It's Nov. 19, 1915, in a courtyard of the Utah State Penitentiary in Salt Lake
City. Five riflemen take careful aim at a condemned organizer for the Industrial
Workers of the World, Joe Hill, who stands before them straight and stiff and
proud. "Fire!" he shouts defiantly. The firing squad didn't miss.
But Joe Hill, as the folk ballad says, "ain't never died." On this
90th anniversary of his execution, he lives on as one of the most enduring and
influential of American symbols.
Joe Hill's story is that of a labor martyr framed for murder by viciously anti-labor
employer and government forces, a man who never faltered in fighting for the
rights of the oppressed, who never faltered in his attempts to bring them together
for the collective action essential if they were to overcome their wealthy and
powerful oppressors. His is the story of a man and an organization destroyed
by government opposition yet immensely successful. As historian Joyce Kornbluh
noted, the IWW made "an indelible mark on the American labor movement and
American society," laying the groundwork for mass unionization, inspiring
the formation of groups to protect the civil liberties of dissidents, prompting
prison and farm labor reforms, and leaving behind "a genuine heritage ...
Joe Hill's story is the story of perhaps the greatest of all folk poets, whose
simple, satirical rhymes set to simple, familiar melodies did so much to focus
working people on the common body of ideals needed to forge them into a collective
force. Songs like "The Preacher and the Slave," which promises,"You
will eat, bye and bye/In that glorious land above the sky/Work and Pray, live
on hay/You'll get pie in the sky when you die." Ralph Chaplain, the IWW
bard who wrote "Solidarity Forever," found Hill's songs "as coarse
as homespun and as fine as silk; full of laughter and keen-edged satire; full
of fine rage and finer tenderness; songs of and for the worker, written in the
only language he can understand."
Joe Hill's story is the story of a man who saw with unusual clarity the unjust
effects of the political, social and economic system on working people and whose
own widely publicized trial and execution alerted people worldwide to the injustices
and spurred them into corrective action. It's the story of a man who told his
IWW comrades, just before stepping in front of the firing squad: "Don't
waste any time in mourning. Organize!" Hill's comrades aimed at nothing
less than organizing all workers into One Big Union regardless of their race,
nationality, craft or work skills, calling a general strike and wresting control
of the economy from its capitalist masters.
The revolutionary message was presented in the simple language of the workplace,
in the songs of Hill, Chaplain and others, in the streetcorner oratory and in
a tremendous outpouring of publications, including a dozen foreign-language
newspapers which were distributed among the many unskilled immigrants from European
nations where unions had similar goals. Workers were told again and again that
they all had the same problems, the same needs and faced the same enemy. It
was they who did the work, while others got the profit; they were members, all
of them, of the working class.
To aspire to middle-class status, as the established labor movement advocated,
would mean competing against their fellow workers and chaining themselves to
a system that enslaved them. Organized religion also was a tool of enslavement,
to keep the worker's eye on that "pie in the sky" while he was being
exploited in this world. Patriotism was a ruse to set the workers of one nation
against those of another for the profit of capitalist manipulators. IWW organizers
carried the message to factories, mines, mills and lumber camps throughout the
country, and to farms in the Midwest and California.
The cause of radical unionism to which Joe Hill devoted his life was lost a
long time ago. The call to revolution is scarcely heard in today's clamorously
capitalist society. Labor organizations seek not to seize control of the means
of production but rather to share in the fruits of an economic system controlled
by others. Yet Joe Hill's fiery words and fiery deeds, his courage and his sacrifices
continue to inspire political, labor, civil rights and civil liberties activists.
They still sing his songs, striking workers, dissident students and others,
on picket lines, in demonstrations, at rallies, on the streets and in auditoriums.
They echo his spirit of protest and militancy, his demand for true equality,
share his fervent belief in solidarity, even use tactics first employed by Hill
and his comrades.
Hill emigrated to the United States from his native Sweden in 1902, changing
his name from Joel Haaglund, working as a seaman and as an itinerate wheat harvester,
pipe layer, copper miner and at other jobs as he made his way across the country
to San Diego, translating into compelling lyrics the hopes and desires, the
frustrations and discontents of his fellow workers. In San Diego, Hill joined
in one of the first of the many "free speech fights" waged by the
Industrial Workers of the World against attempts by municipal authorities around
the country to silence the streetcorner oratory that was a key part of the IWW's
organizing strategy. Not long afterward Hill hopped a freight for Salt Lake
City, where he helped lead a successful construction workers' strike and began
helping organize another free speech fight. But within a month, he was arrested
on charges of shooting to death a grocer and his son and was immediately branded
guilty by the local newspapers and authorities alike. Ultimately, Hill was convicted
on only the flimsiest of circumstantial evidence. Hill had staggered into a
doctor's office within an hour after the shootings, bleeding from a chest wound
that he said had stemmed from a quarrel over a woman. The prosecutor argued
that the wound was inflicted by the grocer in response to an attack by Hill,
although he did not introduce into evidence either the grocer's gun or the bullet
that allegedly was fired from it. He did not introduce the gun that Hill allegedly
used and did not call a single witness who could positively identify Hill as
the killer. But he easily convinced the jury that the murders were an example
of IWW terrorism and that since Hill was an IWW leader and had been arrested
and charged with the crime, he was guilty.
As Hill's futile appeals made their way through the courts, Gov. William Spry
of Utah was swamped with thousands of petitions and letters from all over the
world asking for a pardon or commutation. But he would not even be swayed by
the pleas for mercy from the Swedish ambassador. Not even by the pleas of U.S.
President Woodrow Wilson. The governor paid much greater attention to the views
of Utah's powerful Mormon Church leaders and powerful employer interests, particularly
those who controlled the state's dominant copper mining industry. They insisted
that the man they considered one of the most dangerous radicals in the country
be put to death. Joe Hill's body was shipped to Chicago, where it was cremated
after a hero's funeral, the ashes divided up and sent to IWW locals for scattering
on the winds in every state except Utah. Hill, with typical grim humor, had
declared that "I don't want to be caught dead in Utah."
Even in death, Hill was not safe from the government. One packet of his ashes,
sent belatedly to an IWW organizer in 1917 for scattering in Chicago, was seized
by postal inspectors. They acted under the Espionage Act, passed after the United
States entered World War I that year, which made it illegal to mail any material
that advocated "treason, insurrection. or forcible resistance to any law
of the United States." The envelope, containing about a tablespoon of Hill's
ashes, was sent to the National Archives in Washington, D.C. It remained hidden
there until 1988, when it was discovered and turned over in Chicago to the men
who preside over what little remains of the Industrial Workers of the World,
shrunken now to only a few hundred members. The Post Office apparently had objected
to the caption beneath a photo of Hill on the front of the envelope. "Joe
Hill," it said -- "murdered by the capitalist class, Nov. 19, 1915."
Or maybe the authorities objected to Hill's Last Will, which was printed on
the back of the envelope:
"My will is easy to decide, For I have nothing to divide, My kin don't
need to fuss or moan 'Moss does not cling to a rolling stone.' My body?
Oh if I could choose, I would to ashes it reduce, And let the merry breezes
blow My dust to where some flowers grow. Perhaps some fading flowers then Would
come to life and bloom again. This is my last and final will, Good luck to all
of you, Joe Hill"
Copyright (c) 2005 Dick Meister, a San Francisco-based freelance columnist.
Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com.