My life cannot claim the dignity of an autobiography. Nameless, in the crowd of nameless ones, I have merely caught and reflected a little of the light from that dynamic thought or ideal which is drawing humanity towards better destinies.
The 23rd of August of this year marks the 90th anniversary of the executions of the anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti for crimes that they did not commit; for the crime of being anarchists, of desiring the end of the oppression of State-Capital.
If their story is well known to some, it is unknown to most. And if we remember this day, it is not in mourning, but in indignation at the violence of the State, of yesterday and today, and more significantly, to recall and keep alive the memory of their lives, of what it can mean to live freely.
Revolutions, revolutionaries, never die; they erupt forth through the fissures of history whenever there are those who take their lives into their hands.
What follows are testimonials, histories, reflections and the words of Vanzetti …
1916-1927: The execution of Sacco and Vanzetti
The story of two Italian-born anarchists, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, framed for murder and then executed for their beliefs.
“Did you see what I did to those anarchist bastards?”
– Presiding Judge Webster Thayer
Sacco and Vanzetti (see picture, left) were committed anarchists who had been active in many workers’ struggles. In 1916, Sacco was arrested for taking part in a demonstration in solidarity with workers on strike in Minnesota. In the same year he took part in a strike in a factory in Plymouth, Massachusetts. It was here that he met Bartolomeo Vanzetti, who was one of the principal organisers of that strike. Like most anarchists, the two were also active in their opposition to the First World War.
Severe poverty in the post-war years meant that many workers were dissatisfied with the status quo. The authorities were terrified that workers might follow the example of the Russian Revolution, and were doing everything in their power to portray communism and anarchism as ‘un-American’, and to frighten workers way from ‘red’ propaganda.
In April 1920, anarchist Andrea Salsedo was arrested and detained for 8 weeks. On the morning of May 3rd, he ‘fell’ to his death from the 14th floor window of a New York Dept. of Justice building. Sacco and Vanzetti, along with other comrades, immediately called a public meeting in Boston to protest. While out building support for this meeting they were arrested on suspicion of “dangerous radical activities”. They soon found themselves charged with a payroll robbery which had taken place the previous April in which 2 security guards had been killed.
The case came to trial in June 1921, and lasted for seven weeks. The state’s case against the two was almost non-existent. Twelve of Vanzetti’s customers (he was working as a fish seller) testified that he was delivering fish to them at the time of the crime. An official of the Italian Consulate in Boston testified that Sacco had been seeing him about a passport at the time. Furthermore, somebody else confessed to the crime and said that neither Sacco nor Vanzetti had anything to do with it.
The judge in the case, Judge Webster Thayer, said of Vanzetti: “This man, although he may not have actually committed the crime attributed to him, is nevertheless morally culpable, because he is the enemy of our existing institutions.” The foreman of the jury, a retired policeman, said in response to a friend of his who ventured the opinion that Sacco and Vanzetti might be innocent “Damn them. They ought to hang anyway.”
Having sentenced the two men to death, the judge boasted to a friend “Did you see what I did to those anarchist bastards the other day”
There was no doubt about the fact that Sacco and Vanzetti were on trial for their political beliefs and that the verdict when it came was a class verdict – the state was delivering a clear message to the US working class – steer well clear of anarchist thought or face the consequences.
Sacco and Vanzetti were to spend the next six years in prison as appeal after appeal was turned down. Finally, on August 23rd 1927, they were executed.
News of the executions sent hundreds of thousands of protestors into the streets all across the world. The US embassy in Paris had to be surrounded by tanks to protect it from an angry crowd of protestors, a riot in London resulted in 40 injuries, the US Consulate in Geneva was surrounded by a 5,000 strong crowd, huge crowds wearing black armbands marched in Boston and New York.
Shortly before he was executed, Vanzetti said, “The last moment belongs to us – that agony is our triumph!” It is in remembering the moment of their deaths, and in continuing to fight for their vision of a new, fair society that we honour these men.
To commemorate the executions and to renew the commitment to the ideals they fought for, anarchists and labour activists in New York and around the world often hold commemorative events on 23rd August each year.
Written by Workers’ Solidarity Movement
Sacco and Vanzetti Put to Death Early This Morning
A New York Times article dated 23 August, 1927 on the execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Venzetti .
Walk to Death Calmly
Sacco Cries ‘Long Live Anarchy’; Vanzetti Insists on His Innocence
Warden Can Only Whisper
Much Affected as the Long-Delayed Execution Is Carried Out
Madeiros First to Die
Machine Guns Bristle, Search Lights Glare During Execution — Crowds Kept Far From Prison
From a Staff Correspondent of THE NEW YORK TIMES
Charlestown State Prison, Mass., Tuesday, Aug. 23 — Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti died in the electric chair early this morning, carrying out the sentence imposed on them for the South Braintree murders of April 15, 1920.
Sacco marched to the death chair at 12:11 and was pronounced lifeless at 12:19.
Vanzetti entered the execution room at 12:20 and was declared dead at 12:26.
To the last they protested their innocence, and the efforts of many who believed them guiltless proved futile, although they fought a legal and extra legal battle unprecedented in the history of American jurisprudence.
With them died Celestino f. Madeiros, the young Portuguese, who won seven respites when he “confessed” that he was present at the time of the South Braintree murder and that Sacco and Vanzetti were not with him. He died for the murder of a bank cashier.
