Before his execution by the state of Utah in 1915, the legendary activist and songwriter Joe Hill wrote a telegram to Bill Haywood — himself a founding member and prominent voice in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) — in which Hill wrote: “Goodbye, Bill. I die like a true blue rebel. Don’t waste any time mourning. Organize!” History remembers Joe Hill as a colorful and dynamic figure in the labor movements of the early twentieth century, and as someone who crafted songs and penned lyrics that have inspired generations of musicians and artists for decades since. Among other legacies, Hill coined the phrase “pie in the sky” and is probably best known for the enduring paraphrase from his letter to Haywood: “Don’t mourn, organize!”
Hill’s life and death were a study in Americanism. He was born in Sweden and emigrated to the US in his twenties, becoming an itinerant worker and joining in the struggle for labor rights at a critical moment in history. This was the era of “robber barons” and “trust-busting” — in which the methods of industrial production were generating enormous wealth for some, while the workers toiled in general conditions of deprivation and exploitation. Promises of equity and safety were often ignored or unenforced, leaving workers in many places to organize and advocate for themselves in the solidarity of shared struggle. Hill became a poet and troubadour of the movement, garnering a modicum of notoriety for his efforts but little wealth to show for it. As his final will read:
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 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
Hill’s murder trial and conviction were seen by supporters around the world as unjust at the outset, lacking evidence or motive. When a death sentence was imposed, major political figures appealed for clemency, but the state went ahead with the execution nonetheless on November 19, 1915. Hill’s motivations for failing to defend himself in the trial remain murky, although there is some evidence to suggest that he understood his value in being a martyr to the movement that was a large part of his life’s work, creatively and politically. As Hill wrote in an open letter two months before his execution, “there had to be a [scapegoat] and the undersigned being, as they thought, a friendless tramp, a Swede, and worst of all, an IWW, had no right to live anyway, and was therefore duly selected.”
Today we face challenges that aren’t all that different from those of a century ago. Workers still struggle for rights and respect in myriad locations, domestically and around the world. Justice remains elusive, oftentimes delayed and denied for multitudes of people in already-vulnerable situations. And wealth is even more consolidated in many ways, with new reports showing that eight men hold as much wealth as the bottom half of the world’s population. As we forge ahead in a difficult time, it’s important to recall the struggles of the past, the power of the present, and the potential of the future. Let’s not mourn, but instead let’s resist, renew, and regenerate!