What do you think of when hear the words “Italian American”?
Tony Soprano? The Godfather? Mob Wives? Pizza and pasta? Baddabing.
Yes I know. These are the media stereotypes foisted upon us. Unfortunately too many think that is really who we are or all we have ever been.
“Despite their present conservative image, Italian Americans have a vibrant and rich radical past. Italian immigrants, for example, played a central role in the working-class struggle of the early twentieth century, providing both leadership and mass militancy in major strikes across the country—notably the Lawrence textile strikes of 1912 and 1919, the Paterson silk strike of 1913, the Mesabi Iron Range strikes of 1907 and 1916, and the New York City Harbor strikes of 1907 and 1919, as well as coal mining strikes. They also made important contributions to American labor unions, especially the revolutionary Industrial Workers of the World, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America.
Italian American radicalism died during the Second World War when America was at war with Italy sand Italians needed to demonstrate our loyalty. Joe Dimaggio’s father was no longer allowed to fish in San Francisco Bay and was forbidden to visit the city. He was an enemy alien.
Thousands of Italian Americans were forced to relocate during the early hysteria of the war years; they weren’t sent to camps like the Japanese but they were forced to leave their homes; but that’s for another post.
After the war came the anti-communist era and the war against leftists and those considered “Un-American”. And during this time came the election of the most leftist member ever to sit in the U.S House of Representatives – Vito Marcantonio.
He was born in 1902 in East Harlem at a time when East Harlem was populated by immigrant Italians and Puerto Ricans; a time when Italians were still WOP gangsters and Puerto Ricans were all knife wielding “spics”.
Marcantonio was a successful student and despite his poor background eventually managed to enter New York University While at law school. Marcantonio became involved in politics. In 1924 he joined Fiorello LaGuardia in supporting Robert Lafollette, who was the presidential candidate of the Progressive Party. Yes, once upon a time there was a Progressive Party.
During the 1920s Marcantonio was admitted to the New York Bar and served as a U.S District Attorney from 1931 – 32. He was instrumental in electing LaGuardia as Mayor of New York and was considered his political heir.
He was elected to Congress in 1934 where he represented East Harlem’s 20th District.
In Congress he argued against the policy of deporting people like Emma Goldman for their left-wing views: “I do not believe in the deportation of any man or woman because of the political principles that they hold. Irrespective of what a person advocates, he or she should not be molested, because our Government has been based upon the principles of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion and freedom of thought.”
Marcantonio was accused of being a secret supporter of the American Communist Party. He replied: “I disagree with the Communists. I emphatically do not agree with them, but they have a perfect right to speak out and to advocate communism. I maintain that the moment we deprive those with whom we extremely disagree of their right to freedom of speech, the next thing that will happen is that our own right of freedom of speech will be taken away from us.”
Marcantonio lost his seat in 1936 as a Democrat because of his left wing views but won it back as the candidate of the American Labor Party and held it for the next 12 years. A strong supporter of FDR and the New Deal, Marcantonio argued that the “unemployed are victims of an unjust economic and social system which has failed.”
A strong supporter of African-American civil rights he introduced anti-lynching and anti-poll tax bills as well as the annual fight for the Fair Employment Practices Commission’s appropriation. He served as de facto congressperson for Puerto Rico, insuring that it was not excluded from appropriations bills. He also submitted five bills calling for the independence of Puerto Rico which he called “the greatest victim of United States imperialism”.
Marcantonio was a fierce critic of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC) that was established in 1937. The main objective of the HUAC was the investigation of un-American and subversive activities. This included looking into “Communist infiltration” of the New Deal. In 1940 Marcantonio argued: “If communism is destroyed, I do not know what some of you will do. It has become the most convenient method by which you wrap yourselves in the American flag in order to cover up some of the greasy stains on the legislative toga.”
Thoroughly anti-war, Marcantonio was against United States involvement in the early stages of the WWII because he believed it was “a war between two axes, the Wall Street-Downing Street Axis versus the Rome-Tokyo-Berlin Axis, contending for empire and for exploitation of more and more people.” However, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor he played an active role in the American Committee for Russian War Relief.
New York State tried to redistrict him out of office in 1944 by cutting off some ethnic voters and adding more “white” voters but he carried his new district by over 66,000 votes. In 1946 the media did everything it could to smear and defeat him but he still won the district. As Sidney Shallet pointed out: “What matters to them is not whether Marcantonio is red, pink, black, blue or purple, but that he is ‘their’ Congressman a… tireless fighter for the man on the streets of East Harlem. He is willing to live in their slums, rub elbows with the best and the worst of them, work himself to the thin end of a frazzle for them. He spends his dough on them, takes up their battles against the landlords…. On occasions… the Congressman even has carried scuttles of coal personally to heatless tenements. Anyone who wants to see him… can do so.”
Marcantonio campaigned for equality in the armed forces. When another Congressmen argued against this move, Marcantonio pointed out: ” The doctrine that has been advanced here by the gentleman from Michigan is a doctrine of insult to the various races that compose this great nation. When he speaks of an inferior race, what is it? When he speaks of a superior race, what is it? Contemporary history has demonstrated conclusively that only Nazis, those who imposed on this world the most barbarian rule ever conceived by man or devil, were capable of talking of superior races or inferior races or of denouncing the intermingling of races.”
Marcantonio joined forces with Emmanuel Celler of New York to argue against formation of the Central Intelligence Agency. In July 1948 the General Secretary f the American Communist Party was arrested along with 11 others under the Alien Registration Act for ” advocating, abetting, or teaching the desirability of overthrowing the government”. Marcantonio came to their defense; during this period of McCarthyism it amountedto political suicide.
As one political commentator pointed out: “Marcantonio’s opposition in the 81st Congress to both major parties on such fundamental issues as foreign policy, labor relations and civil liberties had become so outstanding that extraordinary measures were taken to prevent his reelection. A three party coalition of the Democratic, Republican and Liberal parties, supported by every major newspaper in New York City, backed a single candidate against him.” The New York Times ran a series of editorials on three successive days urging his defeat. Even so, Marcantonio still won over 40% of the votes in the 18th congressional district.
After his defeat, Marcantonio still kept his two offices open in East Harlem so that those who needed his help could see him in person. He remained a strong opponent of McCarthy and the HUAC and served as legal counsel for W,E.B Dubois.
He opposed the Korean War; “Tragically, after 27 months of killing in Korea, with 119,000 American casualties, some of us accept the Korean conflict as we do the flowing of the Hudson River.”
In the 1952 Presidential Election Marcantonio supported Vincent Hallinen, the leader of the ProgressiveParty. “A vote for the Progressive Party in 1952… is a vote as valuable as that cast for the Liberty Party in 1840 against slavery, and for the Free Soil Party in 1848 and 1852 against extension of slavery. It is a vote similar to the one that made up the one million votes for Eugene V. Debs in 1920, which in turn led to the four million votes for LaFollette in 1924 and for victory for Roosevelt in 1932. Great causes were never won by sacrificing a real fight and substituting for it the seeming lesser evil.”
Vito Marcantonio, practiced law until his death of a heart attack climbing the steps out of the NYC subway on 9th August, 1954.
Probably the most left-wing person to ever hold a seat in Congress, over 20,000 people attended his funeral.
Italian American radicalism died with him. Today our most illustrious sons of Italy are the demi-fascists Scalia and Alito.