Defense Works as They Die
The six years of legal battle on behalf of the condemned men was still on as they were walking to the chair and after the current had been applied, for a lawyer was on the way by airplane to ask Federal Judge George W. Anderson in Williamstown for a writ of habeas corpus.
The men walked to the chair without company of clergy, father Michael Murphy, prison chaplain, waited until a minute before twelve and then left the prison.
Sacco cried, “Long live anarchy,” as the prison guards strapped him into the chair and applied the electrodes. He added a plea that his family be cared for.
Vanzetti at the last made a short address, declaring his innocence.
Madeiros walked to the chair in a semi-stupor caused by overeating. He shrugged his shoulders and made no farewell statement.
Warden William Hendry was almost overcome by the execution of the men, especially that of Vanzetti, who shook his hand warmly and thanked him for all his kindness.
The Warden was barely able to pronounce above a whisper the solemn formula required by law:
“Under the law I now pronounce you dead, the sentence of the court having been legally carried out.”
The words were not heard by the official witnesses.
After Governor Fuller had informed counsel for the two condemned radicals that he could take no action, their attorney, Michael A. Musmanno, made a dash to the prison in an automobile and tried to make another call on Sacco and Vanzetti, but Warden Hendry refused, as the legal witnesses were just about to pass into the execution chamber.
The Witnesses Gather
The witnesses gathered in the Warden’s office an hour before midnight. They were instructed as to the part they would take.
W. E. Playfair of the Associated Press was the only reporter permitted to attend the execution, as the State law designated one representative of the press as a witness. The assignment was handed to him six years ago after Sacco and Vanzetti had been convicted in Dedham for the murder of William Parmenter and Alexander Berardelli.
At 11:38 all but the official witnesses were asked to leave the Warden’s office. Led by Warden Hendry the official witnesses walked toward the rotunda of the prison. He rapped three times on the inner door. A key grated in the lock. Just then Mr. Musmanno dashed in breathlessly.
“Please, Warden,” he said, touching Mr. Hendry on the arm. “A last request.”
His voice was faint and broken.
“No, no,” the Warden said, sternly, slightly unnerved at the last-minute interruption. Mr. Musmanno turned away, weeping. He had refused to accept as a farewell gift a book from Vanzetti because he felt that the men would be saved.
“I only tried to see them the last time and he refused me,” said Musmanno through tears.
The witnesses walked through the prison and entered the death house with the Warden. They took their places and then Madeiros was escorted into the chamber. He walked without support, attended by two guards, one at each side. He was strapped in the chair at 12:03 and at 12:09 he was pronounced dead.
He was officially pronounced dead by Dr. George Burgess MacGrath, Medical Examiner of Norfolk County, and Dr. Howard A. Lothrop, Surgeon-in-Chief of the Boston City Hospital. Stethoscopes were also applied to Madeiros’s chest by Dr. Joseph J. MacLaughlin, the prison physician, and Colonel Frank P. Williams, Surgeon-General of the Massachusetts National Guard. The same procedure was followed in the case of Sacco and Vanzetti.
Sacco, whose cell was next to that of Madeiros, was the next. A guard opened his door. Sacco was ready. His face was pale from his long confinement. Without a word he took his place between the guards. Walking slowly but steadily, he traversed the seventeen steps into the death chamber. He required no support and sat down in the chair. As the guards were finishing their work Sacco cried out in Italian:
“Long live anarchy.”
In English he shouted: “Farewell, my wife and child, and all my friends!”
He has two children, Dante, 14, and Inez, 6, but his difficulty in speaking English and the excitement of the occasion were responsible for the slip.
“Good evening, gentlemen,” he said, jerkily. Then came his last words: “Farewell, mother.”
Warden Hendry waited until Sacco apparently was satisfied that there was no more to say. Then he gave the signal. Sacco was pronounced dead at 12:19:02.
Vanzetti’s cell door was opened. He, too, was calm. He shook hands with the two guards and kept step with them. He had four more steps to the death chair than Sacco. On entering the chamber he spoke to the Warden, shaking his hand and saying:
“I want to thank you for everything you have done for me, Warden.”
Vanzetti spoke in English. His voice was calm throughout. There was not the slightest tremor or quaver.
Then, addressing the witnesses, he said:
“I wish to tell you that I am innocent, and that I never committed any crime but sometimes some sin.”
They were almost the same words he addressed to Judge Webster Thayer in the Dedham courtroom last April when he was sentenced to die during the week of April 10, the sentence having been deferred because the Governor’s advisory committee was working in the case.
“I thank you for everything you have done for me,” he went on calmly and slowly. “I am innocent of all crime, not only of this, but all. I am an innocent man.”
Then he spoke his last words:
“I wish to forgive some people for what they are now doing to me.”
Vanzetti stepped into the chamber at 12:20:30. At 12:26:55 he was declared dead.
Warden Broke News to Them
Before midnight Warden Hendry told reporters how he broke the news to Sacco and Vanzetti.
“I simply told them that it was my painful duty to convey to them the information that they were to die shortly after midnight,” he said. “I told them that their lawyers had informed me that they had done all they could and failed.”
Father Michael J. Murphy, Prison Chaplain, again offered the men his services, but they refused his offer of the last rites. Earlier in the day, the Chaplain visited the men, and on coming from the death house said:
“I offered them consolation of religion, but all three preferred to die as they had lived, outside the pale. They can call on me at any time before the execution, and I will hear their confessions and give them communion.”
