square in Chicago, a large rally organized to protest police violence. That event ended with a dynamite bomb being thrown. About 60 policeman and 50 civilians were wounded in the melee that followed. Seven policemen and four civilians were killed. Although no one knows who threw the bomb, labor leaders were rounded up and arrested. As a gesture of solidarity Parsons turned himself in to authorities a month later even though he had already left the rally at the time of the bombing. Parsons and eight other men were later convicted of conspiracy and sentenced to death. One had his sentence commuted and three others begged clemency. Parsons wrote his last letter from prison published in the Alarm on November 5th.
"To other hands are now committed that task which was mine, in the work and duty, as editor of this paper. Though fallen, wounded perhaps unto death, in the battle for liberty, the standard — the press — which my hands bore aloft in the midst of the struggle is caught up by other hands, and will be again and again, if needs, till the crimson banner waves in triumph over the enemies of peace, brotherhood, and happiness. And now to all I say: Falter not. Lay bare the inequities of capitalism; expose the slavery of law; proclaim the tyranny of government; denounce the greed, cruelty, abominations of the privileged class who riot and revel on the labor of their wage-slaves. Farewell."
Parsons along with four other labor leaders were hanged on November 10, 1887.
It was not until 1938 with the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act (drafted by U.S. Senator Hugo Black of Ashland, Ala), when workers in all industries gained a minimum wage, time-and-half guaranteed for over-time, and a forty hour work week.
Michael E. Palmer is a writer and photographer based in Alabama.
He can be reached at email@example.com