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Advancing the legacy of Lucy Parsons
We decided to name our human rights school after Lucy Parsons because we wanted to send a clear signal. We recognize that the traditional, Western concept of “human rights” was developed alongside the emergence of capitalism as the world’s dominant economic system, and, particularly, as an expression of liberal Enlightenment values. As such, the human rights being promoted were about the rights of individuals to be freed from the restrictions of an old system born of feudalism and the calcified privileges of the “noble” class.
But these were not expressions of the rights of human communities, human peoples, or human beings as extension of their ecosystems. These rights were never intended for everyone. The most foundational document for Western human rights-ism is the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, from the French Revolution. Like the Bill of Rights, another such document, especially for those of us in North America, neither of these documents sought to extend these rights to the enslaved, to the Indigenous, to women, or to people who were not private property owners.
At times, this denial is explained away by those who tell us that these documents were just the beginning of a process that has grown to include the rights of all people. But we know this is not true. Throughout history, across cultures, we find evidence of those who have struggled for people’s rights. In the midst of the French and North American revolutions, and related bourgeois revolutions, the enslaved, the poor, women, and other targeted peoples were advocating for inclusion, and they were, they are, consistently locked out.
Lucy Parsons, however, took a very different approach to human rights. For her, the struggle for human rights was fundamentally a tool to be used toward the liberation of all peoples. She regarded the struggle for human rights as a collective struggle for the common good. She understood that the greatest threat to human rights is the concentration of power and wealth in the hands of an elite class, as advanced by systemic oppression. Thus, by taking this name, the signal we send is: the struggle for human rights must be a struggle against global capitalism, against imperialism, and for the rights of everyone.
Lucy Parsons fought for human rights, especially the rights of workers, all her life. As a young woman, she was a leader in the fight for the eight-hour work day, in partnership with her husband, Albert Parsons, one of the Haymarket Martyrs. In her old age, she famously fought against racist repression as part of the International Labor Defense, defending the Scottsboro Nine and Angelo Herndon.
Parsons’ early biography is not well known. She was born into the world of slavery, violent racism, and bitter poverty. Her origins are subjects of much debate but suffice it to say that she has been claimed by, and she fought for, the rights of, people of African, Indigenous, and Mexican heritage, and was always to be counted as a proud member of the working class. Lucy Parsons dedicated herself to securing the rights of every oppressed and targeted community, and by taking on this name, we do the same.
These are the reasons we name this new effort the Lucy Parsons Popular Human Rights School. Parsons knew that real human rights meant workers’ rights, an end to racism, the good of the community, and the good of the Earth. She knew, as we now know because of people like her, that human rights were never, ever, about the privilege of private profit for the benefit of a few who, even to this day, are primarily White, male, mega-property owners. Human rights are for all of us, and they are best won through the struggle for liberation. It is in that spirit that we set forth on this daring and vital enterprise: to expose and document human rights abuses in the United States as a tool in our own quest for real, popular democracy, sustainability, and true, collective freedom.
“What has ever been granted to the countless millions of workers of Earth without a fight?” ~ Lucy Parsons
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