Warden Hendry received two telegrams, one addressed to himself, which he did not make public, and another addressed to Sacco. After reading the Sacco telegram, the Warden refused to make known its contents to the prisoner, explaining that he did not know the writer.
The telegram read:
“Take heart, men. It is justice that dies. Sacco and Vanzetti will live in history.” It was signed Epstein and sent from New York.
The police, despite their elaborate precautions, had a surprise about an hour before midnight, when it was discovered that some one had penetrated the lines thrown around the prison for blocks and made his way to the very entrance of the Warden’s office, where he had passed an envelope to one of the regular guards and strolled off.
The envelope contained a two-page letter, the contents of which the Warden withheld. An investigation was begun at once to learn how the mysterious messenger had gained entrance to the guarded area.
The first of the legal witnesses to arrive at the prison were Dr. Joseph I. McLaughlin, the prison physician, and Dr. Edward A. Lathrop, a surgeon of the Boston City Hospital. They reached the prison at 9:40 P.M.
Electricians Test Chair
Warden Hendry at 9 P. M. made his second visit to the death house. He informed newspaper men on his return to his office that he had found the trio resigned to their fate. Sacco requested him to have his body sent to his home in Italy. The Warden declared that they showed no change regarding their religious viewpoint and entertained the belief that they would go to the chair without spiritual aid.
At 10 P.M. Granville Greenough, chief electrician, and John Mullaney, assistant electrician made a final test of the electric chair and found it to be in good working order.
Police Break Up Crowds
Superintendent Crowley’s men broke up a meeting of nearly 500 Italians in Salem Street, in the North End, as midnight approached. They threatened to hold a demonstration in front of the Bunker Hill Monument, and also threatened to hold a protest meeting before the State House and on the Common.
Mounted policemen charged a crowd of several thousand that gathered just outside the roped-off area surrounding the jail at the hour of execution. Two hundred Sacco and Vanzetti sympathizers had congregated in Thompson Square to join a parade out to Bunker Hill. Police men afoot were unable to control the excited crowd. The charge of the mounted police drove men, women and children back in a wave. Several persons were crushed. Two women were arrested, charge with sauntering and loitering.
More than 1,000 cars were blocked in a traffic jam along Main Street, obstructing the passage of pedestrians and police. The street became a tangled mass of automobiles and other vehicles. There was a terrific din as policemen shouted orders, the iron-shod hoofs of their mounts clattered over pavements and hundreds of automobilists sounded their sirens continuously.
Charlestown prison was armed and garrisoned as if to withstand a siege. Machine guns, gas and tear bombs, not to mention pistols and riot guns, constituted the armament and to man it were 500 patrolmen, detectives and State constables besides the usual prison guard.
They took their posts at 7 o’clock, cutting off Rutheford Avenue and other streets approaching the long, gloomy brick walls of the prison. No one was allowed to pass either on foot or in vehicles unless on official business.
A truck filled with State police jangled and clanged along the cobblestones and into the glare of light, about the entrance to the prison. Forty mounted policemen clamped over the Prison Point Bridge. All reported to Captain Goff, then deployed down streets and alleys.
Barricade Prison Entrance
The south and west walls of the death house and cell blocks facing on the Boston & Maine Railroad yards were lined with machine guns and searchlights in clusters of three at twenty-yard intervals. The powerful lights flooded the railroad yards in a brilliant glare that accentuated the pitchy blackness of shadows. Across the tracks marine patrol boats could be seen moving slowly up and down the river in the region of the prison. Each of the police vessels was equipped with flares and searchlights that played along the gloomy prison walls.
From the comparative gloom of the cement walk along the siding came the click, click of horses hoofs as mounted patrolmen rode up and down. A prison entrance facing on the railroad yards was heavily barricaded with ladders, doors and other lumber. At 11 P. M. searchlights installed by the police on the roof of the State House were turned on. Their brilliant rays were kept sweeping up and down the adjacent streets. Twenty policemen armed with riot guns were stationed at intervals between the searchlights. It was the first time in Massachusetts’s history that such a scene had been enacted.
Chapman Street, Austin Street, Miller Street, as well as Rutherford Avenue were completely cut off as far as automobile or pedestrian traffic was concerned, but those living in houses in the district, warned by the police not to leave them, leaned out of windows. On other houses occasional sweeps of searchlights revealed entire families, including babies in arms, perched on roof tops.
In Main Street, the street nearest the prison on which traffic was permitted, a throng circulated. At a late hour adherents of Sacco and Vanzetti were not in evidence. Most of the men and women chattered excitedly, but without attempting to make any sort of demonstration. Rather, they were merely curious and interested in the display of martial power. Passengers of elevated trains crowded to windows on the side near the prison. Some who tried to alight were urged not to by the police.
All Streets Are Cut Off
All streets leading toward the sprawling collection of steel barred brick and cement buildings were closed off at 8 P. M. and no one could get within blocks of the entrance. Police stood in little knots. Inside the area of restriction was an entire platoon of mounted policemen, their horses stamping restlessly in the yellow glare of street, lights. For the first time in the records of the police department, roll call was taken on post instead of in station houses.
