Vito Marcantonio: American Radical

Vito Marcantonio defied the truism of American politics that in the United States a radical politician has only two possible fates—defeat or co-optation. Marcantonio was the most electorally successful radical politician in modern American history: between 1934 and 1950 he served seven terms in Congress. And from his first term, when he proposed “reopening and operating… shut-down factories by and for the benefit of the unemployed… producing for use instead of profit,” until his last, when he cast the only vote against the Korean War, his commitment to radical politics never wavered. Unfortunately, to date, the remarkable story of this deservedly memorable man remains little known.

Marc was born on December 10, 1902, in a tenement in the heart of Italian Harlem, a community located between Third Avenue and the East River in East Harlem and from East 96th to East 125th Streets that consisted of seemingly endless rows of tenements (built for the immigrant poor before housing codes required that some space be left for air and light and that apartments contain bathrooms). It was the largest Italian community in the United States, housing in 1930 eighty thousand Italian Americans, especially the poorest Southern Italian immigrants, congregating and replicating their ways of life in what has been called the most Italian of America’s Little Italys. When Marcantonio died in 1954, he lived in an apartment only four blocks away from the one in which he was born. Throughout his life, his boyhood pals (including those who had joined the Mafia) continued to be his friends. He explained: “I was born and raised in that district and I know everybody in that district, good, bad, doctors, lawyers, Indians, thieves, honest people, everybody.” He got a shave every morning in the barbershop across the street from his home, bought his newspaper from the corner newsstand, and although he did not attend Sunday mass he marched in the annual procession of thefesta of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. His entire life and career were inextricably connected with this remarkable community.

Marc was one of only two boys who graduated from his elementary school to go on to high school, and the other dropped out. His elementary school principal praised his “tenacity of purpose, his initiative, his courage, and his innate leadership.” Italian Harlem had no high school so Marc traveled across town to attend De Witt Clinton High School. He was only able to continue his studies by hiding his books in a nearby candy store before reaching his block so he could escape the taunt “little professor” from the other neighborhood boys.

He might never have graduated had he not met Leonard Covello, who having taken a position as a French teacher on a short-term basis, became obsessed with how few Italian school children attended the school and how poorly those who did were doing. Marcantonio immediately became engaged in Covello’s stratagems for supporting the Italian-American students. He enrolled in Covello’s first Italian-language class and he became an officer in II Circulo Italiano, a student club dedicated to working in the Italian community. Covello, who remained childless, and Marcantonio, whose father died while he was in high school, became lifelong collaborators. Ultimately, they lived in adjacent brownstones on Italian Harlem’s corso, East 116th Street. Covello continued to provide a keen understanding of the community’s mind and Marcantonio helped ensure the building of a grand edifice to house Benjamin Franklin High School, an academic high school in Italian Harlem’s center.

Soon after graduating, Marcantonio enrolled in New York University Law School. However, he devoted his greatest energies to preparing immigrants for citizenship under Covello’s direction at La Casa del Popolo, a settlement house that met the needs of the Italian community while respecting its culture. At the same time he worked on the staff and helped organize rent strikes at another settlement house, Harlem House.

In 1925 he and the chief social worker, Miriam Sanders, married despite disparities of age, height, and background—she was eleven years older, four inches taller, and hailed from a New England family which could trace ancestors back to the Mayflower. Marcantonio always remained a respectful husband; however, the fiery and handsome (one contemporary described him as having “the Bourbon look of combined sensuousness and asceticism”) activist discreetly carried out a number of love affairs. The deprivations of Marc’s early life and his work among Italian Harlem’s poor made him receptive to the surrounding radical currents. Jewish Harlem, the community immediately to the west of Italian Harlem, was a bastion of the Socialist Party. Also, he clerked in a law firm that included Joseph Brodsky, a Communist lawyer, who had gained great prominence for defending the Scottsboro Boys.

Marcantonio’s dedication to his community and his commitment to radical ideas in themselves would not likely have led to his fourteen-year stint as the national spokesman for the Left. However, he had had the opportunity to serve a ten-year apprenticeship to the master politician and parliamentarian Fiorello LaGuardia, who, rallying the Italian Americans in 1922, successfully contested East Harlem’s congressional seat. In 1924 he appointed the twenty-two-year-old Marcantonio as his aide-de-camp. While LaGuardia as the leader of a small band of urban progressives fought for the working people in the House of Representatives, Marcantonio serviced the complaints of his constituents and attended to the details of the election campaigns. LaGuardia, who had lost his daughter in 1921, treated Marcantonio as a son. His letters advised Marcantonio: “Be careful of your personal appearance. Get a Gillette razor and keep yourself well groomed at all times.” When LaGuardia ran for mayor in 1933, Marcantonio inherited his political machine and the Republican designation. LaGuardia’s legacy and his own deep roots in the community proved sufficient to permit a very narrow victory in 1934 against Tammany Hall’s candidate, James Lanzetta.

