Just before the falsely convicted labor troubadour Joe Hill was shot by a firing squad in Utah in 1915, he wrote to a friend that people should not mourn his death, but instead organize. The slogan “Don’t Mourn, Organize!” has been a labor rallying cry for almost a century now. Tonight is the first time I’ve understood that when Joe Hill wrote those lines, they meant something much deeper than a rallying cry.
Asking his friends and family not to waste one moment for their private griefs, asking them to instead pour all their energy into the struggle for justice, this was not a small request. It was a very big thing to ask of the tens of thousands who came to meet his body when it was brought to Chicago and the millions who had fought for his release from every corner of the globe. Working people lost someone they held dear, and they lost faith in a system they held dear. Surely, they deserved to mourn for these losses. Surely, it was too much to ask them not to mourn.
Troy Davis has just been executed by the state of Georgia. There was no physical evidence in the trial, he was convicted solely on the testimony of eye witnesses. Seven out of the nine witnesses have since recanted their testimony. One of the remaining witnesses later told friends that he was the actual killer, and new witnesses have come forward to verify that claim. A number of the jurors have testified that they would not have convicted him if they knew then what they know now. Even the former warden who oversaw previous executions pleaded for a stay of execution.
This case has earned the sympathy and outrage of millions across the globe. Last night there were vigils all over the country and all over the world to support Troy Davis. Hundreds of thousands of us have signed petitions, made calls, urged others to speak out. We have written letters and sent faxes. We have joined organizations and donated our money to try to save this man. And still Troy Davis is lying dead right now.
Like Joe Hill, Troy Davis has urged us to stay focused on the struggle, and on the fact that we are all Troy Davis. This fight to save one life is actually a fight for all of our lives. Until we end the death penalty, we are letting down each and every Troy Davis. We are letting down each other. And if we start to mourn, how will we ever stop? It feels crass to suggest that we immediately seize on the momentum we have built in our efforts to prevent this death. It feels too hard to say we shouldn’t take time to heal ourselves before gearing up to prevent the next death.
But “I am Troy Davis” is not just a rallying cry. “Don’t mourn, organize!” is not just a rallying cry. They give us difficult tasks, and rewarding ones. They are to be lived out in what we decide to do from this very moment forward.