Persons living within the restricted area were kept as closely to their houses as during an air raid. When they ventured to their doors they were told to stay inside unless their business was extremely urgent and were warned that they might have difficulty getting back. Gasoline filling stations and small shops were ordered to close and stay closed until tomorrow.
Captain N. J. Goff of the Charlsestown Station was in charge of police arrangements at the prison. All Boston police, State Constabulary and special detectives assigned to duty there reported to him for instructions. Despite the elaborate police precautions, windows of the officers room of the prison, which was given over to newspaper men, were nailed down and blinds drawn as a precaution in case some one should “try to throw something in,” according to Captain Goss.
A weird and martial picture was presented when motion picture photographers held aloft flaming calcium torches, lighting up a passing detail of mounted State police with a ghastly flicker and silhouetting their silent figures against the grim gray of the prison walls.
Last Visit to the Men
Mrs. Rose Sacco and Miss Luigia Vanzetti called three times at the death house during the day. Their last visit was at 7 o’clock in the evening, when they remained five minutes and departed weeping. Gardiner Jackson and Aldini Felicani of the Defense Committee, who accompanied the women, arranged with Warden Hendry for the transfer of the bodies to the relatives.
Mrs. Consuelo Aruda of New Bedford, sister of Madeiros, was the first of the relations of the condemned men to go to the prison. Madeiros was worried because his mother did not visit him Sunday. His sister told him that his mother had had a breakdown and could not come to Boston. Madeiros was much affected by the news of his mother’s condition. The two spoke for an hour in Portuguese and the young woman left in tears with a last message for her mother.
Mrs. Sacco and Miss Vanzetti arrived at the prison for the first time in the day at 11 A. M. Dr. Joseph I. McLaughlin, the prison physician was in the death house at the time and Vanzetti introduced his sister to him. The two women were downcast. They pressed their faces close to the heavily barred cell doors under the eyes of the guards.
An hour passed and the interview ended with tearful farewells. Farewell embraces were not permitted. There were handclasps and faces were pressed to the cell doors. The bars are an inch thick and an inch apart and heavily meshed.
Madeiros at noon seemed quite and smoked many cigarettes. Vanzetti worked on a letter to his father. Sacco paced up and down his cell. But when Michael A. Musmanno of defense counsel called on Sacco and Vanzetti at 2:30 P. M. he found them depressed and ready for death. They depressed and ready for death. They told him they were convinced that no power on earth would save them. Sacco begged to see his wife again. Vanzetti regretted that his sister had come from Italy to be with him in his last moments of agony. He was sorry that her last memories of him would be clouded with knowledge of the gray prison, the death cell and the electric chair.
At 3:10 P. M. the two women returned to the death house in an automobile driven by Miss Edith Jackson of New Haven. Mrs. Sacco, who has always presented a tearless and composed face to the public, wept for the first time as she approached the gate. Miss Vanzetti’s arm supported her as the two passed into the death house for the second time in the day. They greeted the men again through the wire mesh and remained an hour. Sacco spoke of his children and Vanzetti of his old home in Italy. The women remained an hour and they were weeping when they stepped into the automobile.
Joseph F. Linharen, a lawyer, of Somerville, called at the prison on behalf of Madeiros and asked permission to see him. The warden refused, after calling up the State House on the telephone.
Thompson Calls on Men
William G. Thompson, former counsel for Sacco and Vanzetti, called on them late in the day. Mr. Thompson had returned from the Summer home at South Tamworth, N. H., at the request of Vanzetti and visited both men at the death house. He spent nearly an hour there. Then he left he said that Sacco and Vanzetti had reasserted that they were absolutely innocent of the South Braintree murders. He declared also that there was no truth in the report that he had been offered an opportunity to inspect the files of the Department of Justice and had refused.
The conversation with Vanzetti, said Mr. Thompson, was partly on the man’s political and philosophical beliefs. He declined to discuss the report of Governor Fuller or that of the Advisory Committee other than to say that, having read both documents with care, he found nothing in them which altered his opinion “that these two men are innocent and that their trial was in a very real sense unfair.”
Mr. Thompson left, and half and hour later Mrs. Sacco and Miss Vanzetti arrived for their third and final visit to the condemned men. They were in an automobile with Gardner Jackson and Felicani asked Warden Hendry for permission to have the women to see their unfortunate relatives for the last time. The request was granted. During the final visit, which lasted five minutes, Mr. Jackson and Mr. Felicani arranged for the bodies of the two men to be turned over to Mrs. Sacco and Miss Vanzetti.
Retrieved from the New York Times on 23 February, 2012.
Sacco and Vanzetti
A reflection on the anniversary of the deaths of Sacco and Vanzetti – by Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman [Published in The Road to Freedom (New York), Vol. 5, Aug. 1929.]
THE names of the “good shoe-maker and poor fish-peddler” have ceased to represent merely two Italian workingmen. Throughout the civilised world Sacco and Vanzetti have become a symbol, the shibboleth of Justice crushed by Might. That is the great historic significance of this twentieth century crucifixion, and truly prophetic, were the words of Vanzetti when he declared, “The last moment belongs to us–that agony is our triumph.”
We hear a great deal of progress and by that people usually mean improvements of various kinds, mostly life-saving discoveries and labor-saving inventions, or reforms in the social and political life. These may or may not represent a real advance because reform is not necessarily progress.
