In November 1915, in a prison in the state of Utah, a firing squad executed a thirty-six-year-old Swedish-American immigrant. The man had been tried for and found guilty of committing murder during a robbery a little more than twenty-two months earlier. Now, over one hundred years after his death, it is still not certain if the man committed the crime for which he was executed.¹ His admirers and supporters, and their numbers are legion, firmly believe that he was framed, that he was guilty, not of murder, but of being a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), an international labor union, and a Labor activist for the IWW. The man, born Joel Emmanuel Hägglund in 1879 in Sweden, was known in America as Joe Hill.
In the 1930s, the British poet Alfred Hayes wrote a poem titled “I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night.” The poem was set to music by the American composer Earl Hawley Robinson. Many singers have recorded the song, including Pete Seeger and Joan Baez. My personal favorite is the version sung by Paul Robeson, himself not a stranger to controversy.
The song expresses the belief that a person’s dreams, his or her vision of a better world, for instance, can survive the death of the body. It also puts forward an idea about who, many believe, really killed Joe Hill.
“The copper bosses killed you, Joe.”
“They shot you, Joe,” says I.
“Takes more than guns to kill a man.”
Says Joe, “I didn’t die.”
Says Joe, “I didn’t die.”
I grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, in the turbulent, violent, 1960s. There I learned that dreaming could be dangerous, even deadly. Trying to turn a dream into reality might get you killed. The American Christian minister and civil rights activist, Martin Luther King, Jr., was a powerful dreamer. And he was murdered trying to bring about one of his dreams, the simple, beautiful, dream that “one day this nation [the United States] will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.'”
For those, like me, from Mississippi, there were other words in King’s “I Have a Dream” speech seared into our consciousness. “I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.” “Even the state of Mississippi,” mind you! I last visited Mississippi with my wife in the summer of 2015. There we saw many people, young and old, men and women, black and white, religious or not, working to make Dr. King’s dream a reality. His vision for Mississippi, we can attest, has not died.
Much of King’s symbolism and expressions are rooted, as one might expect for a Christian minister, in the Bible. In the portion of Genesis that Jews will read in the synagogue this coming Saturday, December 21, we learn about two dreams and their baleful effects on that master-dreamer, Joseph, son of Jacob. Jacob sends Joseph to check on his brothers, who are pasturing their father’s flock in Shechem. With some help from a mysterious stranger, he finds them. From a distance, his brothers see Joseph coming. Here’s Robert Alter’s description of Joseph’s approach in his translation, The Five Books of Moses.
“Here comes that dream-master! And so now, let us kill him and fling him into one of the pits and we can say, a vicious beast has devoured him, and we shall see what will come of his dreams.”Alter, Robert. Gen. 37:19-20. The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary. W. W. Norton & Company.
As did those who killed Hill and King, Joseph’s brothers believe that the death of the dreamer will kill the dream. Robert Alter has a note on the phrase “let us kill him and fling him into one of the pits.” He says, “The flinging after the killing underscores the naked brutality of the brothers’ intentions. The denial of proper burial was among the Hebrews as among the Greeks deeply felt as an atrocity.” [Alter, ibid.]
Joe Hill and Martin Luther King were murdered by the hands of strangers. In the Biblical story, however, the dreamer is to be killed by his brothers, by his kin, by those who should care for him more than anyone else does. Things don’t turn out, of course, precisely as the brothers plan them. But then neither did the deaths of Joe Hill and Martin Luther King, Jr.
May evil always be transmogrified into good. Well, that’s my dream anyway.
All the best,
¹For compelling evidence concerning Hill’s innocence, see the book The Man Who Never Died: The Life, Times, and Legacy of Joe Hill, American Labor Icon, by William M. Adler, Publisher: Bloomsbury USA (August 21, 2012).