The Man Who Didn't Die
By Dick Meister
It's Nov. 19, 1915, in a courtyard of the
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.
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
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
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
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
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
translating into compelling lyrics the hopes and
desires, the frustrations and discontents of his fellow workers.
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
Not long afterward Hill hopped a freight for
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
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
President Woodrow Wilson.
The governor paid much greater attention to the views
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
had declared that "I don't want to be caught dead in
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
by postal inspectors. They acted under the Espionage
Act, passed after the
that year, which made it illegal to mail any material
that advocated "treason, insurrection. or forcible
resistance to any law of the
The envelope, containing about a tablespoon of Hill's
ashes, was sent to the National Archives in
D.C. It remained hidden there until 1988, when it was
discovered and turned over in
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."
Portside aims to provide material of interest
to people on the left that will help them to
interpret the world and to change it.
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