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This work appears in Anarchy Archives with permission of International Publishers Co. 239 W 23rd Street - New York, NY and located on the web at:

Labor agitator: The story of Albert R. Parsons

Alan Calmer

New York, International publishers, 1937.


JUST as Parsons and his wife reached Chicago, the crisis of '73 struck the nation.

Ever since the war, huge factories had been changing the urban skyline. Industrial capital was on the make. Armies of workers streamed into manufacturing centers. Mass production became the order of the day. Trade unions expanded. Profits skyrocketed. Prosperity soared.

Then came the crash. Early in the fall of '73 - financial panic! The price of securities, which had risen to new highs during the boom years, suddenly collapsed. The wave of feverish speculating and inflation was over.

Old houses folded up. In September the firm of Jay Cooke, monetary pillar of the states, shut its doors. There was consternation in Wall Street. After seven wild days the Stock Exchange closed down. Meeting with financiers, the President urged a moratorium to stem widespread disaster. There was a run on the Union Trust. Banks were besieged by frenzied deposirtors. In Chicago, on a "black Friday," five big banking institutions - beginning with the Union National, largest financial concern outside of New York - were suspended. Life savings were swept away.

Economic distress spread through the land. Bewildered workers straggled out of factory gates. They hung disconsolatley around public squares. The spectre of unemployment drifted along the streeets of American cities.

Layoffs. Wagecuts. Strikes. Evictions. Breadlines. Starvation. Street demonstrations against poverty - met with clubs and bullets.

Parsons, however, was lucky enough to land a job as soon as he got to Chicago. After subbing for a while on the Inter-Ocean, he became a regular typesetter for the Times. He joined Typographical Union No. 16.

It was a hard winter. In Chicago, tens of thousands who had helped rebuild the city after the great fire, were thrown out of work. Along the wide avenues, swept by the freezing winds of the lake, children cried for bread, for shelter. Meetings of unemployed workers formed spontaneously. They paraded through the streets holding ragged banners, with BREAD OR BLOOD scrawled in big black letters. Public attention was directed toward the needs of the poor.

A procession marched on the Relief an Aid Society to appeal for help, but a committee elected by the demonstrators was refused an audience. Several yeares before, over a million dollars had been contributed to the Society for the victims of the fire. Labor organization now began to agitate for an accounting of the large sums collected. They charged the Society with speculation and misuse of funds.

Parsons followed the case in the newspapers. He was puzzled by the campaign of abuse directed against the protesting labor groups: they were denounced in the daily press as "Communists," "Loafers," "Thieves," "Cutthroats."

He wondered what was behind the whole thing. He decided to look into the matter; what he found convinced him that the complaints were justified. Then why did the press and pulpit vilify the labor bodies that made the charge of corruption? He was quick to see the parallel between the Chicago situation and the way his Texan neighbors had treated the Negroes. It was the rulers against the slaves, whether wage or chattel. In his own way, through his own experience, he was beginning to glimpse the shape of the modern class struggle.

Parsons stopped at street corners to listen to the "agitators." He went to labor meeting. He wanted to understand the new problems which the crisis was pushing forward. He found that the small band of Socialists in the city were the only ones who seemed to know the answers to the problems he wanted to solve. They seemed to know exactly why and how poverty could root itself in the middle of great wealth and plenty.

But he found it hard to understand the Socialists. Most of them were Germans. He couldn't read their paper, couldn't get hold of more than a pamphlet or two in English. These were hardly enough to solve the new problems cascading through his mind.

For several years, as the depression slid downward, he became more and more concerned over the "labor question." One of the new products of he crisis was the emergence of "tramps" as they were called, not hoboes but educated men, skilled workers looking for jobs. He encountered legions of them in the streets of the city. And police squads guarded the depots, turning away new "vagrants" who migrated from other centers in search of work.

One spring evening, near Market street, Parsons was given a handbill. It announced a mass meeting at the Turner Hall on West Twelfth street. P.J. McGuire, of New Haven, it said, who was making a lecture tour under the auspices of the Social-Democratic party of North America, would be he leading speaker and would discourse on the crisis, its cause and remedy.

When Parsons reached the hall, it was packed. Someone was talking, but Parsons recognized him as a local agitator.

Just before eight o'clock, a group of men walked briskly through the hall. People in the audience clapped. The main speaker had arrived. Tired and dusty, he stepped to the platform.

Parsons listened to a moving address, delivered with the warm, lyrical eloquence of the Irish.

"We have come together without bands of music or waving banners," McGuire began, dusting his sleeves as he got under way. "We have no money to hire polisher speakers or to prepare great demonstrations. But we have come with something more than these - we have come with the truth in out hearts, and the truth must surely prevaill...

"Shall I recount all the wrongs against the workingman? I could as well describe the separate stones which compose the Alleghanies or the number of sands on the ocean beach...

"The workingman labors with all his strength, not for himself and those rightly dependent upon him, but for every mean despot who has money in his pocket and no principle in his heart.

"I am a stranger to many of you, but one cause has made us brothers. Together we must lift the burden of poverty and oppression from the shoulders of the working class...."

His earnestness stirred the crowd. Parsons listened intently.

At the end of the meeting McGuire got up and urged them to join the party. As Parsons passed out of the hall he turned in his name.

The affair was so successful that McGuire spoke again the following day, in the old Globe Hall on Desplaines Street. He talked for only a short while, so there was time for questions and discussion. This was Parsons' chance. Perhaps he would now get an authoritative answer to some of the problems consuming his thoughts.

He jumped up. His clear, ringing voice cut through the hall. Everybody turned toward him. He was well-dressed, distinguished. His long, black hair brushed back, his waiscoat buttoned high, his body slim and wiry, the eyes alert and smiling, the long curve of his moustache neatly trimmed - Parsons commanded attention.

"Do I understand, sir," he said, with a certain dignity, "that in the cooperative state, so ably outlined by the speaker, all persons will share and share alike regardless of what they produce?"

A ripple of voices spread through the hall. It was an important question. Others must have been wondering about it.

"Do I understand," he continued, his tone sharpening, "that your party is for a whack-up-all-around institution, in which the parasite will find a loafers' paradise at the expense of the industrious worker?"

He sat down. Spots of applause broke through the audience. People talked to each other excitedly. They waited with impatience for the answer.

It was a stock question for McGuire. It had been asked of him so many times, he had explored the issued so often, that his reply by now was nearly flawless. Atracted by Parsons' striking voice and confident bearing he phrased his remarks with particular care, directing his answer straight to Parsons, speaking as if they were alone in a room together.

The Social-Democratic party, he pointed out skillfully, wished only to nationalize the land and the instruments of production and exchnge. Such a reorganization of society was in the interests of the workingman, who would be rewarded with the just value of his labor. As for the idler, and that included the capitalist, he would have to pitch in and do his share-or starve.

McGuire handled the whole thing adroitly. Parsons was fully convinced. And it won the approval of others in the audience. From that time on, the English section of the Social-Democratic party in Chicago thrived.


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