Tomorrow, Nov. 19, marks the 100th anniversary of the state lynching of Joe Hill, worker, revolutionary and fighter for the poor and oppressed in the United States.
Born Oct. 7, 1879 in Gavle Sweden as Joel Ammanuel Hagglund, he came to the US in the early 1900s and changed his name to Joe Hill. He worked various odd jobs, traveled the country on the freight trains, faced frequent unemployment and poverty, and joined the revolutionary union the Industrial Workers of the World. His greatest contribution was as a revolutionary songwriter, and many of his songs became famous, including “Preacher and Slave”, well known for its refrain:
“You will eat, by and by,
In that glorious land in the sky,
Work and pray,
Live on hay,
There’ll be pie in the sky, when you die.”
Today, with the influence of fundamentalist religion – from Christianity to Islam – around the world, and the promise of a better life after death as a reward for groveling before capitalist oppression, that song could not be more relevant.
Joe Hill was arrested for the murder of former policeman and grocer John G. Morrison. He had evidently been shot (non-fatally) in a fight with a rival for the attention of a young woman, but courageously and gallantly had refused to reveal the name of the young woman. The trial, typically, was a farce in which “witnesses” contradicted their earlier testimony. As he explained, “Owing to the prominence of Mr Morrison, there had to be a ‘goat’ [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 to be ‘the goat’.”
On Nov. 19, 1915, Hill was placed before a firing squad. His last words were to tell the firing squad, “Fire — go ahead and fire!” But he left much more. He had written Big Bill Haywood (also a great IWW leader): “Goodbye Bill. I die like a true blue rebel. Don’t waste any time in mourning. Organize… Could you arrange to have my body hauled to the state line to be buried? I don’t want to be found dead in Utah.”
He also left a last will and testament:
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.
But perhaps the greatest testament to Joe Hill is his legend in song.
Here is another great musician of the revolution, Paul Robeson, commemorating Joe Hill.