Marcantonio immediately identified himself as a member of the far left of the House. He proposed a resolution for creating congressional power to

establish and take over natural resources, properties, and enterprises in manufacturing, mining, commerce, transportation, banking, public utilities, and other businesses to be owned and operated by the government of the United States or agencies thereof for the benefit of the people and generally for the social and economic welfare of the workers, farmers, and the consumers.

Marcantonio rarely missed a session and actively participated in debates. Outside of Congress, Marcantonio was the most sought-after speaker by left organizations. Clemente Soto Vélez, the Puerto Rican revolutionary and poet, recalled that “he was a wonderful speaker who [would] take over his whole audience by his magnetism, the way he presents his argument’s points. And then his voice [was] like a hurricane of electricity going through the people.” Here we are able to review his activities in the areas that most absorbed his attention.

No member of Congress has ever more eloquently and consistently represented one of the most defenseless and vulnerable groups in the United States, the foreign born. In 1940, when arguing against a proposal to exclude aliens from working on federally funded projects, he recalled that immigrants had been “induced to come here to be used as cheap labor—industrial cannon fodder of the labor exploiters,” and went on to say, “These people helped build America… Now we persecute them under the name of America.” When in 1944 an Alabama congressman stated that [white] Southerners had known the meaning of democracy “one hundred years before the gentleman from New York ever saw the Statue of Liberty,” Marcantonio responded in this way: “While my people did not come over on the Mayflower… we are an integral part of the living flesh and blood of our country.” Outside the halls of Congress, Marcantonio served as vice chair and active supporter of the American Committee for the Protection of the Foreign Born.

Marcantonio’s mother had been born in Italy, so his ardor of the foreign born is understandable. What is perhaps most remarkable was his fervent adoption of the Puerto Rican cause. In 1936 the first of Marcantonio’s five bills calling for independence for Puerto Rico insisted “that the only real solution for Puerto Rico and its problems is to grant to the people of Puerto Rico full sovereignty [which is] the only guarantee which the people of Puerto Rico can have to solve their problems.” Marcantonio also served as an attorney for Pedro Albizu Campos and the seven other members of the Nationalist Party who were convicted in 1936 of conspiring to overthrow the United States government by force. Within East Harlem, where the Puerto Rican community, El Barrio, began to expand, Marcantonio insisted that Puerto Ricans be included among the tenants in East River Houses, East Harlem’s first public housing project, which was located in the heart of Italian Harlem. On election eve 1949, before more than fifteen thousand people on his “Lucky Corner” in the center of Italian Harlem, he declared: “Yes I do defend the Puerto Ricans as our most recently arrived, against the kind of discrimination that was practiced against the Irish, the Jews, and the Italians in the past.”

Marcantonio was the major proponent of civil rights legislation in the House for almost a decade. As the floor leader for the anti-poll tax bill, he was able for the first time to force it out of the Judiciary Committee. What became widely known as the “Marcantonio Anti-Poll Tax Bill” (intended to outlaw the imposition of a fee for voting) passed the House a number of times but was successfully filibustered by the Southern Democrats and their Republican allies. In 1945, Marcantonio was able to thwart these same forces when they imperiled the appropriation for the Fair Employment Practices Commission (intended to prevent discrimination on federally funded projects), by utilizing his almost unrivaled knowledge of parliamentary procedure to threaten the blocking of funding for agencies vital to the war effort. For once, The Nation exalted, the “agile Southern parliamentarians were beaten at their own game.” In the postwar era, Marcantonio attached what he called “the All-Harlem Rider” on innumerable appropriations bills. Stating that “this issue of white supremacy has to be fought out,” his amendment demanded that no government funds be paid to any firm or individual who discriminated against its employers on the basis of race, nationality, or religion. In this way, he repeatedly placed civil rights at the heart of the House deliberations. In 1951, along with Paul Robeson he presented the United Nations with a petition charging the United States with the crime of genocide against the Negro people.

What made Marcantonio utterly unique among all other congressman was his insistence that the Communist Party was an “American political party operating in what it considers to be the best interests of the America working class and people.” When the party or individuals associated with it came under attack, no one more ardently or effectively came to their defense. Moreover on most—though certainly not all—issues Marcantonio powerfully advocated for those positions most closely associate with the party. For example, he carried out a root-and-branch attack against the Cold War foreign policies of the Truman Administration. The Marshall Plan, he furthermore insisted “is being used by Wall Street to extend their monopoly control all over Europe.”