It is an entirely false and vicious conception that civilisation consists of mechanical or political changes. Even the greatest improvements do not, in themselves, indicate real progress: they merely symbolise its results. True civilization, real progress consists in humanising mankind, in making the world a decent place to live in. From this viewpoint we are very far from being civilised, in spite of all the reforms and improvements.
True progress is a struggle against the inhumanity of our social existence, against the barbarity of dominant conceptions. In other words, progress is a spiritual struggle, a struggle to free man from his brutish inheritance, from the fear and cruelty of his primitive condition. Breaking the shackles of ignorance and superstition; liberating man from the grip of enslaving ideas and practices; driving darkness out of his mind and terror out of his heart; raising him from his abject posture to man’s full stature–that is the mission of progress. Only thus does man, individually and collectively, become truly civilised and our social life more human and worth while.
This struggle marks the real history of progress. Its heroes are not the Napoleons and the Bismarcks, not the generals and politicians. Its path is lined with the unmarked graves of the Saccos and Vanzettis of humanity, dotted with the auto-da-fé, the torture chambers, the gallows and the electric chair. To those martyrs of justice and liberty we owe what little of real progress and civilization we have today.
The anniversary of our comrades’ death is therefore by no means an occasion for mourning. On the contrary, we should rejoice that in this time of debasement and degradation, in the hysteria of conquest and gain, there are still MEN that dare defy the dominant spirit and raise their voices against inhumanity and reaction: That there are still men who keep the spark of reason and liberty alive and have the courage to die, and die triumphantly, for their daring.
For Sacco and Vanzetti died, as the entire world knows today, because they were Anarchists. That is to say, because they believed and preached human brotherhood and freedom. As such, they could expect neither justice nor humanity. For the Masters of Life can forgive any offense or crime but never an attempt to undermine their security on the backs of the masses. Therefore Sacco and Vanzetti had to die, notwithstanding the protests of the entire world.
Yet Vanzetti was right when he declared that his execution was his greatest triumph, for all through history it has been the martyrs of progress that have ultimately triumphed. Where are the Caesars and Torquemadas of yesterday? Who remembers the names of the judges who condemned Giordano Bruno and John Brown? The Parsons and the Ferrers, the Saccos and Vanzettis live eternal and their spirits still march on.
Let no despair enter our hearts over the graves of Sacco and Vanzetti. The duty we owe them for the crime we have committed in permitting their death is to keep their memory green and the banner of their Anarchist ideal high. And let no near-sighted pessimist confuse and confound the true facts of man’s history, of his rise to greater manhood and liberty. In the long struggle from darkness to light, in the age-old fight for greater freedom and welfare, it is the rebel, the martyr who has won. Slavery has given way, absolutism is crushed, feudalism and serfdom had to go, thrones have been broken and republics established in their stead. Inevitably, the martyrs and their ideas have triumphed, in spite of gallows and electric chairs. Inevitably, the people, the masses, have been gaining on their masters, till now the very citadels of Might, Capital and the State, are being endangered. Russia has shown the direction of the further progress by its attempt to eliminate both the economic and political master. That initial experiment has failed, as all first great social revaluations require repeated efforts for their realisation. But that magnificent historic failure is like unto the martyrdom of Sacco and Vanzetti–the symbol and guarantee of ultimate triumph.
Let it be clearly remembered, however, that the failure of FIRST attempts at fundamental social change is always due to the false method of trying to establish the NEW by OLD means and practices. The NEW can conquer only by means of its own new spirit. Tyranny lives by suppression; Liberty thrives on freedom. The fatal mistake of the great Russian Revolution was that it tried to establish new forms of social and economic life on the old foundation of coercion and force. The entire development of human society has been AWAY from coercion and government, away from authority towards greater freedom and independence. In that struggle the spirit of liberty has ultimately won out. In the same direction lies further achievement. All history proves it and Russia is the most convincing recent demonstration of it. Let us then learn that lesson and be inspired to greater efforts in behalf of a new world of humanity and freedom, and may the triumphant martyrdom of Sacco and Vanzetti give us greater strength and endurance in this superb struggle.
France: July, 1929.
(This joint article reached America on the 17th of July. It is altogether too good to be left till another time. How penetrating the analysis and how apt the historical inferences! It is indeed a long time since Comrade Berkman has seen his name signed to an article in an English Anarchist paper and nearly as long since Emma Goldman has appeared as a contributor. Road to Freedom is grateful for this opportunity to bring out a joint article wherein both our immutable fighters are in such complete agreement. We hope we merit more from their powerful pens in future issues.–Ed.)
Reexamining the Sacco-Vanzetti Case – Howard Zinn
The LA Times reported in December 2005 that Upton Sinclair had allegedly written in a letter that an attorney for Sacco and Vanzetti, Fred Moore, had confided to him of his clients’ guilt. Many conservative commentators responded by issuing blanket condemnations of the left’s support for various political prisoners. In light of this, Sonali Kolhatkar and Gabriel Roman spoke with the now late historian Howard Zinn, who wrote the introduction for the reissue of Sinclair’s novel Boston, about the significance of the alleged Sinclair letter.
Kolhatkar: What was the significance of the Sacco-Vanzetti case when it happened? What was its significance to social movements in the United States?
