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 94th 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 … industrial democracy."
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.
Remember? "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 itinerant 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 presided over what little remained of the Industrial Workers of the World, shrunken 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."