Marcantonio’s connection with the Communist movement released firestorm of opposition. [[SHOULD READ, “released a firestorm of opposition?]] The press campaign intended to discredit Marcantonio, in its scope and the extent of its vilification, has perhaps been unequaled in the entire history of New York City politics. For example, in 1950 the Daily Mirror published fifty-eight articles attacking Marcantonio. In 1944 his district was gerrymandered to include Yorkville, an area south of East Harlem where, at the time, majorities of its major ethnic groups—German Americans and Irish Americans—expressed hostility to left politics. The Wilson-Pakula Act of 1947 prevented him from entering the major-party primaries thereby necessitating his running solely on the American Labor part (ALP) line at a time when it was almost universally identified as Communist controlled. And ultimately in 1950, he was defeated by the “gang up,” a coalition candidate of the Democratic, Republican, and Liberal parties.

Marcantonio was able to overcome this opposition in large part because his Italian-American, Puerto Rican, and African-American constituents viewed him as an articulate tribune of the people advocating for those who had been left out of the American Dream. Perhaps more pertinently because he lived among them, shared their lives, and personally tended to their problems, he achieved a legendary, even saintly, status. Many recalled his reaching into his pockets to help those facing eviction or in need of buying school clothing for their children. When I queried an old time resident if anyone in Italian Harlem opposed Marcantonio, she asked: “Didn’t people oppose Christ when he walked the earth?” A Puerto Rican woman who wrote Marcantonio requesting “a small turkey for my children” stated: “You are the bread of the poor people.”

The people’s devotion to Marcantonio was transformed in a powerful voting bloc by the work of the Vito Marcantonio Political Association, a unique political organization which combined the structure of a big-city political machine with left-wing ideological content. The association provided for the delivery of services to Marcantonio’s constituents with efficiency and on a scale unrivaled anywhere else in the city, indeed perhaps in the entire United States. Simultaneously, it maximized voter participation. Into this structure poured the creative abilities, the organizational skills, the entire power, and the finances of New York City’s then formidable left. The reelection of Marcantonio was the explicit election priority of the Communist Party; its members and the organizations that it led devoted themselves to this goal.

Marcantonio’s electoral successes depended upon the complex configuration of New York City’s political party structure of that time. As for so many of their Italian-American Constituents, the Republican Party provided LaGuardia and Marcantonio with a refuge from the machine politics of the Irish-American-dominated Democratic Party In 1936, however, a more appropriate political home appeared. With Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s approval, the American Labor Party was founded by the leaders of New York City’s needle trade unions to provide an electoral line that would enable some of the hundreds of thousands of New York City’s Socialist Party voters to comfortably vote for Roosevelt. Marcantonio immediately enrolled in the ALP and assumed leadership of its Communist Party-oriented left-wing. In 1941 he became the chair of the crucial New York County organization and from 1948 until 1953 he officially served as state chair. The ALP was the most important and longest lived of the state progressive parties, averaging between 1936 and 1950 approximately 14 percent of New York City’s vote. The ALP also pioneered in advancing the political representation of minorities: it was responsible for the election in 1937 of Oscar García Rivera for state assembly—the first Puerto Rican to hold high public office in the United States—and in 1941 provided a line for Adam Clayton Powell’s election contest for city councilperson and congressman in 1942, thereby enabling him to become the first African American in New York City to serve in those positions.

The ALP provided Marcantonio with enormous political leverage. The ALP willingly traded endorsements with the major parties in exchange for their endorsement or, when that was impossible, for their soft-pedaling their opposition to Marcantonio. But, his unyielding advocacy of the left’s agenda finally caused the Republican and then the Democratic Party to refuse to deal with him and ultimately with the ALP. However, in East Harlem, the ALP endorsements for state assembly and state senatorial seats effectively quelled any opposition from the local leaders of the major parties. This caused one commentator to astutely remark: “Marcantonio’s organization cuts through all political lines, sometimes on the surface, often-times undercover by ‘arrangements’ known only to the very inner circles of the Republican and Democratic Party organizations.”

Marcantonio brazenly maneuvered within the complex web of New York City’s politics. He had won his first election by 655 votes. In 1936, despite the more than five thousand votes he garnered on the Communist Party—sponsored All People’s Party line (that year the ALP line on the ballot only listed Roosevelt and Herbert Lehman for governor), he was narrowly defeated. After he joined the ALP, he continued to contest the Democratic and Republican Party primaries; from 1938 to 1946, he won one or both. Finally, when the newly enacted Wilson-Pakula Act (which forbade candidates from contesting the primaries of parties in which they were not enrolled) forced him to run solely under the designation of the ALP, Marcantonio bested his Democratic and Republican opponents. Only the “gang up” could allow Marcantonio’s relatively poor showing in Yorkville to overcome the undying loyalty of his East Harlem bastions.

