Harriet Tubman was an Underground Railroad conductor and strategist, education activist, Civil War nurse, and communalist. Born into slavery in Maryland, she was sold at age five as a house servant, repeatedly beaten, and later sold as a field worker. In her teens, her head was knocked so severely when she was blocking her owners from attacking another slave that it was permanently dented, and she suffered from narcolepsy for the rest of her life. She married a free man, John Tubman, but was under constant threat of being sold further south into malaria-ridden plantations (equivalent to a death sentence), so left him to escape north in 1849.
She reached "free" Philadelphia and met William Still who was a conductor on the Underground Railroad, an elaborate and secret series of houses, tunnels, and roads set up by abolitionists and former slaves. Harriet soon became involved in the Railroad, making nineteen trips to the south to kidnap and guide groups of slaves, including some of her family, to the north, and freedom. Nicknamed "Moses," she was always armed and threatened any escapee who showed frailty on the arduous trip north: "Dead niggers tell no tales." She became famous among slaves and infamous among slaveowners.
A year after she escaped slavery, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 permitted the recapture of escaped slaves in the north for auction in the south. Bounties for Harriet totalled $40,000, but she never lost a single "passenger." She thought on her feet and often used tricks and disguises to slip right under enemy noses.
She worked in the North during nine months of each year to fund these excursions. She helped found schools, even though she herself was illiterate; encouraged communal fostering of poor children; and worked to build a new African communalist culture in the North. She believed that personal wealth was wrong, and led by example.
The Civil War broke out in 1861, when Harriet was in her early forties. She lent her expertise to the Union Army as a spy and a nurse. She used African medicine to nurse Black soldiers who were often sick due to their second-class status in the army. She started a women's laundry cooperative for the soldiers and later worked as a matron at a veterans' hospital. She also took part in a military campaign that resulted in the rescue of 756 slaves and destroyed millions of dollars' worth of enemy property.
After the war, she continued her involvement in social issues, including women's rights, always working at the grassroots level. In 1908, she established a home in Auburn, New York for elderly and indigent Blacks that later became known as the Harriet Tubman Home. She died aged approximately ninety-three.
"There's two things I've got a right to, and these are death and liberty. One or the other I mean to have. No one will take me back alive; I shall fight for my liberty, and when the time has come for us to go, the Lord will let them kill me."
Louise Michel was an anarchist of the Paris Commune and a schoolteacher in France and New Caledonia. Daughter of a French servant and her aristocratic master, Louise was raised by her mother and her paternal grandparents. Once educated, she became a schoolteacher, though she refused to take the oath of allegiance to the Emperor and opened a private school.
In 1870, during the Franco-Prussian war, forty-year-old Louise Michel was arrested twice: once for having weapons, and once for demonstrating against a government-at-war. "I couldn't have organised any demonstration to speak to the government, because I no longer recognised that government."
Paris surrendered to the Prussians in 1871 and the French were allowed to elect a new government. During the ensuing bureaucratic mess, the people of Paris reclaimed their city for themselves. The result was "The Paris Commune," an anarchist society based on freedom and equality. Louise Michel was committed to the revolution. "It is the people who will deliver us from the men who have been corrupting us, and the people themselves will win their liberty."
Eventually, the Commune was usurped by the bourgeois authorities who took the city back by force. Louise turned herself in because they threatened to shoot her mother. With others from the Commune, she was forced to march through Paris in the middle of the night while those who refused were made to dig their own graves and then shot. About thirty thousand people were executed.
Louise was accused of trying to overthrow the government. Asked if she had anything to say in her defence, she replied: "If you let me live, I shall never stop crying for revenge and I shall avenge my brothers ... If you are not cowards, kill me!"
She was sentenced to lifetime of exile in New Caledonia, where she was eventually allowed to work as a teacher for the colonists' children and for the indigenous Kanaky population. She supported the Kanaks' struggles against French colonialism and racism.
In 1880, the French Government gave amnesty to the prisoners of the Paris Commune and Louise returned home. She delivered public speeches, raised money for strike groups including women spinners, wrote articles on strike action, and worked to set up a soup kitchen for destitute exiled political prisoners who, like herself, were returning to Paris. She was often harangued by the authorities for her dissenting politics.
