Italian-Americans Should Celebrate Sacco and Vanzetti Day
From Teen Vogue
Today is Indigenous Peoples Day, the holiday that celebrates the peoples and cultures who thrived before the arrival of Christopher Columbus, the murderous, enslaving explorer who is frequently (and many say incorrectly) credited as the first European to “discover” the Americas. While there is still a federal holiday called Columbus Day, in recent years, the day has been rightly supplanted by Indigenous Peoples Day in order to celebrate the people who already called the Americas home before Columbus's 1492 landfall.
Despite this, Columbus is still championed by many Italian-Americans eager to see themselves as part of the tapestry of U.S. history. But I think they’d be better served lionizing another set of controversial Italians: Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, a pair of immigrant anarchists who were executed after a controversial trial amidst a wave of anti-Italian, anti-immigrant sentiment in the early 20th century.
A 1927 article from The Atlantic written by Felix Frankfurter, who was later appointed to the Supreme Court by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1939, laid out how Sacco and Vanzetti’s case was mishandled. Accused of murdering two men during a 1920 payroll robbery, the duo’s imperfect grasp of the English language made their 1921 trial difficult; they reportedly misunderstood questions and their testimonies were hard to understand. Dozens of witnesses testified on both sides (some with accounts more dubious than others), alibis were presented, and questions were raised about police conduct.
At trial, Vanzetti implied that they had no idea they were arrested for murder or robbery charges and said instead their affiliations with the much-maligned anarchist movement seemed to be the issue, explaining why they may have seemed skittish to law enforcement. Vanzetti said in his testimony that he was asked by police “if I am a radical, if I am an anarchist or Communist, and ... if I believe in the government of the United States.”
According to Time, Sacco was a shoemaker and Vanzetti was a fish peddler, and the duo’s life as impoverished immigrants was what led them into anarchist organizing. During testimony at his trial, Sacco explained how coming to the U.S. as a working-class immigrant impacted his politics, saying that he had to work much harder in the United States to survive and had struggled to support his family. He lamented the imprisonment of socialist leader Eugene V. Debs, who he called “one of the great men of this country.”
“He wanted the laboring class to have better conditions and better living, more education,” Sacco said of Debs. “But they him in prison. Why? Because the capitalist class, they know, they are against that.”
Coupled with this class analysis was a devout pacifist streak in Sacco’s beliefs. Questioned over his refusal to participate in the American military during World War I, he said it was a “war for the great millionaire[s]” and questioned why he should fight on behalf of the capitalist class.
“I don't believe in no war. I want to destroy those guns,” Sacco said. “That is why I like people who want education and living, building, who is good, just as much as they could.”
Even these brief excerpts illustrate the courageous politics that landed the duo in hot water. Their beliefs are a model for progressive politics even today — no small feat for a couple of working-class immigrants caught up in a court case that saw their ideas on trial more than their deeds.
Sacco and Vanzetti’s trial was officially for murder charges, but the fact that their politics became central to it was no surprise as it came in the midst of a federal government crackdown on subversive activities. According to Frankfurter, the duo was already on a Department of Justice watchlist. The lawyers prosecuting the case against Sacco and Vanzetti highlighted their radical and pacifist politics at trial, playing to patriotism and general anti-radical sentiment.
Frankfurter summarizes the trial’s flaws, writing, “By systematic exploitation of the defendants' alien blood, their imperfect knowledge of English, their unpopular social views, and their opposition to the war, the District Attorney invoked against them a riot of political passion and patriotic sentiment; and the trial judge connived at — one had almost written, cooperated in — the process.”
Further, Frankfurter added, there was reason to believe “that the case against these Italians for murder was part of a collusive effort between the District Attorney and agents of the Department of Justice to rid the country of Sacco and Vanzetti because of their Red activities.”
Sacco and Vanzetti were found guilty in 1921, but their case took years to work through the courts. Even though, as Frankfurter points out, it was learned during that time that there was ample evidence an outlaw band known as the Morelli gang were the true culprits, it wasn’t enough to convince any judge that another trial was needed. As noted by Encyclopedia Britannica, the debate over whether or not one or both of them were guilty lingered after their executions, but there is a historical consensus that a second trial should have been granted.
Sacco and Vanzetti were executed by electric chair on August 23, 1927. It’s on this day — already celebrated as Sacco and Vanzetti Day since 1977 — that I recommend we celebrate the duo as victims of a state-sponsored campaign targeting immigrants with radical politics. In doing so, Italian-Americans can acknowledge how much has changed for them in the decades since anti-immigrant sentiment targeted them and celebrate solidarity not with a colonial monster, but with a couple of working-class stiffs who got a bum rap because of who they were and what they believed.
Sacco and Vanzetti arrived in the United States after leaving Italy in 1908, and the historical context of that timing matters. Starting around the close of the 19th century, millions of Italians moved to the United States.
While they were conferred with many of the privileges of whiteness, Italian immigrants in the United States were also met with a great deal of hostility for a number of reasons: their Catholic faith, their “swarthy” complexions, and, as the Library of Congress remembers, their perceived role in a larger nativist belief that immigrants from all around the world were stealing jobs. As a result, Catholic charities and churches were vandalized and burned and Italians were attacked by lynch mobs. In New Orleans in 1891, 11 Italians were killed in what some believe was the largest documented mass lynching in U.S. history.
In this history, Italians in the United States should see a touchpoint to learn how oppression operates in the country. But instead, the community has opted to celebrate a man who had an instrumental role in creating the colonial quagmire that the U.S. grew out of.
There’s little doubt about the true nature of Columbus at this point. Over 500 years after his fateful voyage across the ocean blue, we now know that the man known in his homeland as Cristoforo Colombo wrote about taking slaves the first day he landed in present-day Haiti, once kidnapped a woman so his crew could rape her, and inspired mass suicides of the Arawak tribes in what many consider a genocide. He is, in short, one of history’s greatest monsters.
All of this is enough to call into question how Columbus, who never set foot in the modern-day United States, even came to be honored by the U.S. government. As NPR broke down at length in 2013, Columbus’s canonization as an American hero was the work of Italian-American groups eager to demonstrate that anti-immigrant sentiment against Italians ran counter to the role Italians had played in American history.
Some Italian-Americans have been loath to give up Columbus as a figure of their contributions to American society, but he is not someone we should celebrate. Instead, I’d argue, any celebration of Italians' impacts on life in the U.S. should contend with the lessons historical anti-Italian sentiment has to teach us about the forces of oppression and power of assimilation.
Italian-Americans today should understand just how far we’ve come from being the targets of white supremacy to, in our community’s lionization of Columbus, celebrating it. By virtue of our whiteness, we have gained privileges in U.S. society that may never be available to today’s Latinx immigrants striving and surviving in the modern xenophobic moment, nor to the Indigenous peoples whose lands were stolen and very existence was threatened by the colonial forces Columbus helped spearhead. In honoring Sacco and Vanzetti instead, we can honor the communities still on the outside of privilege.