Prefatory Comments

Prefatory Comment – Repressed Memory and Exploration

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Sacco e Vanzetti

In the 1970 movie that was titled Sacco and Vanzetti and was directed by Giuliano Montaldo, film footage of the actual demonstrations in America and throughout the world is used to show, poignantly, the anger and widespread dissent for the pending execution of both men. The sadness of the moment, plus the enduring sadness and fear of what is to follow from the imminent failure of the almost seven-year fight for the lives of Bartolomeo Vanzetti and Nicola Sacco, is captured in the tears and sadness of the people watching. They are quiet, subdued, and pained immigrants; workers at the Defense Committee headquarters; and humbled and disappointed people whose names are unknown and whose lives and the lives of those they loved would continue, now in a very different world.

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Ellis Island

A majority of those people who contributed to the Sacco and Vanzetti Defense Fund-often in nickels and dimes and quarters-were Italian immigrants from throughout the nation. Many led or participated in demonstrations. By 1927, Italians were the largest group of immigrants to enter America’s shore in the great migration at the turn of the 20th century. Even among those Italian immigrants who were indifferent to political ideologies was a firm belief that the two men were tried unfairly and executed simply because they were Italian.

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Professor Richard Gambino

Professor Richard Gambino wrote thoughtfully and insightfully in Blood of my Blood: The Dilemma of the Italian Americans (1974) that “the vicious anti-radical, anti-Italian case of Sacco and Vanzetti, an affair that rocked the world … for years overshadowed all other factors in determining the path of Italian Americans.” How Italian immigrants viewed the long fight, the lives of the families involved, the denigration of the witnesses who could not speak English, and the widely reported and fully sanctioned bigotry of the judge had subtle and powerful consequences. Gambino described one consequence this way: The Sacco and Vanzetti affair was “another confirmation of the ancient belief of the Italian immigrants that justice, a very important part of their value system, had little to do with the laws and institutions of the state.”

When viewed through the prism of the preceding decades of wanton discrimination and perverse hatred against immigrants, especially Italians (a hatred spawned by high elected officials as well as by nativist lynch mobs), the Sacco and Vanzetti affair yielded other, enduring consequences. The inhospitable decades also culminated in the full, visible, and raw exercise of judicial and political power that was intended to keep Italian immigrants in their place. Vanzetti and Sacco had been found guilty of committing murder; under the law of Massachusetts, they were executed, notoriously, for the world to see.

The unfettered discrimination affected how Italian immigrants were seen and evaluated by others in positions of power, from corporate officials to local schoolteachers. It affected as well how Italians saw themselves and their place in America; how they calculated the choices they would confront in raising their children; and how, during the time of the trial and execution and for many years to follow, they would divide among themselves over the rise of fascism in Italy and its embrace and legitimization by Americans such as J. P. Morgan Jr., John D. Rockefeller Jr., and Henry Luce.

The embrace of fascism and Benito Mussolini was a defining, perhaps an enduring, moment. Some Italian immigrants saw in fascism a means of seeking favor from those with power. For others, exhorting its authoritarian tenets and its endorsement of capitalism was a way of demonstrating loyalty to a value system espoused by an important part of American society. Such exhortation also was a way of separating themselves from other Italian immigrants who, holding tightly to the wrongdoing and inequities that defined the Sacco and Vanzetti affair, chose labor movements or progressive social movements or showed a cautious indifference to things political.

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Gaetano Salvemini

Awards and praise were given in the name of fascism to prominent corporate leaders and government officials, including such praise by the Catholic Church. Cardinal William H. O’Connell of Boston (who later denied a plea for help from Vanzetti’s religiously devout sister, Luigia) accepted, as Gaetano Salvemini described it, “a high Fascist decoration” in 1926. Cardinal O’Connell said that Mussolini was “given to Italy by God.”

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Clarence Darrow

A harsh tension and confrontation existed between those Italian Americans who registered or participated in fascist clubs and those-many of whom had supported Sacco and Vanzetti-who formed the Mazzini Society and antifascist organizations. Clarence Darrow rose to defend antifascist Italian Americans against government prosecution and deportation to Mussolini’s Italy. Darrow was moved, he said, by the “prejudice and passion” that led to the conviction of Sacco and Vanzetti. Choices also were made, however subdued in nature and expression, by those whose temperament or circumstance continued to require a cautious indifference to things political.