Most of Marcantonio’s associates were convinced the events after his defeat in 1950 hastened his death. His advocacy for the Puerto Rican cause gave rise to a myth, widely repeated by his electoral opponents and published in the New York City press, that he had brought the Puerto Ricans to New York and put them on relief so that he could politically exploit them. In Richard Nixon’s successful 1950 senatorial election, his major campaign tactic against his opponent, Congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas, was the distribution of over one-half million copies of the “pink sheet,” a leaflet printed on bright pink paper purporting to prove that she and “the notorious party-liner Congressman Vito Marcantonio had voted the same way 354 times.” While acting as co-attorney for the Communist Party before the Security Activities Control Board, he meanwhile engaged in increasingly acrimonious disputes with the party over the fate of the ALP. Convinced that a full-fledged fascist state was imminent, the Communist Party began to withdraw its forces from all overtly left-wing organizations, including the ALP. Marcantonio led a group outside the party which insisted that the United States was experiencing a period of political repression not qualitatively different from the Alien-Sedition Act or the Palmer Raid periods, and that the left should stand firm and save whatever was possible until political conditions improved. In 1953, the withdrawal of the party’s support caused Marcantonio to resign as state chair of the ALP.

On August 9, 1954, while returning from the printer with the proofs for petitions for his candidacy for Congress on the newly formed Good Neighbor Party—on the east side of Broadway at Warren Street with City Hall in the background—Marcantonio fell dead. Although he had a metal crucifix and a St. Frances Xavier Cabrini religious medal on his person and had always identified himself as a Catholic, Cardinal Francis Spellman denied him a Catholic burial. Later the Catholic Worker movement sang a requiem Mass for Marcantonio, and the eulogy of its leader, Dorothy Day, averred that: “The thing that we will remember Vito Marcantonio for was, in the words of the Psalmist, ‘he understood concerning the needy and the poor.’ ”

Italian Harlem, a community where unity was strongly expressed in death rites, responded by organizing the largest funeral in its history. Leonard Covello, Luigi Albarelli, his barber, W. E. B. DuBois, whom he had successfully defended against the charge of being an agent of a foreign government, Puerto Rican independence leaders, Communists, and local politicians acted as pallbearers. Paul Robeson distributed a press release which called Marcantonio the “Thaddeus Stevens of the first half of the century.” Over twenty thousand persons passed his bier and his ninety-seven-vehicle cortege, which included fifteen flower cars, passed a community where black-draped signs read “We Mourn Our Loss.” In Woodlawn Cemetery, fifty feet from LaGuardia’s burial place, an impressive tombstone reads: “Vito Marcantonio: Defender of Human Rights.”

Aside from Public School 50 located in El Barrio, which was named for him, no other memorial to date has been raised in memory of this politician who when he died had an estate worth less than $10,000, and who in 1950 when faced with almost inevitable defeat could rise to his feet and declare to the House of Representatives: “I have stood by the fundamental principles which I have always advocated, I have not trimmed. I have not retreated, I do apologize, and I am not compromising.”

by Gerald Meyer, Ph.D.

 

 

Suggested Readings

John Salvatore LaGumina, Vito Marcantonio: The People’s Politician. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt, 1969.

Gerald Meyer, Vito Marcantonio: Radical Politician: 1902—1954. Albany: SUNY Press, 1989. ——– with Philip Cannistraro, eds., “Italian American Radicalism: An Interpretive History,” in The Lost World of Italian American Radicalism, 1-48 (Westport, CT: Praeger Press, 2003).

Felix Ojeda Reyes, Vito Marcantonio y Puerto Rico: por los trabajadores y por la nación. Rio Piedras, P.R.: Ediciones Huracán, 1978.

Annette Rubinstein, ed., I Vote My Conscience: Debates, Speeches, and Writings of Vito Marcantonio. New York: Vito Marcantonio Memorial, 1956. In 2002 a second edition of I Vote My Conscience, with a new introduction by Gerald Meyer, was published by the John D Calandra Italian American Institute. (CUNY).

Alan Schaffer, Vito Marcantonio: Radical in Congress. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1966.

Published in The American Radical, Eds. Mari Jo Buhle, Paul Buhle, and Harvey Kaye (New York: Routlage, 1994): 269-277.

 

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