Zinn: I believe that the importance of the Sacco and Vanzetti case is that it took place very shortly after the end of World War I [when] the country was still living in an atmosphere created by the war. It was an atmosphere in which there was a government hunt for radicals. In 1919, right after the war the Palmer Raids took place and people who were not born in the United States were rounded up by the thousands and deported without trial, without due process, very much the kind of thing that is happening today where people are rounded up and if they are are not citizens they can be detained and nobody will hear from them or about them. So it was a war-time atmosphere. At the time that they went on trial, there were still bodies coming back from Europe of the G.I. soldiers who had died. Patriotism was still in the air. In fact, the trial took place just shortly after Memorial Day. Memorial Day was an occasion for patriotic fervor and in this case, a kind of wartime spirit. And so the important thing about their case is really not the question of their guilt or innocence – which certainly was not resolved by their trial, and I don’t know if it will ever be resolved – the important thing about it was that it revealed the nature of the justice system in the United States, a system of justice which has always been unfair to foreigners, unfair to poor people, unfair to radicals and which becomes especially notorious in times of war, in times of a Marshall atmosphere. So I would say that the importance of their case was that it was one of those many cases in American history. I’m thinking of the Haymarket affair 1886, I’m thinking of the case of Tom Mooney and [Warren] Billings which took place during the war. I’m thinking of what happened later after World War II, the Rosenberg case, which interestingly enough started shortly after the Communist victory in China, just as the Sacco and Vanzetti case started shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution. And then, coming down to our time, I’m thinking of the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. In other words, throughout American history there’s certain critical cases that come into the courts and are decided in an atmosphere which is not conducive to fair play for black people, for radicals, for non-citizens, for poor people. And I think that the Sacco-Vanzetti case takes its place in that line up.
Kolhatkar: There were many radical activists and writers at the time who rallied to support Sacco and Vanzetti including Upton Sinclair who wrote a novel, Boston, based on the case and in its reissue you wrote the introduction to that novel. Can you talk about why so many of the folks like Upton Sinclair rallied to the case of Sacco and Vanzetti and, in a way, put their own credibility on the innocence of these two men?
Zinn: Well, I think they rallied to them because they could see that they were not getting a fair trial. That is, even if they could not conclusively decide that they were innocent, because all of these cases are complicated, and in all of these cases in order to decide definitively that somebody is guilty or innocent, you would have to be an expert in ballistic evidence, you would have to go into a very thorough examination of the facts of the case and even then you might not be sure. And so, what brought these important figures, literary figures, people in the arts, law professors like Felix Frankfurter – a law professor at Harvard law school who wrote a brief on behalf of Sacco and Vanzetti – what brought all of them to this was their understanding that whether guilty or innocent, Sacco and Vanzetti were being tried, not because they had or had not committed a robbery and a murder in South Braintree, Massachusetts, but because they were trouble makers, because they were radicals, because their names had already appeared on Department of Justice lists, because there was a general hunt at that time for anarchists. And just looking at the trial, at the prejudice of the judge, looking at the all-American [born] jury, looking at the fact that an interpreter had to be used in the court to interpret for Sacco and Vanzetti and seeing that the atmosphere of the courtroom was so deeply prejudiced against these foreigners, these anarchists, this shoemaker and fish peddler – [these are] the kind of circumstances that would draw the sympathy of anybody with any kind of critical faculty, anybody who was already liberal or progressive, or radical, and who knew that American society, in its system of justice especially, did not give fair play to people like Sacco and Vanzetti.
Kolhatkar: What was your initial response to the Los Angeles Times report (December 24, 2005) that revealed that a man in Orange County, California, had apparently discovered a letter that Upton Sinclair had written that Sacco and Vanzetti were indeed guilty as per a conversation with their lawyer?
Zinn: Well, my first reaction was, well, I’m not going to immediately claim that the letter was fraudulent or anything like that. I’ve never said definitively that I knew whether Sacco and Vanzetti were guilty or innocent. My first reaction was, well, it’s possible that this letter is a credible piece of evidence about their guilt, but on the other hand, I’m not sure about that. That is, this one letter that Upton Sinclair wrote based on a conversation with one of the attorneys, I don’t think this is conclusive evidence that they were guilty. I mean, they had other attorneys besides Fred Moore, besides the one that Upton Sinclair claimed spoke to him about that.
Kolhatkar: There was also a confession by a Portuguese immigrant [Celestino Madeiros] wasn’t there?
Zinn: Yeah, there was a confession by another person who said that he knew the gang that had organized this holdup. And in fact, there was so much evidence that threw doubt on their guilt. The fact that you can not find a motive for them in this robbery, they did not have criminal records, they had not engaged in robberies before. If they robbed the paymaster, as was done at that time, where was the money, what had happened to it? In a situation like that, the money has to show up somewhere. There’s no indication that they had any money, that they disposed [of] any money. There were so many elements in the case that threw doubt on their guilt. The fact that they maintained their innocence to the end publicly, and to people around them, and the idea that one of them would declare guilt to one of their attorneys strikes me as, well, not impossible, but kind of dubious.
Kolhatkar: I want to quote from the research that Sinclair apparently did for his novel Boston, where in his research he wrote of his skepticism with respect to the anarchist ideals of the two men, in particular Vanzetti. Sinclair wrote, I became convinced from many different sources that Vanzetti was not the pacifist he was reported under the necessary defense propaganda. He was, like many fanatics, a dual personality, and when he was roused by the social conflict he was a very dangerous man. How do you respond to the issue that perhaps these men were not murderers, but perhaps they were not pacifists either?
