Public television in Boston (WGBH) broadcast "The Italian Americans" this week (first screened a year ago), a historical account beginning with the arrival of some 4 million immigrants in the early decades of the 20th century and carrying through to the place and prominence of Italian Americans in America today. When I tuned in Thursday night, actor Stanley Tucci was narrating the film's account of the Sacco and Vanzetti case.
In this segment (Episode two) of the documentary, historians and other sources make very clear how the case was seen, and was long remembered, through Italian American eyes: as an attack on them.
"Up until the 1960s," one of the episode's authorities tells us, "every Italian family heard the story at the dinner table... If you stepped out line, this is what they would do to you."
What American justice in the state of Massachusetts did to Sacco and Vanzetti was an "appalling" miscarriage of justice overseen by a bigoted judge before a prejudiced jury, the show tells us. Historian Bruce Watson paraphrases the words of one of the jurymen (in fact the foreman) who said "they should all be hanged," whether or not they were guilty of the crime they were accused of -- simply because of who "they" were: political radicals, foreigners, Italians.
The trial was framed in a way that made the defendants appear like dangerous criminals. They were shackled together and walked from a local lockup to the courthouse in Dedham each day surrounded by a phalanx of armed plain clothes police. Once inside the courtroom, they were made to sit inside a metal cage.
Judge Webster Thayer made clear (in rulings inside, and statements outside, the courthouse) his vicious hatred for the political movement Sacco and Vanzetti represented -- the radical pro-labor, anti-capitalist attack on his America's Guilded Age status quo, a time of domination by the very rich over an oppressed mass of underpaid industrial laborers and farmers; a time of ever-increasing gap between the very rich and the working poor. (Sound familiar?)
The trial wasn't about the crime Sacco and Vanzetti were accused of (the robbery of a shoe factory payroll and murder of two guards), the show's experts tell us, it was about anarchism. Once the information came out in court that both men were professed anarchists, "it was all about anarchism."
The political background for this scapegoating of two self-proclaimed radicals in order to put the Italian anarchist movement on trial was a string of attempted bombings (including a few bombs that actually went off) for which historian believe anarchists were almost certainly responsible. Those bombs were acts of violent revenge against the American political, economic and judicial system that had targeted the movement's leaders during World war I, shut down its publications, and deported high-profile spokesmen such as Emma Goldman and Luigi Galleani.
Much as acts of terrorism do today, the bombings scared Americans, a fear whipped up by newspapers and politicians into an all-pervading threat that justified the targeting of ethnic minorities perceived to be "others" and hostile to the political status quo.
But Sacco and Vanzetti were not being tried for bombings. No one was ever put on trial for the bombings that so terrified Americans during the Red Scare of 1918-19. They were arrested without any evidence to connect them to the Braintree robbery-murder; but simply because a local police chief believed the crime must be the work of the political radicals he hated. Once it became known in the Dedham courtroom where they were being tried in 1921 that they were anarchists, nothing else really mattered.
"The trial was about anarchists," said author Bruce Watson (his book "Sacco and Vanzetti: The men, the murders, and the judgment of mankind" was published in 2007). "And Italian anarchists made it all the better."
Watson also describes how Vanzetti, the more "cerebral" of the defendants, put this case in his address to the court before sentencing. While denying any guilt for the crime for which he was tried, Vanzetti stated, "...my conviction is I have suffered for things that I am guilty of. I am suffering because I am a radical and indeed I am a radical; I have suffered because I am an Italian and indeed I am an Italian...[yet] if you could execute me two times, and if I could be reborn two other times, I would live again to do what I have done already."
"The Italian Americans" makes a final connection between the anti-immigrant (and anti-Italian) racism that condemned Sacco and Vanzetti by pointing out that in 1924 Calvin Coolidge signed a law setting a quota specifically for Italian immigrants.
At the signing Coolidge said, "It is clear that certain groups of people will not mix or blend."
As the whole of "The Italian Americans" demonstrates, it is hard to imagine a more erroneous, short-sighted (and bigoted) prediction.
Yet it seems to me that similar things are being said about other groups today.