- Democratic Citizenship: Not Such a Simple Legacy
What is it that inspires certain people to take action on behalf of themselves and others to improve their world? What is the basis of democratic citizenship—that fierce amalgamation of passionate commitment and sacrifice? I recall here a photograph from James Miller’s “Democracy is in the Streets”: From Port Huron to the Siege of Chicago. It shows Sharon Jeffrey, one of the New Left’s most energetic welfare-rights organizers in Cleveland, sitting on a couch during a meeting. Above her is a woman yawning, next to her is a woman passed out; Jeffrey herself looks dazed and exhausted. The photo is captioned “Freedom is an endless meeting.” The look on Jeffrey’s face always suggested to me the difficulty and strain of sustaining democratic citizenship.1
Ever since Alexis de Tocqueville made his observations about citizenship and democracy in 1840, there has been a noted paradox: a weak state (or government) often encourages democratic activism. Tocqueville recognized that the bonds of civil society were stronger in America than in his home country, France, where a monarchical government had sole power to solve problems. Tocqueville was amazed by Americans’ energy: “Americans of all ages, all stations in life, and all types of disposition are forever forming associations. . . . Where in France you would find the government . . . , in the United States you are sure to find an association.”2 [End Page 134]
Democratic citizenship stems from America’s republican (small-r) traditions. But it also occupies a central part of the American Left. Consider Michael Kazin’s important and expansive book, American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation (2011), which includes an examination of radical abolitionism, the feminist and suffragette movements, labor organizing, a movement for birth-control legalization, and numerous antiwar eruptions. Making democratic citizenship a reality for all Americans—no matter their class, race, gender, or sexual orientation—is a central component of American history. And, as with much else, it is a far more complicated story than might first appear.
Shelley Streeby reminds readers about an internationalist anarchist and socialist Left that was once very active and associated with the Haymarket Affair and with strong opposition to U.S. imperialism. Haymarket—a labor strike in Chicago in 1886 that prompted protests, the dynamiting of police, and the eventual hanging of the prosecuted—was international because “most of the men on trial at Haymarket were immigrants” (p. 41) The exception was Albert Parsons, who was born in America and married Lucy Parsons, herself Texas-born and a central figure in Streeby’s book. Instead of analyzing details of events leading to Haymarket, Streeby scrutinizes visual reporting about the affair, especially in publications such as Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. Immediately in Haymarket’s wake, there was a conservative imaginary. Many illustrations depicted Chicago anarchists “as ‘beasts’ with out-of-control monstrous bodies that had to be subdued by the police” (p. 48). In one illustration, two older male anarchists are rustled out of bed, suggesting, in Streeby’s mind, a linkage between homosexual activity and noir terrorism (p. 50).
Yet there were other images that humanized the Haymarket activists, but not until they were “whitened” and their families foregrounded (p. 53). Even in Leslie’s, we find an image of Albert Parsons, in prison clutching his daughter on his knee, with Lucy faintly shown on the other side of the grate (so as not to see her racial hues). Lucy Parsons, in her Life of Albert R. Parsons, provided an “honorific, sentimental . . . portrait” of her husband (p. 58). When she included a gallows scene in a later edition, she...