Zinn: They were not pacifists. I have no doubt of that. And anarchists in this period of history, both in Europe and the United States, were in general not pacifists. I mean, they did not believe in wars fought by capitalist governments, but they were not pacifists in the sense that they would renounce the idea of violence on behalf of a case. After all, not long before that, the Anarchist, Alexander Berkman had tired to assassinate the industrialist Henry Clay Frick so I certainly wouldn’t claim that they were pacifists. But it’s one thing to understand that anarchists not being pacifists might be very willing to use violence on behalf of a social cause, but that’s very different than the kind of violence against a guard, the violence that is accompanied by a robbery, that is not the kind of political act of violence that an anarchist might be capable of.
Kolhatkar: The issue of backing political prisoners is very relevant today as you yourself cited the case of Mumia Abu Jamal. More recently, here in California we had Stanley Tookie Williams who was executed, many people maintained his innocence. What is the risk that progressives take when they back political prisoners, because there is always the chance that the person you’re defending may indeed be guilty? What then?
Zinn: Well, I would argue that even if the person that you’re defending may turn out to be guilty; that does not really eliminate the reason that you came to this person’s defense in the first place. I say that in relation, thinking of myself and Mumia Abu-Jamal. I mean, how many people who have come to the defense of Mumia Abu-Jamal really know what happened on that night when a policeman was killed? How many people know the details of that? It’s impossible to know for sure what happened. The reason people came to his defense; that reason would remain even if you found out he was guilty, that he could not possibly get a fair trail to decide whether he was guilty or innocent. Now that’s aside from the question of the death penalty because aside from the question of the judicial system punishing people who are black and poor and radical, Mumia Abu-Jamal fits all of those descriptions, besides that, I think people would come to the defense of Mumia Abu-Jamal because he was given a death sentence and anybody who is opposed to capital punishment, I think, would oppose that.
Kolhatkar: What do you say to the right-wing response to the news of the alleged letter from Upton Sinclair? In particular, conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg wrote in the LA Times following the initial article, an editorial called “The Clay Feet of Liberal Saints”. And he does cite people like Mumia Abu-Jamal. Jonah Goldberg takes the case of Sacco and Vanzetti, and certainly takes the revelations of the Upton Sinclair letter at face value, to try to expose progressive causes as being liberal lies and mythmaking.
Zinn: Well, of course, it’s understandable that somebody who is on the right and therefore starts off with a presupposition that people on the left are going to be wrong, is going to jump on this piece of evidence. As I said before, that piece of evidence may in fact throw into question, once again as has been done many times, the issue of whether they were guilty or innocent, but it does not in any way weaken the liberal or radical case, which is the most crucial factor, for the argument that justice in this country does not operate equally for radicals, for people of color, for poor people, for immigrants. That fundamental critique of the system, which liberals and radicals hold, remains steadfast whatever guilt or innocence of somebody in a particular situation is.
Kolhatkar: If the Upton Sinclair letter was authentic, just assuming it was authentic, should Upton Sinclair have kept the revelation that he found hidden or should he have revealed it?
Zinn: Of course, Boston was a novel which may even be a strong argument for complicating the situation, but I don’t think he should have concealed that letter. I think he should have been honest about it and told about the letter. But at the same time, [he should have] put that letter in the kind of context that I described and not assumed that that letter, that what he heard from this attorney, was therefore conclusive evidence of their guilt. After all, he was getting it second hand. He doesn’t know what Sacco or Vanzetti said to the attorney, which the attorney might have interpreted as a confession of guilt. It is a very shaky piece of evidence. Although, it’s a piece of evidence which should not be concealed, but I think Sinclair should not have held it back but I think he should have examined it in a rational way and given it it’s proper place as one piece of evidence among many, not a conclusive piece of evidence, and not as important as the larger issue of the fairness of justice for people like Sacco and Vanzetti.
Kolhatkar: And that’s even assuming that the letter was authentic.
Zinn: Yes, that’s even assuming that, yes.
This interview aired on Wednesday January 18th, 2006 on Uprising at KPFK, Pacifica Radio in Los Angeles, and is available on an audiostream at www.uprisingradio.org. The transcript of this conversation was retrieved from ZNet on 21 February, 2012.
The Story of a Proletarian Life
… I brought to … studies a cruel, continuous and inexorable observation of men, animals and plants — of everything, in a word, that surrounds man. The Book of Life: that is the Book of Books! All the others merely teach how to read this one. The honest books, I mean; the dishonest ones have an opposite purpose.
Meditation over this great book determined my actions and my principles. I denied that “Every man for himself and God for all!” I championed the weak, the poor, the oppressed, the simple and the persecuted. I admired heroism, strength and sacrifice when directed towards the triumph of justice. I understood that in the name of God, of Law, of the Patria, of Liberty, of the purest mental abstractions, of the highest human ideals, are perpetrated and will continue to be perpetrated, the most ferocious crimes; until the day when by the acquisition of light it will no longer be possible for the few, in the name of God, to do wrong to the many.
I understood that man cannot trample with immunity upon the unwritten laws that govern his life, he cannot violate the ties that bind him to the universe. I understood that the mountains, the seas, the rivers called “natural boundaries” were formed before man, by a complexity of physical and chemical processes, and not for the purpose of dividing peoples.