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Michael Angelo Musmanno
Photo credit: Image
courtesy of Michael
A. Musmanno Papers,
Duquesne University Archives
and Special Collections

Well into the mid-1990s when I began my research, I found little guidance or knowledge or willingness to discuss Sacco and Vanzetti from my peers, older Italian Americans, or even Italian American organizations. In fact, there was a disquieting lack of knowledge or of any seriously written work by Italian Americans about the cultural, social, literary, or political meaning of the lives of both men or the fight for their lives. Even the unique and courageous role engaged in by Michael Angelo Musmanno-first as a young lawyer in 1927 and later as a persistent, informed advocate for the innocence of Sacco and Vanzetti-was either mentioned rarely or credited uneasily.

Sacco and Vanzetti-who they were and what the fight for their lives was about-were defned by othrs.

For decades, the literature and popular image of Sacco and Vanzetti came largely from the left and from labor-oriented intellectuals and leaders. In an effort to explore the depth and horrific plight of the early labor movement in America, such literature reflected an important way-during and since the execution-to express the same concern that Sacco and Vanzetti had embraced about corporate exploitation (which was often with government support or acquiescence) of the poor and workers. In crafting this history, these writers and organizers made an effort to examine the “continuity” in the story-that is, to describe how and why the fight for the lives of both men continued to resonate for generations among the values embraced by the labor movement.

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Nicola, Rosina and Dante Sacco

To other writers, Sacco and Vanzetti were locked in time and place and were disconnected from a larger community. In Sacco and Vanzetti: The Anarchists Background (1991), Paul Avrich bootstrapped Sacco and Vanzetti with a literary backhoe into the violent proclivities of others who actually engaged in one strain of anarchist thought. Before their arrest in 1920, Avrich claims both men were “ultra-militants.” Neither, of course, had ever been accused, arrested, or convicted of a crime. Only Sacco had been arrested for his participation in supporting a strike. Neither man was the named object of an FBI investigation or of the broad, often indiscriminate, dragnet of the Palmer raids.

Avrich relied on little more than innuendo and supposition from others to accomplish his goal. He cited no hard, contemporaneous documents or any reliable, probative evidence or testimony that named Sacco or Vanzetti as having engaged in a violent act while they were free men. Avrich also relied on self-serving recollections and hearsay that had been provided sixty years after both men had died. He acknowledged that the “facts” to support his bold assertions about both men were “tentative” or reflected a “scarcity of reliable evidence” or yielded “no hard evidence.” None of those commonplace limitations were an impediment to his loose use of adjectives to characterize both men and the way they led their lives.

Confronted with powerful statements about the innocence and highly regarded character of Vanzetti and Sacco, Avrich comforted himself by wholly inverting the judicial standard about determining guilt. “More than seventy years after the trial,” Avrich wrote, “the case against them remains unproven. Nor, on the other hand, can their innocence be established beyond any shadow of a doubt” (Anarchist Voices: An Oral History of Anarchism in America, abridged ed., 1996).

Other writers followed the same course. Their work narrowed and, in important respects, distorted the intellectual and cultural meaning of Sacco and Vanzetti into a violent political stereotype. The socially beneficial principles and imperatives of anarchist thought and experience-which both men lived, advocated, and embraced-also were thrust asunder. Whatever else it accomplished or wrought in sensationalism or literature, such work made Sacco and Vanzetti and the fight for their lives less accessible to a broader community.

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“Brandies Denies Sacco’s Appeal.
“Joe,Ester,Nunziata,and Violet Natale
Photo credit: Natale family album
(Patricia Kleindienst)

As I came to learn, however, something far more problematic also was at play that muted the story among Italian Americans. Italian immigrants-largely in that first generation so revered by all of us (my grandparents and mother were among them)-began the process of repressing the story of Sacco and Vanzetti within families and with respect to the outside world. The reason for the relative lack of knowledge or independent writing I had witnessed was now becoming apparent.

