A brilliant program by the Sacco Vanzetti Commemoration Society took place last night (Wednesday) in remembrance of the wrongful execution of the two Italian immigrants on this date in 1927. The event at the Dante Alighieri Society hall in Cambridge included moving film footage of the funeral march as tens of thousands of mourners accompanied the caskets from Hanover Street in the North End of Boston to Forest Hills Cemetery in Jamaica Plain.
Former Governor Michael Dukakis, who issued a proclamation in 1977 condemning their trial's injustice and removing all guilt from the names of Nicolo Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, recounted memories of his own family's immigration experiences and of the contributions of other immigrant families to America's 20th century growth and prosperity.
He also recalled picking up work for a local business from a printing shop in Boston's North End run by Aldino Felicani.
Felicani was the founder, and treasurer, of the Sacco-Vanzetti Defense Committee, which raised funds to fight for the defendants through the seven years between their arrest and execution. Those kinds of connections run through local history. The degrees of separation between Boston area families and the infamous, international affair of the Sacco-Vanzetti case are fewer than we realize.
It's because of Felicani's efforts that so many materials and physical artifacts from the case, and the lives of the two victims of a state conspiracy and the widespread prejudice that existed in the early decades of the 20th century against Italian immigrants.
He also preserved film footage of that famous funeral march. Generally regarded as the largest public gathering in Boston in 20th century, the march's numbers were estimated by the police at 20,000 and ten times that many by the city's newspapers. Felicani's film is the only record of that day, because the federal government successfully pressured Hollywood's newsreel companies to destroy all their coverage related to Sacco and Vanzetti.
It was government censorship. And of course we're not supposed to do that in America.
Why is it, Dukakis asked at the commemoration (I'm paraphrasing here), that human beings can believe such terrible things about people who are another color or have a different religion, or are simply from a different country?
That question of course has a terrible relevance today.
In the 19th century, Dukakis pointed out, the prejudice against outsiders was directed against the Irish. The Chinese were the banned by the exclusion act of 1882. Today, it's the Muslim travel ban.
But in the early 20th century the anti-immigrant bias was directed toward the flow of immigrants from "Southern Europe," he said. "Italians, Greeks, and Portuguese."
Building on the Felicani collection and other sources, Professor Michele Fazio of the University of North Carolina at Pembroke also spoke at the commemoration, sharing slides and stories of her research into the lives of the principals and the impact of their case on their Italian birthplace communities, in a talk entitled "Mining the Archives: In the lives of Sacco and Vanzetti."She traveled to each man's birthplace, Sacco's in the town of Torremaggiore in the south of Italy; Vanzetti's in Villafalletto in the northwest region of the Piemonte. She pointed out that the case and its victims are well remembered in Italy, while they are largely forgotten by the American public. In fact, family memories of both men evoke strong emotions.
A traditional memorial plaque in the cemetery at Villfaletto preserves the memory of a famous native son whose death symbolized the continuing oppression of the poor and the working class. In Torremaggiore, a memorial executed in a modern looking vertical column remembers Sacco's life. Locals in both communities extended a remarkable degree of hospitality on her visit, Fazio said. "You have to eat first, and then you can talk.
She also showed slides of newspaper coverage of the ongoing story in America, including frequent depictions of Rosa Sacco, the defendant's wife and mother of his children, to illustrate the personal side and family impact of the case. Later the newspapers ran photos of Vanzetti's sister, Luigia, who arrived for a last meeting with her brother just days before his execution.
Vanzetti lived on Suosso's Lane, a quiet street in North Plymouth for four years before his arrest. My depiction of the character of the idealistic Bartolomeo Vanzetti is based on the oral history recollections of those who knew him well in those days, including the Brini family of Suosso's Lane.