Sacco & Vanzetti, Democratic Stresses, and Dangerous Times
I’ll be speaking on my book “Suosso’s Lane” at Duxbury Library on Sunday, Jan. 29, 2 p.m., my first opportunity following the inauguration of a new administration to address the potential lessons for our own time from the notorious Sacco and Vanzetti case, in which two Italian immigrants were convicted of murder in 1920 after a biased trial offering absurdly thin evidence of their guilt.
When that date arrives we will be a week into the reign of a new president whose election threatens to signal a decline of democratic and egalitarian values, much like the period in which two men were executed because of their beliefs and their ethnicity.
A time of “us” and “them.”
Following an election year when voters, given the creakingly vestigial Electoral College system, selected a candidate who proposed building a wall to keep out immigrants, creating a registry of all Americans who practiced a certain religion, and tightening entry rules to deny refuge even to those Muslims fleeing the violence of terrorists in their own countries, it may be wise to remember an earlier time when American democracy society had a nervous breakdown over immigrants. In 1919 and 1920 American democracy buckled under stress, resulting in the period known to history, but largely forgotten by the generations that followed, as the “Red Scare.”
When, years ago I asked Plymouth town selectman Alba Martinelli Thompson, the town’s first female member of its governing select board and a former Air Force officer, what she remembered hearing from family members about the Sacco-Vanzetti case, she replied (in part), “They weren’t at all sure that the facts of the case were being honestly distributed. Also, it was the twenties. It was the Red Scare. Anybody with an immigrant name was suspect…”
The Red Scare came on the heels of a four-decade long period of record immigration, from 1880 to 1920, when 20 million immigrants mostly from southern and eastern Europe — Italians, Russians, Poles, Jews, Greeks, Portuguese, Serbs, Syrians and others — transformed the ethnic make-up of America’s cities and towns and provided labor for its industrial revolution. The largest national group, more than 4 million, were Italians. Native-born Americans worried that their country was being ‘flooded’ by immigrants, and the influx was accompanied by so-called ‘scientific’
racial theories that teaching that people from those part of the world represented different, and inferior races.
On top of this growing resentment and fear of these ‘new Americans,’ two major events transformed the nation’s political climate in 1917. The United States entered World War I. And the Russian Revolution created a Communist regime frankly inimical to America’s capitalist economic system. Communist parties elsewhere claimed Russia’s transformation was the forerunner of a world-wide revolution, making other governments, including ours, nervous.
The result was that Congress banned all criticism of the war and draft, shut down radical organizations and presses — including the Italian anarchist journal “Cronaca Sovversiva” to which Sacco and Vanzetti subscribed — and tried, convicted and deported the journal’s founder, Luigi Galleani. Galleani’s comrades responded with bombs. The US government responded in turn with a massive, illegal round-up of “aliens” believed to be supporters of radical or anti-beliefs. Thousands were detained, illegally jailed, and a few hundred deported before the courts intervened.
These events form the background of the notorious Sacco-Vanzetti trial in which two Italian immigrants were convicted of robbery and murder after a biased trial offering little evidence of guilt. They were convicted because they were anarchists, but also because they were immigrants.
For more on the Red Scare see my blog post at
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