By Paul Becker
His physical appearance was not very impressive. Small and slender, he liked to sing and recite poetry. His parents died when he was five and he grew up living with his older brother in Texas, raised by a Black woman slave, Aunt Esther, who became his substitute mother. He was 13 when the Civil War broke out and he concealed his age to join the Confederate army where he served for the entire four years of the war. At the war’s end, he returned home gnawed by the feeling that he had fought on the wrong side. His feelings were enhanced by subsequent conversations with Aunt Esther who was now a free woman. It turned Albert Parsons’ life around.
In the aftermath of the war, Parsons established a small newspaper devoted to fighting for the rights of the newly liberated slave. Labeled a “scalawag” he survived threats of being lynched, tarred and feathered, or flogged. Very few white people in Waco, Texas, would speak to him but he continued to publish until he ran out of money. Moving to northwest Texas, he met and married Lucy Gonzales, a young woman of Mexican-Indian heritage, and the couple subsequently moved to Chicago.
They arrived in Chicago just as the great depression of 1873 broke out. Disgruntled working people, aroused by the depressed wages, slave-like working conditions, 12 and 14 hour days, and squalid living conditions, were looking for ways to fight back against their misery and were turning toward labor organizing in growing numbers. By 1873, their fight became focused on pressing for an eight-hour day. And Chicago workers became the spearhead of the fight.
The predominant labor organization at the time was the Knights of Labor. Founded in 1869 originally as a secret society, it had evolved into a national body dedicated to uniting all workers. But its leadership, headed by Terence Powderly, was more conservative. Powderly shunned strikes as a workers’ tactic, putting his faith in convincing legislators to pass laws favorable to workers. He viewed the growing worker demand as “eight-hour madness” and did everything he could to scuttle it. But, spurred by the pressure from below, it could not be suppressed. Chapter after chapter of the Knights of Labor around the country passed resolutions in support of the demand for the eight-hour day.
Shortly after arriving in Chicago, Albert Parsons threw himself into the fight. He joined the Knights of Labor but defied its leadership by making speeches at meetings and rallies in support of eight hours. He began a journal called Alarm championing the rights of workers. Lucy was a frequent contributor to the journal and Albert became a national figure. And the movement grew, year by year, into tens of thousands of Chicago’s workers and tens of thousands more around the country.
Someone somewhere composed a song that became popular:
“We mean to make things over,
We’re tired of toil for naught
But bare enough to live on,
Never an hour for thought.
We want to feel the sunshine,
We want to smell the flowers,
We’re sure that God has willed it
And we mean to have eight hours.
We’re summoning our forces
From shipyard, shop and mill,
Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest,
Eight hours for what we will.”
But the opposition, fueled by the growth of giant corporations, was not silent. As the trader union movement and the demand for eight hours grew so did the voices of big money. Virtually the entire press condemned the movement as “communism.” The New York Times labeled the workers’ movement one that would induce “ loafing and gambling, rioting, debauchery and drunkenness” and lead to “lower wages, poverty and social degradation for the American worker.” It was “un-American,”, the paper wrote. “Labor disturbances are brought about by foreigners.”
Meanwhile, dissatisfied with the conservative leadership of the Knights of Labor, a new labor group was rising, the American Federation of Labor, organized along craft lines but committed to worker action, including strikes if necessary. And strikes were breaking out all across the Midwest. Defying Powderly and the national leadership, members of the Knights of Labor staged strikes against pay cuts that brought about violent reactions from corporations and their henchmen in and out of government. The National Guard was called out in state after state to suppress the strikers. The Pinkerton detective agency was employed to help break the unions. In St. Louis, 1,300 strikers were arrested for violating a federal court injunction and in East St. Louis, militia, police, and deputy sheriffs killed seven striking workers.
In the midst of this, the young AFL issued a call for all labor to join together on May 1, 1886 for an eight-hour day. The call was heeded by the labor movements around the country. In Chicago, a march was scheduled down Michigan Avenue. As the date approached, the vitriol against it and the workers grew more poisonous. The Chicago Tribune, commenting on a meeting of fifty workers that called for relief for the unemployed, shed all restraints. “Every lamp-post in Chicago,” it seethed, “will be decorated with a communistic carcass if necessary to prevent wholesale incendiarism or prevent any attempt at it.”
Parsons was now recognized as the defacto leader of the Chicago labor movement. Prior to May 1, he and others worked feverishly to build the demonstration. Newspapers zeroed on him and August Spies as the two most dangerous men who were responsible for the “eight-hour madness.” The Chicago Daily Mail waxed editorially, “There are two dangerous ruffians at large in this city; two skulking cowards who are trying to create trouble. One of them is named Parsons; the other is named Spies…. Mark them for today. Keep them in view. Hold them personally responsible for any trouble that occurs. Make an example of them if trouble does occur.”