When sixty-eight anarchists (including Kropotkin, who had written an Anarchist Manifesto proclaiming "Bread for all, Knowledge for all, Work for all, Independence and Justice for all.") were sentenced to five years in jail in Lyon in 1883, Louise led a demonstration across Paris that involved some looting of bread in solidarity with those in prison. She was arrested and condemned to six years in prison. "It is not a question of breadcrumbs. What is at stake is the harvest of an entire world, a harvest necessary to the whole future human race, one without exploiters and without exploited." The following year, at age fifty-four, she was pardoned and freed.
In the last two decades of her life, Louise toured extensively in France, promoting anarchism. She was shot and wounded behind her ear during one public speech, but defended her assailant when he was on trial: "He was misled by an evil society."
After a trip to Algeria, she fell seriously ill in Marseilles. She died in 1905 and her funeral was attended by several thousand mourners.
"We revolutionaries aren't just chasing a scarlet flag. What we pursue is an awakening of liberty, old or new. It is the ancient Communes of France, it is 1703; it is June 1848; it is 1871. Most especially it is the next revolution which is advancing under this dawn."
"Mother" Jones was an American labor organizer, union activist, and teacher who became a legend in her own time. She was born Mary Harris in Cork, Ireland (though more likely in 1837 than on May Day 1830 as commonly celebrated). After the devastation of the potato famine, her father immigrated to North America and later sent for his family to join him. Mary arrived in Toronto, when she was in her mid-teens, learned dressmaking, and worked as a teacher in Michigan and Tennessee.
While living in Memphis, Mary met and married George Jones, an iron molder and active member of the International Iron Molders Union. The couple had four children. In 1867, a tragic yellow fever epidemic claimed the lives of Mary's husband and all of her children, after which Mary moved to Chicago at age thirty to start a new life as a dressmaker. There, another disaster struck when the 1871 Great Chicago Fire destroyed her shop and all her possessions.
Mary later claimed that it was after the fire that she turned to labor activism. By the mid- 1880s, when she was in her late forties, she joined the Knights of Labor and in the 1890s agitated for the newly formed United Mine Workers (UMW).
She dedicated her life to organizing American workers (mostly coal workers) into unions and to offering support during strikes, including organizing the strikers' wives into "mop and broom brigades" to drive out scabs. She was a spellbinding public speaker and worked hard to educate the public about the appalling conditions of American workers. In 1903, Mother Jones famously led an interstate march of under-sixteen-year-old striking textile workers in order to force public's attention to the problem of child labor. She lived among the people with whom she worked, and said that her home was "Well, wherever there is a fight."
As a UMW activist, she rose to fame as "Mother Jones," the self-proclaimed "hell-raiser," denounced in the Senate as "the most dangerous woman in America" and "the grandmother of all agitators." This led Mother Jones to retort, "I hope to live long enough to be the great-grandmother of all agitators."
Mother Jones worked as a lecturer for the Socialist Party from 1904 to 1912 before returning to the UMW. In 1905, she participated in the founding of the International Workers of the World but subsequently remained aloof from the organization. In 1913, she was arrested while leading a protest march in West Virginia, convicted by a military court on trumped-up charges of murder, and sentenced to twenty years of imprisonment. The trial itself highlighted the terrible conditions in West Virginia's mines and led to a Senate inquiry in the matter as well as Mother Jones' release. The same year, she was arrested twice during a yearlong strike of mine workers in Colorado.
Mother Jones left the UMW in 1922, but continued to make public appearances as a speaker on labor issues into her nineties.
"Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living
Vera Zasulich was a Russian political activist and radical intellectual. She was born into a poor family in Mikhaylovka, Russia. Her father died when she was three years old and her mother, unable to cope, sent Vera to live with wealthier relatives.
Vera moved to St. Petersburg when she finished school, and worked as a clerk. She became involved in radical politics through the Nihilist movement revolutionary Sergi Nechayev. "I could imagine no greater pleasure than serving the revolution. I had dared only to dream of it, and yet now he was saying that he wanted to recruit me." She joined a weaving collective and conducted literacy classes for workers. Then, in 1876, twenty-seven-year-old Vera found work as a typesetter for an illegal printing press and joined the Land and Liberty group.
In the late 1870s, feelings against the highly repressive Tsarist regime were reaching boiling point. Nearly two hundred insurrectionists were imprisoned without proper trial. Bogolyubov, an acquaintance of Vera's, was sentenced to ten years of penal servitude simply for attending a demonstration. During an inspection of the increasingly unruly prisoners, the Chief of Police, General Trepov, ordered Bogolyubov to be flogged in front of other prisoners for wearing a hat at the wrong time. This caused a prison mutiny.