The cost to many Italian immigrant families of their visibly embracing the unfairness and injustice of what had occurred to Sacco and Vanzetti was too harsh and arbitrarily imposed to be risked. For many seeking to avoid rejection or to gain opportunity or acceptance for their children, especially in educational, religious, or employment settings that they did not control, such caution appeared a modest cost to ensure security.

It was Gambino, writing unabashedly as an Italian American, who penetrated the time and place stereotype of Sacco and Vanzetti. He also began the slow and for some the uncomfortable process of relieving the need-however unwittingly perpetuated over time-for Italian Americans to repress the story and the exploration of its meaning.

My own modest intention has been to provoke a kind of colloquy, within myself and with others. That experience-in the form of writing, talks, and organizational efforts between 1996 and 2002-is described in brief prefatory notes. They place particular work into the context and forces that tempered its content and evolution.

From the outset, the intensity and breadth of the experience was enhanced by collaboration with others who recognized the need and value of exploration. Preeminent among them was author and historian, Dr. Philip Piccigallo, who also is the national executive director of the Sons of Italy in America.

At almost the same time, I asked my aunt, Rose Proto Sansone, if she recalled “the two Italians who were tried for….”

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Rose Sansone with brother
Matthew Proto (1923)

“Sacco and Vanzetti,” she said immediately. “They were innocent, you know. It was not right.” She was eleven years old at the time of the execution. She was now eighty. She had not spoken about the story or of its deep meaning to her and her parents, not even to her children.

Gambino’s sensitivities and form of scholarship also had antecedents that were helpful to my thinking. Such sensitivity and scholarship is apparent in either the humane way that the Yiddish paper The Forward approached the fight while both men were still alive or the way some artists-including Ben Shahn-sought to craft their works after the execution.

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In Justice Crucified (1977), Roberta Strauss Feuerlicht sought to understand and describe an integrative and enduring cultural meaning to the fight for Sacco’s and Vanzetti’s lives. Gambino, however, sought to examine the affair not just as history. He sought, I believed, to understand the nature and causes of the Italian American identity and to provide a cultural continuity with an earlier generation.

In The Legacy of Sacco and Vanzetti (1948), G. Louis Joughin and Edmund M. Morgan studied the art, music, literature, plays, movies, an poetry that were inspired by both men. It was an analysis that lingered and moved me. What was it in those two men and their fate that provoked such prolific and serious imagination? Could it still?

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Bartolomeo Vanzetti

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Abraham Lincoln

With specific respect to Vanzetti, Joughin and Morgan explored in depth “The Mind and Thought of Vanzetti.” They concluded, “It is Vanzetti’s mastery of the English sentence which unquestionably establishes his right among the creators of our literature.” To Upton Sinclair, Vanzetti’s words to a reporter within days of his execution were “the noblest words heard in America in two generations since Abraham Lincoln died.”

Such a comparison was made again, with irony and power,in James Thurber and Elliot Nugent’s play (and later the movie with Henry Fonda) titled The Male Animal (1941). Vanzetti’s words are coupled with Lincoln’s as examples of persuasive and moving words by nonprofessional writers.

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Dana Gioia

Dana Gioia-later appointed by President George W. Bush to lead the National Endowment for the Arts-wrote that Bartolomeo Vanzetti’s last speech to the court was “boldly reprinted” in Selden Rodman’s 1938 New Anthology of Modern Verse (New York: Random House). To Gioia, “Vanzetti’s proud words spoken in slightly awkward English sustain the pressure of transcription. Few poems by his Italian American contemporaries still read so well.”

Nicola Sacco’s letters to his daughter, Ines, and his son, Dante, have been in A Treasury of the World’s Great Letters (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1940).

In August 1997 in a talk before the Dante Alighieri Society Conference, I described the comparison of Vanzetti’s words to Lincoln’s words and said that I had “never read Sinclair’s judgment repeated by Italian Americans or others.” That failure raised, I said, “hard questions for me about how we pass on our heritage, especially our experience in America, and who does it.”

In informing me about my heritage and its antecedents, my reading and experience also separated me further from the organizations and cultural leaders who sought or claim to define the Italian American identity to others.

Muted or left unexplored as well was that both men and the women who fought for their lives embodied that strain of irreverence toward authority-whether toward government failure to fulfill its duty, or toward corporate exploitation of workers or neighborhoods, or toward the Catholic clergy’s abuse of its religious power-that emerges, sometimes quite visibly, in the Italian American character.