Saturday, May 1, dawned upon a lovely day in Chicago. Although normally a day of work, factories and business had to shut down as their workers took the day off for the demonstration, lending to an eerie silence to the city. Workers, along with their wives and children, assembled for the march by the thousands up and down Michigan Avenue. But ominously also gathered along the route were armed police and special deputies. Pinkertons and militia’ armed with rifles, lined the rooftops. At the state armories, some 1,300 national guardsmen, in uniform and armed with Gatling guns, stood ready to move. All mobilized by the powerful economic and political rulers of the city, to save Chicago from the “communistic eight-hour day.”
Albert and Lucy Parsons and their two children were in the march along with August Spies, another prominent labor leader. Around the country, it was reported, some 340,000 were also parading and 190,000 were out on strike for the eight-hour day. The Chicago parade ended with the thousands, listening to speeches by Parsons, Spies, and other leaders in the Chicago labor movement. The rally ended without incident. Afterward, the crowd dispersed. No revolution, no violence; just a peaceful demonstration of worker sentiment for a better life. The police, the Pinkertons, the militia, expecting a rioting mob, must have felt cheated at getting only peace.
But elsewhere in the city, things were heating up. The following Monday at the McCormick Harvester factory where workers were striking for the eight-hour day and a $5 daily wage, police, without warning, suddenly opened fire, killing four strikers and wounding many more. Indignation mounted rapidly at this barbarous act by a police force, already hated by workers for other brutal actions against labor. A protest rally was called for the next evening in Chicago’s Haymarket Square.
Chicago’s mayor, Carter H. Harrison, gave permission for the mass meeting and even attended it himself, standing on the outskirts of then crowd. As he testified later, the meeting was completely orderly. Parsons, along with Lucy and their children were there. Parsons, Spies, and another leader, Samuel Fielden, addressed the crowd of about 3,000, condemning the police, warning against violence and urging solidarity with the workers to continue the strike for the eight-hour day. Towards ten o’clock a rainstorm threatened and the crowd began to disperse. Spies and Parsons had already left along with most of the crowd and Mayor Harrison. who stopped at the police station to report that the meeting had been peaceful and police who were covering it should be called back and returned to their normal duties.
Fielden was just finishing his speech when 180 policemen, with the mayor gone, came marching in, military style. The police chief ordered the remaining crowd to disperse. Fielding protested that this was a legal gathering and it was peaceful, when suddenly, as if on signal, someone threw a bomb. The explosion killed one policeman, seriously wounded five more who subsequently died, and injured dozens of people in the crowd. That was all the police needed. They opened fire on the gathering, killing several and wounding many more.
The next day, the reaction from the city’s economic establishment went into high gear. The anarchists, the communists the agitators, the foreigners for the eight-hour day were responsible. They were the cause and they must pay.
To this day, no one knows who threw the bomb. From the beginning, there was speculation that it was a police agent provocateur. Subsequent research strengthened this theory but no one knows for sure.
But it didn’t matter. The big money, the newspapers, the prosecutors all cried out for vengeance. Blood for blood. These eight-hour day radicals, anarchists must be punished. Around Chicago, people were stirred into a lynch spirit. And around the country, the reaction was wild. A reign of terror ensued as labor leaders in New York, Pittsburgh and Milwaukee were arrested and charged with conspiracy. In Chicago, hundreds were rounded up packing the jails. Leaders of the Chicago labor movement were particular targets. It didn’t matter that Parsons, Spies, and the others were completely innocent of the deed. “Hang them first and ask questions afterward,” were the words frequently heard in conversations around the city.
Finally the decision was made to try eight of the leaders for murder even though seven of the eight were not even in Haymarket Square when the act took place and the eighth, Fielden, was on the speakers stand in full view and not near any possible bomb thrower.
The country’s press was in the vanguard of the charge, stoking the flames of hate. The Chicago Tribune fumed, “Public justice demands that the European assassins August Spies (who was born in Germany)… and Samuel Felden shall be held and hanged for murder…. Public justice demands that the assassin A.R. Parsons, who is a disgrace to this country by being born in it, shall be seized, tried and hanged for murder.” Not to be outdone, a columnist for the Spectator penned that even if the accused men were acquitted by a jury, they would still not be spared. They would be lynched and hanged by a mob. “A Vigilance Committee,” he wrote, “will take the law into their own hands, and restore social order, by suspending civilization for three days.”
The eight – Parsons, Spies, Felden, Michael Schwab, George Engel, Adolph Fischer, Louis Lingg, and Oscar Neebe – were indicted and put on trial. The trial, which began on June 21, was a grim travesty from the beginning. The jury was stacked with 12 men hostile to labor unions, its leaders, and the defendants. The prejudice of the judge, Joseph E. Gary, was never hidden. He ruled that a relative of one of the people killed by the bomb, who confessed that he was deeply prejudiced against the defendants, was competent to serve as a juror as were several who openly declared that the defendants were guilty before the trial had even started. Judge Gary later admitted that, “if I had a little strained the law…I was to be commended for so doing.”