Vera decided to assassinate General Trepov. "Trepov and his entourage were looking at me, their hands occupied by papers and things, and I decided to do it earlier than I had planned ... The revolver was in my hand. I pressed the trigger — a misfire. My heart missed a beat. Again I pressed. A shot, cries. Now they'll start beating me. This was next in the sequence of events I had thought through so many times."
Trepov survived. Vera was arrested and charged with attempted murder. She was given a fair trial by jury, as the authorities assumed the case was cut-and-dried — she had admitted to firing the shot, and there were plenty of witnesses. However, Vera's humble, dignified demeanour coupled with the defence's evidence of police brutality resulted in an acquittal.
Police tried to re-arrest her outside the court, but the crowd rioted and allowed her to escape. Vera was forced into hiding and immigrated to Switzerland two years later. She became openly critical of the climate of terrorism that had in part been sparked by her assassination attempt on Trepov and that led to the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881.
In 1883, at age thirty-four, she helped found the first Russian Marxist group and translated a number of Marx's works into Russian. Later, she became active in the Social Democratic Labour Party (SDLP) and served on the editorial board of Iskra. She wrote several Marxist-influenced articles on Russian strike actions and politics.
She returned to Russia for the 1905 Revolution, but her commitment to revolutionary politics waned with its failure. During World War I, Vera supported the war effort and opposed the Bolshevik Revolution. She remained an intellectual until her death in 1919.
"It was hard to starve [during the summer but what will it be during the severe frost? What expectations have these intrepid fighters for the right to have, between the time of work and sleep, three hours of leisure 'as befits human beings'?"
Lucy Parsons was an American unionist, workers' rights activist, and dressmaker who endorsed violent direct action. She was born of African-American, Native American, and Mexican ancestry, probably in Texas and perhaps in slavery. Around 1870 she met Albert Parsons, who became her husband, although due to laws discouraging interracial marriage, the couple may never have legally married. They were forced to leave Texas in 1873 due to their relationship and political activism, and settled in Chicago.
Lucy worked as a self-employed dressmaker and gave birth to two children. Both she and Albert became members of the Knights of Labor and the Social Democratic Party. Later, Lucy helped found the Working Women's Union and, with Albert, helped organize the local section of the anarchist International Working People's Association.
She published frequently on labor and social issues and was a speaker of formidable talent — according to the Chicago police, "more dangerous than a thousand rioters." Enraged by social injustice, which she saw as caused by economic oppression of the majority by a wealthy minority, she supported violent direct action. Endorsing the slogan, "The land to the landless; the tools to the toilers; and the product to the producers," she concluded, "For without this right to the free use of these things, the pursuit of happiness, the enjoyment of liberty and life itself are hollow mockeries. Hence the employment of any and all means are justifiable in obtaining them, even to a forceable violent revolution."
In 1886, Lucy was deeply involved in the workers' struggle for the eight-hour day. During a meeting on May 3 at Haymarket Square, a bomb was thrown at police, leading to gunfire and the deaths of seven police officers and several civilians. Albert was among the anarchists tried for murder and sentenced to death, despite the utter lack of evidence of involvement. Lucy traveled widely, speaking about the case and demanding justice for her husband. This was to no avail; Albert Parsons and three others were executed on November 11, 1897. Lucy was to uphold her husband's memory for the rest of her life.
Lucy continued to travel widely on speaking tours and to write, founding the journal Freedom: A Revolutionary Anarchist-Communist Monthly in 1891. She was among the founding members of the Industrial Workers of the World, advocating the idea of the sit-down strikes and sabotage as weapons in class struggle. Freedom of speech was a dominant theme in her work — she was frequently prevented from speaking herself — as was the defense of political prisoners. After the economic crashes of 1908–1909, she began to focus on hunger and unemployment issues. The "Hunger Demonstrations" she organized in Chicago in 1915 forced the government to confront unemployment.
In the postwar years, Lucy worked frequently with the Communist Party, and despite her failing eyesight continued her activism until the final months of her life. Lucy Parsons died in a house fire, and her ashes are buried at the monument for the "Haymarket Martyrs," who include her husband.
"The philosophy of anarchism is included in the word 'Liberty,' yet it is comprehensive enough to include all things else that are conductive to progress ... No barriers whatever to human progression, to thoughts, or investigation are placed by anarchism; nothing is considered so true or so certain, that future discoveries may not prove it false; therefore, it has but one infallible, unchangeable motto, 'Freedom': Freedom to discover any truth, freedom to develop, to live naturally and fully."
"We are slaves of slaves. We are exploited more ruthlessly than men."