The Legacy of Sacco and Vanzetti: Eighty Years After


Mr. Briley is Assistant Headmaster, Sandia Preparatory School.

T. S. Elliott once described April as the cruelest month. Perhaps he should have considered August. Recent weeks have witnessed observations marking the sixty-second anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Yet, the eightieth anniversary of the executions of Sacco and Vanzetti on August 23, 1927 is drawing less attention. Of course, we are talking about the lives of two men as opposed to thousands. But just as with the atomic bomb, the deaths of Sacco and Vanzetti force us to confront challenging questions about the American past and future.

On April 15, 1920, the robbery of a shoe factory payroll in South Braintree, Massachusetts resulted in the murders of a paymaster and security guard. Massachusetts authorities charged Italian immigrants Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti with the crime. In addition, to their status as immigrants, Sacco and Vanzetti were followers of the Italian anarchist Luigi Galleani, who was suspected by the American government of involvement in the bombing of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer’s home. Galleani was deported in June 1919, while Galleanist Andrea Salcedo died in May 1920 while in FBI custody. Thus, the Sacco and Vanzetti case must be understood within the context of the post World War I Red Scare.

Following the Bolshevik Revolution, there was widespread fear that revolutionary unrest would sweep across Europe and threaten the United States. This climate of fear was also an opportune time for the government to undermine leftist organizations such as the Socialist Party and Industrial Workers of the World, who enjoyed considerable support before the First World War. Citing threats to stability, the Justice Department instituted deportations and arrests of so-called radicals.

Allied with these fears of disorder and revolution were concerns regarding the rising tide of immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe. Critics of the new immigration maintained that those entering the United States from nations such as Italy lacked an appreciation for Nordic democratic traditions and would drive wages down with their low standard of living. Typical of this attitude was a 1922 piece for the Saturday Evening Post by novelist Kenneth Roberts, complaining that it is demoralizing “when great numbers of men, accustomed all their lives to living on starvation rations, come to American and take jobs at low wages and then, in their determination to save money, crowd into wretched quarters and live in squalor and filth and darkness on the fraction of the money which an American workingmen must spend in order to live decently. Such a proceeding lowers the standard of living in America.”

This is the milieu in which Sacco and Vanzetti were tried for murder. Although the two immigrants proclaimed their innocence, much of the case focused upon the anarchist and antiwar beliefs of the two defendants captured by presiding Judge Webster Thayer’s reported comment that he was going “to fry those anarchist bastards.” The evidence against Sacco and Vanzetti was flimsy at best, and many observers of the trial perceived the convictions as evidence of prejudice against anarchism and the new immigration. Appeals from intellectuals in the United States and around the world, as well as global protests by workers, failed to halt the executions.

On the fiftieth anniversary of their deaths, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, citing the prejudicial atmosphere in which the trial was conducted, signed legislation exonerating Sacco and Vanzetti. In the conclusion of his proclamation, Dukakis called upon the citizens of Massachusetts to “pause in their daily endeavors to reflect upon these tragic events, and draw from their historic lessons the resolve to prevent the forces of intolerance, fear, and hatred from ever again uniting to overcome the rationality, wisdom, and fairness to which our legal system aspires.”

This proclamation, unfortunately, resonates all too well with the climate of intolerance in contemporary America as concerns about security are employed to justify opposition to immigration from Mexico. Fear of the immigrant other may now be cloaked under the guise of national security. We must protect our border in order to prevent another 9/11 terrorist attack. Immigration reform is now perceived as being soft on terrorism, even though there is no evidence of a terrorist attack emanating from Mexico. In fact, terrorist plots aimed at the United States have been uncovered in Canada, not Mexico. Yet, it is the Mexican, not the Canadian, who draws the ire of those supporting greater immigration restrictions. Anti-immigrant attitudes coupled with anti-radicalism promote an environment of xenophobia which cost Sacco and Vanzetti their lives and endanger our civil liberties today.

Folksinger Woody Guthrie recognized this connection, and in 1947 during the Second Red Scare he compiled a collection of eleven songs entitled Ballads of Sacco and Vanzetti. Recognizing that with his rural origins in Oklahoma and Texas, some might find Guthrie an odd choice to write the story of two Italian anarchists residing on the East Coast, Guthrie sought to build a union bridge between Oklahoma and Italy. Guthrie wrote a journal entry dedicated to Sacco and Vanzetti in which he stated, “You are Italian and I am from Oklahoma, but I have left out from Oklahoma to do some bigger jobs, just like you left your native house and home back in Italy.” Guthrie perceived his migrants from Oklahoma as similar to the immigrants from Italy who were forced to leave their homes and seek a new promised land. Guthrie concluded, “I saw the same vision that you did and all of us dust bowl families saw your same vision. It is the one big union we all saw. It shines just as bright over your Italy as over the prairies and the flatlands of my dust bowl.” As Peter La Chapelle suggests in his account of the “Okie” migration to Southern California, Guthrie’s genius was to use the concept of refugee to “form a symbolic alliance” between migrants from the Southern Plains and immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe.

