It happened over the weekend, the 102nd Anniversary of the execution of union organizer Joe Hill, with three bullets to the heart from a firing squad hired by the State of Utah. The circumstances of the crime of which he was convicted are muddy. Joe Hill was a Swedish-born itinerant worker who had already been blacklisted in Chicago when he tried to organize the workers in the machine shop where he’d been working. He changed his name and started traveling around, working and talking union, drawing cartoons and writing songs aimed at telling workers that their labor was important and should be valued with decent pay and decent working conditions. Joe Hill was a member of the Industrial Workers of the World; the I.W.W., called the Wobblies. He was a thorn in the side of capitalists, and the government which served capitalism.
He was convicted of a double murder. He was very likely framed, as evidence now suggests, though even then people all over the world knew it. The case made national news; a sensation. Unions around the world protested the conviction, and questioned the legitimacy of the trial. Calls for clemency came from Princeton’s own President Woodrow Wilson, from the Swedish ambassador and Swedish people, and from Helen Keller who was a fellow member of the I.W.W., and known around the world.
Above this post, in the blue line across Blue Jersey’s front page, are the words: Don’t mourn – Organize! In 2017, those words are meant to show solidarity and express hope for people crushed by the loss of Washington to a wholly unqualified president and a Congress that believes the role of government is to dismantle government. But the words really come from Joe Hill. Just before his execution, he sent a telegram to I.W.W. founder Bill Heywood: “Goodbye, Bill, I die like a true blue rebel. Don’t waste any time mourning. Organize!”
Joe Hill also kept up a letter correspondence with I.W.W.’s Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, the socialist union organizer and fellow Wobbly. She was also an advocate for birth control and women’s rights, who’d given her first public speech at age 15, What Socialism Will Do for Women. Hill had great faith in his fearless Irish American friend, and wrote her, “We’ve had girls before, but we need some more.” Joe Hill saw women’s leadership as the future, which means a great deal to me as I look around now. These are hard times now, and I see the work being done by my sisters. My union sisters, and community sisters. ‘Rebel Girls’ like Flynn was.
I am Rosalie Elizabeth Efthim. My middle name is for Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Joe Hill’s hero, and the woman my parents deeply admired. I’m named for her, though they couldn’t let my conservative Albanian immigrant grandparents know that – because by the time I came along, my father had already been blacklisted, and they were already worried. So, my grandparents were told I was named for Queen Elizabeth. This pleased them enormously.
I love men who cheer women and recognize their power and leadership. Like Joe Hill. Like my father. I’m really proud of my name, and wanted to write about it. And for all my relatives who still think it’s the British monarchy my parents were honoring, I’m sorry if this is a little shock. But really, if you ever spent 5 minutes with my parents, you really should have known …
“I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night, alive as you and me …”