I grasped the concept of fraternity, of universal love. I maintained that whosoever benefits or hurts a man, benefits or hurts the whole species. I sought my liberty in the liberty of all; my happiness in the happiness of all.
I realized that the equity of deeds, of rights and of duties, is the only moral basis upon which could be erected a just human society. I earned my bread by the honest sweat on my brow. I have not a drop of blood on my hands, or on my conscience.
I understood that the supreme goal of life is happiness. That the eternal and immutable bases of human happiness are health, peace of conscience, the satisfaction of animal needs, and a sincere faith.
I understood that every individual had two I’s, the real and the ideal, that the second is the source of all progress, and that whatever wants to make the first seem equal to the second is in bad faith. The difference in any one person between his two egos is always the same, because whether in perfection or in degeneration, they keep the same distance between them.
I understood that man is never sufficiently modest towards himself and that true wisdom is in tolerance.
I wanted a roof for every family, bread for every mouth, education for every heart, the light for every intellect.
I am convinced that human history has not yet begun; that we find ourselves in the last period of the prehistoric. I see with the eyes of my soul how the sky is suffused with the rays of the new millennium.
I maintain that liberty of conscience is as inalienable as life. I sought with all my power to direct the human spirit to the good of all. I know from experience that rights and privileges are still won and maintained by force, until humanity shall have perfected itself.
In the real history of future humanity — classes and privileges, the antagonisms of interest between man and man abolished — progress and change will be determined by intelligence and the common convenience.
If we and the generation which our women carry under their bosoms do not arrive nearer to that goal, we shall not have obtained anything real, and humanity will continue to be more miserable and unhappy.
I am and shall be until the last instant (unless I should discover that I am in error) an anarchist-communist, because I believe that communism is the most humane form of social contract, because I know that only with liberty can man rise, become noble, and complete.
Now at the age of thirty-three — age of Christ and according to certain learned alienists, the age of offenders generally — I am scheduled for prison and for death. Yet, were I to recommence the “Journey of Life,” I should tread the same road, seeking, however, to lessen the sum of my sins and errors and to multiply that of my good deeds.
I send to my comrades, to my friends, to all good men my fraternal embrace, love and fervent greetings!
(Anarchist Library 09/09/2011)
Music, poetry for Sacco and Vanzetti …
Woody Guthire & David Rovics
Oh say there, have you heard the news
Sacco worked at trimming shoes
Vanzetti was a traveling man
Pushed his cart round with his hands
Two good men’s a long time gone
Sacco and Vanzetti are gone
Two good men’s a long time gone
Left me here to sing this song
Sacco came from across the sea
Somewhere over Italy
Vanzetti born of parents fine
Drank the best Italian wine
Sacco was a family man
Sacco’s wife three children had
Vanzetti was a dreaming man
A book was always in his hand
Sacco made his bread and butter
Being the factory’s best shoe-cutter
Vanzetti worked both day and night
Taught the people how to fight
I’ll tell you if you ask me
About the payroll robbery
Two clerks were shot in the shoe factory
There in the streets of old Braintree
I’ll tell you the prosecutors’ names
Katman, Adams, Williams, Kane
Them and the judge were the best of friends
Did more tricks than circus clowns
The judge he told his friends around
“Gonna put them rebels down”
“Anarchist bastards” was the name
The judge he gave these two fine men
Vanzetti docked in ’98
Slept upon a dirty street
Taught the people how to organize
Now in the electric chair he dies
All us people ough to be
Like Sacco and Vanzetti
Every day find ways to fight
On the people side for workers’ rights
Ennio Morricone and Joan Baez
Father, yes, I am a prisoner
Fear not to relay my crime
The crime is loving the forsaken
Only silence is shame
And now I’ll tell you what’s against us
An art that’s lived for centuries
Go through the years and you will find
What’s blackened all of history
Against us is the law
With its immensity of strength and power
Against us is the law!
Police know how to make a man
A guilty or an innocent
Against us is the power of police!
The shameless lies that men have told
Will ever more be paid in gold
Against us is the power of the gold!
Against us is racial hatred
And the simple fact that we are poor
My father dear, I am a prisoner
Don’t be ashamed to tell my crime
The crime of love and brotherhood
And only silence is shame
With me I have my love, my innocence,
The workers, and the poor
For all of this I’m safe and strong
And hope is mine
Rebellion, revolution don’t need dollars
They need this instead
Imagination, suffering, light and love
And care for every human being
You never steal, you never kill
You are a part of hope and life
The revolution goes from man to man
And heart to heart
And I sense when I look at the stars
That we are children of life
Death is small.
Maintenant Nicolas et Bart
Vous dormez au fond de nos cœurs
Vous étiez tous seuls dans la mort
Mais par elle vous vaincrez!
In 1947 modern dancer Judy Job composed and performed a dance to mark the 20th anniversary of the execution of Sacco & Vanzetti. Danced to the music of Ernest Bloch (here performed by Marian Conti, but in 1947 for Judy Job by the late pianist Naomi Sparrow) combined with a reading of Edna St Vincent Millay’s poem, “Justice Denied in Massachusetts.” With only two still photos from the 1947 performance surviving, this montage uses those two photos, as well as photos supplied by the Sacco & Vanzetti Commemoration Society in Boston.
A documentary of Sacco and Vanzetti by Peter Miller (2006) …
(The Sacco and Vanzetti Commemoration Society website remains an excellent source for news/reflection on them and their lives.)