While Guthrie found the legacy of Sacco and Vanzetti relevant to the 1930s Dust Bowl migration as well as the post World War II Red Scare, filmmaker Peter Cooper’s 2007 documentary Sacco and Vanzetti makes the argument for the case’s contemporary relevance. The director maintains, “The case clearly has urgent lessons to offer American nearly eighty years after its tragic conclusion. As in the ‘red scare’ of Sacco and Vanzetti’s time, present-day Americans have allowed fear and jingoism to erode our civil liberties, scapegoat immigrants, and compromise our judicial system.” Thus, the filmmaker perceives disturbing parallels between the fates of Sacco and Vanzetti and contemporary issues regarding immigration restriction and limitations placed upon civil liberties in the wake the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

In a recent piece for the Journal of American History, Lisa McGirr concludes that the story of Sacco and Vanzetti will continue to resonate with a global community frustrated by the gap between the rhetoric of the United States as a beacon for liberty and the reality of inequality and injustice in the land of the free and home of the brave. Eighty years ago Sacco and Vanzetti provided human faces for the persecution endured by so many faceless immigrants over the course of American history. To honor the legacy and sacrifice of Sacco and Vanzetti, let us rededicate ourselves to the promise of American life as a home for immigrants and as a model for freedom of expression. Perhaps August does not have to be the cruelest month.

Related Links

  • Bruce Watson: The case was called a 'never ending wrong.' It still inspires wrong-headedness.

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    More Comments:

    Bruce Watson - 10/2/2007

    I suppose it's too much these days to ask people to actually READ a book before they comment on it. Yet some things never change.

    In 2007, as in 1927, people are still eager to condemn Sacco and Vanzetti based on personal politics rather than consider the evidence which I clearly laid out -- without comment on guilt or innocence -- in my book "Sacco and Vanzetti: The Men, The Murders, and The Judgment of Mankind."

    Why, I wonder, must kneejerk leftists shout "innocent," and kneejerk conservatives shout "guilty," both basing their hasty verdicts on single facts culled from single articles on the case publsihed in newspapers of their own political persuasion? Have we learned nothing from the case?

    -- Bruce Watson

    Serge Lelouche - 8/24/2007

    Jason Blake Keuter - 8/24/2007

    The judge in the Sacco and Vanzetti case was clearly a bigot and the judicial proceedings not legitimate, but the Sacco and Vanzetti case is used by the left as if it is somehow represntative of something, and in this post, it appears to be representative of a government exploiting a climate of fear in order to go after socialists. The presumption underlyinig this statement is that the government harbors an anti-socialist agenda (i.e. it's the tool of capitalists) and is lying in wait for the opportune time to pounce. The opportune time is when the masses are in the stir of some kind of irrational paranoia that operates against their own interests. Hence the climate of fear.

    Thus, the people are irrational (drummed into this hysterical state by a government anxious to successfully implement its shameful handmaiden of industrialists agenda) while the government is entirely rational and manipulative.

    But Sacco and Vanzetti cannot be taken to be representative of the immigrant experience, nor can the government be considered to be opportunistic. The socialists it was going after were entirelty hostile to the government; but what that really means is they were hostile to the people who elected it.

    The real problem with this leftist tripe is its insistence that capitalism and democracy are incompatible. Socialism is an anti-democratic and anti-liberal doctrine that rejects anything other than a socialist outcome as a perversion of democracy.

    As for the "faceless suffering immigrants", the dominant and overwhelmingly obvious reality of thier historical experience rest in the incredible gains they made socially, economically and culturally.

    Oscar Chamberlain - 8/22/2007

    Actually I gather that Sacco was clearly guilty but Vanzetti was probably innocent. In any event, a legal lynching is wrong, even if the defendants are guilty.

    Despite that, your complaint is valid. This article should have addressed the question of guilt. As noted here that has been at the center of much of the recent examination of the case.

    To not address the question of guilt invites a peremptory dismissal of the article. That's too bad, as the author raises some good points.

    Serge Lelouche - 8/20/2007

    Ron reminds of a lot of hs teachers, the bad kind anyway. He learned everything he needed to know in 1968, and he's hardly revised his lecture notes since (except to say how Abu Ghraib is just like Auschwitz). . .

    C. Van Carter - 8/20/2007

    Sacco was certainly guilty. Vanzetti may not have been, but in order to maintain solidarity with the cause, he and his fellow radicals chose not to take the steps necessary to clear him.

    It's dishonest, or sheer ignorance, to refer to Luigi Galleani and his followers as a "so-called" radicals. They were radicals. Galleani, a Communist and anarchist, advocated the violent overthrow of the government, he published a bomb making manual. His followers were responsible for various bombings and a mass poisoning. His deportation was deserved.

    As for Woody Guthrie, the connection he recognized was that the Comintern had made the Sacco and Vanzetti a cause célèbre.

    Serge Lelouche - 8/19/2007

    Wow, an entire article on this very interesting topic that fails to address any of the evidence that has come forward in the past few years! I know the author has a polemic to make about how America is baaaad, but how about some facts?
    For those interested, both the NY Times and NPR had very interesting reassessments. Looks like the guys did it after all . .