Joe Hill was killed by a Utah firing squad 100 years ago today, on November 19, 1915.
Joe Hill’s will:
My will is easy to decide,
For there is nothing to divide.
My kin don’t need to fuss and 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 flower then
Would come to life and bloom again.
This is my Last and final Will.
Good Luck to All of you,
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.” 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.
You’ve probably heeard some of them. 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!”