Southern Italian immigrants had brought to America an anticlerical disposition, which was only reinforced for many among them by their experience in America. It is a disposition that goes beyond their views about the church hierarchy, its conduct, and its pronouncements.

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Matthew and
Celeste Proto (1938)

Such irreverence also is evident within families and in seemingly small choices. My mother and father had died in 1991 and 1992. They never spoke about Sacco and Vanzetti to me or to my brother, Richard, or my sister, Diana. But like many parents in that generation, they conveyed with conviction the need to be persistent about what you wanted, insistent on fairness in the way you were treated, mindful about how others were treated, and respectful but not reverential about the way others exercised authority and power. Such an exercise of authority could be a cloak for discrimination or a broader form of unfairness or flat-out hypocrisy. It was what my grandparents and parents had learned in America. We learned it as well.

We also all found, in time, that among many other children in our generation, this last lesson is the most compelling and enduring in its consequence. It was especially evident in the decisions and conduct of people like Michael Angelo Musmanno in 1927.

Dana Gioia in his 1997 essay “What Is Italian American Poetry?” sought to identify the influences that affected “either overtly or subtly, the Italian American poetic imagination” of first- and second-generation Italian American writers. The first such influence, Gioia wrote,

is poverty… This bitter memory informs their views of America and themselves. Their original status as economic and social outsiders in America also colors their political views. It often makes them critical of established power. Anarchy appeals to the southern Italian worldview. Revolution and resistance also exercise a mythic charm. Early Italian poets were usually political radicals, though rarely loyal and obedient members of any party. More recently, several Italian American women-most notably Sandra Mortola Gilbert-are significant figures in the feminist movement. [emphasis added]

If Richard Gambino’s strain of thought and insight resonates among generations, there are solid antecedents for a confident, sustained, and visible emergence of this irreverent disposition toward authority.

As a lawyer, I began my research of the Sacco and Vanzetti affair with the multivolume transcripts of the trial, the appellate records, and the other original materials from the case that had eventually been made available to the public. The works presented here reflect that orientation and evolution, tempered throughout by Richard Gambino’s insight and by what remained unexplored.

Commentators such as Robert Montgomery (Sacco-Vanzetti: The Murder and the Myth, 1960) or Francis Russell (Tragedy in Dedham, 1962, and Sacco and Vanzetti: The Case Resolved, 1986) left gapping evidentiary holes in their analyses and were later revealed to have distorted facts and interviews to support their conclusions. Both seemed intent on relieving their respective communities of discomfort. The works of both writers also were wholly void of any meaningful recognition of prejudice, of judicial or prosecutorial unfairness, or of the enduring consequence of what had occurred.

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Dr. Frank M.
D’Alessandro, M.D.


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Professor David Kaiser

The writings-and, indeed, the remarkable courage and persistence over a lifetime-of Michael Angelo Musmanno, including After Twelve Years (1939), Verdict (1958), and portions of his eloquent factual and legal presentation before a committee of the Massachusetts legislature in 1959, provided solidly reasoned and supported factual analysis and conclusions about the law.

In that same context are the works of Herbert B. Ehrmann, including The Untried Case: Sacco and Vanzetti and the Morelli Gang (1934) and The Case That Will Not Die (1969), as well as the earlier work edited by Osmond K. Frankel of the New York Bar, The Sacco and Vanzetti Case (1931).

Of secial importance-because of their thoroughness and determination to seek facts in a manner that Clarence Darrow might have admired and respected-are the works of historian David E. Kaiser, Postmorem: New Evidence in the Case of Sacco and Vanzetti (1985) and Dr. Frank D’Alessandro’s The Verdict of History: Sacco and Vanzetti (2004 edition).

In the end, the innocence of both men has been more than adequately established.

Imaginative, thoughtful, and scholarly work concerning Sacco and Vanzetti has emerged since 2002. What remains unexplored fully is what the story continues to mean in the lives and choices of Italian Americans. The story also endures for many other people, however, for another and more imminent reason: what it says to immigrants entering this country who do not speak the language or whose complexion is dark or whose customs and traditions do not meld easily.