The coming of the American Civil War in 1861, or "the slave-holders'
Rebellion," as he later called it, led Parsons to leave what he described as the "printer's
devil": the position of newsboy.
At 13 years old, Parsons volunteered to fight for the forces of the Confederate States of America in an irregular unit known as the "Lone Star Greys."Parsons' first military exploit was aboard the passenger steamer Morgan which ventured into the Gulf of Mexico to
intercept and capture the forces of General David E. Twiggs, who had evacuated Texas en route to Washington, D.C..
his return, Parsons sought to enlist in the regular Confederate States Army, an idea ridiculed by his employer and guardian at the time, publisher Willard Richardson of the Galveston Daily
News.Parsons left his job at the paper, joining an artillery company at a hastily constructed fort at Sabine Pass, Texas, where an elder brother was the captain of an infantry company.For a year Parsons participated in military drill and served as
a "powder monkey" for the cannoneers.Upon the expiration of his first enlistment,
Parsons left Fort Sabine to join the cavalry unit
of the brother who had previously brought him to Texas, the 12th Regiment of the Texas Cavalry, also known as "Parsons' Mounted Volunteers." Albert Parsons was a member of the "McInoly Scouts" and saw battle during three separate campaigns.
After the war, Parsons returned to Waco, Texas and traded his mule for 40 acres (160,000 m2) of standing corn.He hired ex-slaves to help with the harvest and netted a sufficient sum from the sale of the crop to pay for six months' tuition at Waco University, today known as Baylor, a private Baptist college.
After his time in college, Parsons left to take up the printing trade, first working in a printing
office before launching his own newspaper, the Waco Spectator, in 1868. In his paper Parsons took the unpopular position of accepting the
terms of surrender and Reconstruction measures aimed at securing the political rights of former slaves.This proved to be a pivotal moment in the 20-year-old's life, as he later recalled in his memoirs:
In this supercharged plitical atmosphere, Parsons' paper could
not long survive and publication was soon terminated.
1869, Parsons got a job as a traveling correspondent and business agent for the Houston Daily Telegraph, during which time he met Lucy Ella Gonzales (or
Waller), a woman of multi-ethnic heritage.The pair would marry in 1872 and Lucy Parsons would later become famous in her own right as a radical political activist.
In 1870, Parsons was the beneficiary of Republican political patronage when he was appointed
Assistant Assessor of United States Internal Revenue under the administration of Ulysses S. Grant. He also worked as a secretary of the Texas State Senate before being appointed Chief Deputy Collector of United States Internal Revenue
at Austin, Texas, a position
which he held until 1873.
In the summer of 1873,
Parsons travelled extensively through the Midwestern United States as a representative of the Texas Agriculturalist, getting a broader view of the country,
deciding to settle with his wife in Chicago.With his move to the metropolis, a new chapter of Parsons' life was begun.
In Chicago, Parsons obtained a job as a newspaper reporter for the Chicago Times.
1874 Parsons became interested in the labor politics as a byproduct of grassroot efforts to force the Chicago Relief and Aid Society to account for millions of dollars of relief aid raised by the group
on behalf of victims of the Great
Chicago Fire of October 1871.Commercial newspapers came to the aid of the Relief and Aid Society, denouncing its working-class critics as, among other things, "Communists" — a term given new
currency after the rise and fall of the Paris
Commune during the first half of 1871 — prompting Parsons to begin to study the essence of the charges.Parsons later recalled that this study had convinced him that "the complaints of the working
people against the society were just and proper" and led him to draw parallels between the treatment of poor people in both the urban North and the Reconstruction South."It satisfied me there was a great fundamental wrong at work in society and in existing
social and industrial arrangements," he later declared.
1875, Parsons left the Republican Party's orbit and joined the fledgling Social Democratic Party of America (SDP).Parsons
attended the 2nd Convention of the SDP, held in Philadelphia from July 4–6, 1875, and was one of the group's leading English-speaking members in Chicago, joined by another able speaker, George A. Schilling.
As an interested observer, Parsons attended the final convention of the National Labor Union (NLU),
held in Pittsburgh in April 1876. At this convention the dying NLU divided, with its radical wing exiting to establish the Workingmen's Party of the United States —
a group that soon merged with the Social Democratic Party to which Parsons belonged. This organization would later rename itself the Socialist Labor Party of America at its December 1877 convention in Newark, New Jersey, which Parsons attended as a delegate. Parsons
was also elected as one of two Chicago delegates to the organization's 2nd national Convention, held in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania at the end of 1879.
Parsons was also involved with the Knights of Labor during its embryonic period.
