Vito Marcantonio: The People’s Hero

On Sunday December 8th, the auditorium of the Museum of City of New York was filled with 275 people who came to honor the centennial of one of East Harlem’s most revered heroes Vito Marcantonio, who served that district from 1934 until 1950 as the only representative of the American Labor Party. The sponsors of the event–the East Harlem Historical Organization, the National Italian American Foundation, FIERI International, and the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute–had worked hard to ensure that this would be a memorable event. Their hopes were more than fulfilled: by 1:15 there was only standing room. Eventually, no one was complaining.

Gerald Meyer, author of Vito Marcantonio Radical Politician, 1902-1954, who spoke first, gave an overview of Marcantonio’s Congressional career. He reminded the audience that: “He fought for Human Rights, Civil Rights, and Constitutional Rights… He would fight hard and long until there would be results.” Meyer added, “Despite his radical views, he earned a great amount of respect from the U.S. Congress.” There was always this conception, that he was associated with the Communist Party. However, he never was a member of the Communist Party. From the book, Meyer quoted Marcantonio, “I have never been. And if I were and had been, I would so admit. I have never traveled under false colors.” Marcantonio was one who was not afraid to stand-up to the House Un-American Activities. In his statement he made back in July 15, 1947 “To all this un-American investigation and undemocratic and unconstitutional procedure we subject 2,500,000 Americans, Government employees who are rendering faithful service to the Government and people of the United States. This committee has imposed this to reinforce their hold on the social and economic structure of this country. This is also used as a wave of hysteria and red-baiting which has been used in a drive to smash labor, and drive to imperil the peace and democratic rights of the American people.” By the way you can read this whole statement in the book I Vote My Conscience, a 500-page compilation of speeches, and writings by Marcantonio edited by Annette Rubinstein, who was also a panelist.

Ms Rubinstein reminded the audience that “Marc loved people, and he never lost faith in the people of East Harlem, or Harlem in general. He never turned his back on anyone.” Rubinstein added, “If this country ever had to name a great statesman, Marcantonio’s name should be among the top. His record in the U.S. Congress has never been matched by any individual since.” Roberto Ragone, who is president of FIERI, recommended that “116th Street between Second and Third Avenues must be dedicated to him.”

Marcantonio’s support for Puerto Rican people and the Independence movement has never been equaled in the United States Congress. From 1936 until March 16, 1950, he introduced five bills for the independence of Puerto Rico. From the floor of the House he told his colleagues: “My interest in Puerto Rico is due not only to the fact that I represent the largest Puerto Rican constituency, of which I am proud.” He added, “My desire as a progressive is to defend the most exploited victims of a most devastating imperialism. I have a right to defend the people of Puerto Rico against exploitation, tyranny, and betrayal. Puerto Rico is part of the United States, and it is our duty to give as much attention, and as much sympathy as we do to the problems of any individual in the United States.” It was Marcantonio who in 1936 defended Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos, Juan Antonio Corretjer, and Clemente Soto Velez, and four other members of the Nationalist Party. After a jury consisting of ten Americans and two Puerto Ricans convicted them at their trial in San Juan, they were been given prison terms ranging from two to ten years for conspiring to overthrow the United States Government. Marcantonio called this verdict a “Political Lynching.” He added, “This case will go down in history as another Scottsboro Boys frame-up.” Marcantonio demanded: “Return Puerto Rico to the people of Puerto Rico. Then there will be no tyranny.”

To this day no one in Congress has ever fought harder for the issue of Puerto Rico than Marcantonio. Today, there are marches to stop the bombing on Vieques, marching for the freedom for the Puerto Rican Political Prisoners, and to end police brutality. This is part of the legacy of Marcantonio.

Gina Rusch, President of the East Harlem Historical Organization, and Kathleen Benson, Educational Director of the Museum of the City of New York, stated that “This event was a great success, which shows the great interest in Marcantonio by this community.” This celebration of Vito’s life was a very informative and moving way for the community to say “thank you.” Anyone just looking at the room that day and watching a diversity of people sitting/learning about him could sense that he would have loved being there.

Paul Robeson, W. E. B. Dubois, Bernardo Vega, and Jesus Colon (individuals who should also be honored) stated this about their friend August 12, 1954 the day of the funeral. (Marcantonio died on August 9th). “The People’s Congressman, and a Champion of Radical Causes.”

Which he truly was!

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