The expected verdict came on August 20. Guilty as charged! And the sentence on October 9 followed. Seven were to be hanged “until they were dead.” The eighth, Neebe, was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Before sentencing, they were permitted to address the court. Their words rang out the truth of the cause they were serving and a beacon of the ongoing struggle of working people for a better life. Neebe spoke first:
“I saw that the bakers in this city were treated like dogs…. I helped organize them. That is a great crime. They are now working ten hours a day instead of fourteen and sixteen hours….That is another crime. And I committed a greater crime than that. I saw in the morning when I drove away with my team that the beer brewers of the city of Chicago went to work at four o’clock in the morning. They came home at seven or eight o’clock at night. They never saw their families or their children by daylight…. I went to work to organize them…. And your Honor, I committed another crime. I saw the grocery clerks and other clerks of this city worked until ten and eleven o’clock in the evening. I issued a call… and today they are only working until seven o’clock in the evening and no Sunday work. That is a great crime….”
He went on to show that force and violence had nearly always been used against workers, not by them. He detailed the crimes committed with impunity against workers, being shot down and beaten by police and hired thugs of employers for striking or protesting. And he repeated the innocence of the defendants. “Had I chosen another path in life I might now be up on the avenue of the city of Chicago today, living in a beautiful home surrounded by my family with luxury and ease… But I chose the other road, and I stand here today upon the scaffold. That is my crime.”
Spies delivered the most prophetic note:
“If you think by hanging us you can stamp out the labor movement… the movement from which the downtrodden millions, the millions who toil in want and miserly, expect salvation – if this is your opinion, then hang us! Here you will tread upon a spark, but here and there, behind you and in front of you and everywhere, flames be up. It is a subterranean fire. You cannot put it out….
“And if you think you can crush out these ideas that are gaining ground more and more every day. if you think you can crush them out by sending us to the gallows…. If you would once more have people suffer the penalty of death because they dared to tell the truth… then I will proudly and defiantly pay the costly price! Call your hangman!… Truth crucified in Socrates, in Christ, in Giordano Bruno, in Huss, in Galileo still lives- they and others whose number is legion have preceded us on this path. We are ready to follow!”
Lucy Parsons traveled around the country for a year speaking to some 300,000 people at demonstrations, desperately intent “on saving the lives of seven innocent men, one of whom I love dearer than life itself.” In Columbus, Ohio, she was arrested and thrown into jail, charged with… nothing.
One Chicago businessman summed up the issues at stake. “No, I don’t consider these people to be guilty of any offence,” he confessed, “but they must be hanged….I do consider that the labor movement must be crushed. The Knights of Labor will never dare to create discontent again if these men are hanged.” At the same time, the protest movements, involving millions around the world, mounted. America’s leading man of letters, William Dean Howells, wrote, “I have never believed them guilty of murder or of anything but their opinions….This case constitutes the greatest wrong that ever threatened our fame as a nation.” Protest meetings took place in France, Spain, Holland and England. In England, the famed playwright George Bernard Shaw was a leading figure in the movement to save the lives of the men. The French Chamber of Deputies passed a resolution urging clemency.
But the Illinois Supreme Court and the United States Supreme Court denied to hear their appeals and the execution date was set for November 11. The day before it was to be carried out, Illinois Governor Oglesby commuted the death sentences of Schwab and Fielden to life imprisonment. The same day, Lingg committed suicide in his cell. The next day, Lucy Parsons and her two children frantically tried to gain admission to the jail to see their husband and father for the last time but they were held back by a cordon of police. When they insisted, Lucy and her children were locked together in a cell. On the gallows, Spies cried out, “There will come a time when our silene will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today.” Parsons also tried to speak when the trap was sprung.
In 1893, in a footnote to the event, another Illinois governor, John Peter Altgeld, after intensively studying the trial record, incurred the wrath of the corporate barons by declaring that the Haymarket victims were completely innocent and legally lynched , “victims of packed juries and a biased judge.” He issued pardons for them. The three survivors in prison were freed; the five who were no longer alive were posthumously pardoned. The move cost Altgeld his political career when all the big money was mobilized against his re-election.
So ended he Haymarket affair. And for a time, the labor movement and the fight for an eight-hour day remained relatively dormant, punctuated here and there by labor actions like the big Pullman rail strike in 1894, which was broken by corporate sponsored violence and federal injunctions. But eventually, the sparks predicted by Spies did burst into flame. It erupted in the great organizing drives of the newly formed Congress of Industrial Organizations, the CIO, in the 1930s that saw one-third of American workers in unions that resulted in huge gains for them.
And it lives today, despite the desperate opposition of corporate interests, in the organizing drives of the Amazon workers, the Starbucks baristas, the Kroger grocery clerks, and the countless others fighting to organize unions and engaging in labor actions to improve their lives. It lives in the efforts of rank-and-file workers to revitalize the labor movement. It is a flame that cannot be extinguished.
Also see Richard O. Boyer & Herbert M. Morais, Labor’s Untold Story, UE Publications, 1972, pp.84-104. 113; Philip S. Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the United States, New Century Publications, v.2 pp. 105-114.