He joined the Knights of Labor,
known then as "The Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor," on July 4, 1876, after having been invited to speak at a mass meeting of workers. Parsons remained a member of the order until his death more than a decade later.Not long after
joining the Knights of Labor, Parsons and his friend George Schilling co-founded the first Chicago order of the Knights, later dubbed the "Old 400".
In the fall of 1876, Parsons was nominated for Chicago City Alderman by the Workingmen's Party of the United States. He received an impressive one-sixth
share of the vote.
In the spring of 1877, the Workingmen's
Party ran a full slate of candidates in Cook County, including Chicago. The organization elected three of its members to the Illinois State Legislature and one to the Illinois State Senate.In this election, Parsons ran for County Clerk of
Cook County, narrowly losing but polling nearly 8,000 votes. In the course of his life, Parsons ran three times for Chicago City Alderman, twice for Cook County Clerk, and once for United States Congress.
Parsons was one of the foremost speakers in the English language on behalf of the socialist cause in Chicago in the
1870s. In 1877 a Great Railroad Strike took place. On July 21, about a week after the beginning of the strike, Parsons was called upon to address a vast throng of perhaps 30,000 workers congregated at a mass
meeting on Chicago's Market Street. Parsons gave a powerful speech to the assembled strikers and their friends on behalf of the Workingmen's Party — an action that cost Parsons his job at the Times the next day.
being terminated in the morning, Parsons made his way to the offices of the leading German-language socialist newspaper, the Chicagoer Arbeiter-Zeitung (Chicago Workers' News). He was
found there and escorted to Chicago
City Hall, where he was ushered before the Chief of Police and about 30 of the city's "leading citizens". There Parsons was dressed down for about two hours, with the Chief of Police asking Parsons if he didn't "know better than to come here from
Texas and incite the working people to insurrection." Parsons disclaimed any such notion, noting that he had urged the workers not to strike but to go to the polls to elect new representatives. With the agitated worthies present in the room
audibly muttering such sentiments as "Hang him" and "Lynch him," the Chief of Police advised Parsons that his life was in danger and urged him to leave town. Parsons was allowed to leave, but he remained in Chicago despite the implied threat
on his life.
The afternoon Chicago papers trumpeted that
"strike leader" Albert Parsons had been "arrested" that day — neither of which things were true. The Chicago strike of 1877 was ultimately violently repressed by the action of the police and militia.
At the turn of the decade, Albert Parsons withdrew from all participation in electoral politics. He later recalled his rationale in his memoirs, written shortly before his execution in 1887:
Parsons turned his activity to the growing movement to establish the 8-hour day. In January 1880, the Eight-Hour League of Chicago
sent Parsons to a national conference in Washington, DC, a gathering which launched a national lobbying movement aimed at coordinating efforts of labor organizations to win and enforce the 8-hour workday.
In 1881, with the membership of the Socialist Labor Party in precipitous decline, a new organization was established,
the International Revolutionary Socialists. Parsons was a delegate to the founding convention of this group.Two years later he was also a delegate to the October 1883 convention in Pittsburgh which established the anarchist International Working People's Association, the organization to which he owed his political allegiance for the rest of his life.
In the fall of 1884, Parsons launched a weekly anarchist newspaper in Chicago, The Alarm.The first issue was dated October 4, 1884, and was produced in a press run of 15,000
copies.The publication was a 4-page broadsheet with a cover price of 5 cents. The Alarm listed the International Working People's Association as its publisher
and touted itself as "A Socialistic Weekly" on its page 2 masthead.
Despite his use of the erstwhile Marxist slogan on the
front page, "Workingmen of All Countries, Unite!", Parsons' paper was unmistakably anarchist in content. Parsons wrote on the theme in a November 1884 issue:
In the early months of 1886, the luck of the workers was rising as massive strikes
were beginning to take place, crippling many industries into making concessions. Parsons called for a move to "Eight hours' work for ten hours' pay." Workers in some industries were even beginning to get this. As May approached, so did the day designated as
the official day to strike for the eight-hour
On May 1, 1886, Parsons, with
his wife Lucy and two children, led 80,000 people down Michigan Avenue, in what is regarded as the first-ever May Day Parade, in support of the eight-hour work day. Over the next few days 340,000 laborers joined the strike. Parsons, amidst the May Day Strike, found himself called to
Cincinnati, where 300,000 workers had struck that Saturday afternoon. On that Sunday he addressed the rally in Cincinnati of the news from the "storm center" of the strike and participated in a second huge parade, led by 200 members of The Cincinnati Rifle
Union, with certainty that victory was at hand.
future looked bright, and many believed that they had finally accomplished what they had been trying to for so long.