“Marcantonio: East Harlem’s ‘bread of the poor,’” a review article of Gerald Meyer’s Book, Vito Marcantonio: Radical Politician, 1902-1954, by Gil Fagiani.

“Marcantonio: East Harlem’s ‘bread of the poor,’” a review article of Gerald Meyer’s Book, Vito Marcantonio: Radical Politician, 1902-1954, by Gil Fagiani. Published in The Guardian, May 16, 1990, pages 10-11.

The ugly realities of racism in this country have a way of intruding into our lives in the most unexpected and personal ways. One of the most painful moments in my adult life was having to counsel my sons to stay out of Italian neighborhoods. Half Puerto Rican and half Italian, they experienced racial abuse in communities where Italians predominated. I began to feel a shame about my own Italian background, of which I wanted my kids to feel proud.

Gerald Meyer’s “Vito Marcantonio, Radical Politician, 1902-1954 served to remind me that there have been Italian American leaders that have fought against racism and for a progressive agenda. Meyer tells a story that contradicts many of the platitudes that pass for U.S. history and challenges the media-supported stereotypes of Italian Americans as inevitably politically reactionary.

The great paradox in Marcantonio’s career was his tremendous and unflagging popularity in Italian Harlem and his consistent and outspoken radicalism.

What is most original about Meyer’s book is how he uses the prism of popular culture—the adapted folkways of Southern Italians—to shed light on this paradox. His book offers an implicit rebuke to the extreme melting-pot strategies that the left, from the Progressive Movement to various socialist and communist organizations, has adopted at times. He suggests that a renewed sensitivity to cultural pluralism, including the culture of various European-American nationalities, can work to the left’s advantage.

Vito Marcantonio, or Marc as he was known to his friends and constituents, served East Harlem in the House of Representatives for 14 years—1934-36, and 1938-50. East Harlem never became a melting pot but served as the home for a succession of immigrant groups.

Its original German American and Irish American communities gave way first to an Eastern Jewish community and then the largest Southern Italian and Italian American communities in the United States. By 1950 the Black community accounted for 17% of East Harlem’s population.

During Marcantonio’s time in office, relations between Blacks, Italians, and Puerto Ricans were cool at best. For the most part, the three groups stayed to themselves within recognized territorial borders.

Although some Blacks expressed resentment towards the large influx of Puerto Ricans, overall, relations were better between Blacks and Puerto Ricans than they were between Italians and either Puerto Ricans or Blacks. In reaction to Mussolini’s conquest of Ethiopia, many Italian merchants were driven out of Central Harlem. But the riots that swept the Black community in 1934 and 1943 were mainly directed at the police and storeowners along West 125th Street. East Harlem was not convulsed by the type of race riots that shook other cities, like Chicago.

Meyer calls Marcantonio the most important left-wing politician in U.S. history. Marcantonio advocated the nationalization of many basic industries. He told a journalist, “I don’t feel very friendly towards bankers. I would send them all to jail—including Italian bankers.” An anti-imperialist, he attacked economic as well as political intervention in the affairs of other countries and called for Puerto Rican independence.

Many of his positions were unpopular. He defended the rights of Communists at the height of the anti-communist hysteria following World War II. His was the sole dissenting vote in the U.S. House of Representatives against U.S military involvement in Korea. To one Puerto Rican supporter he was “the bread of the poor,” while to the Daily Mirror, he was a “political maggot who must feed on decay and corruption to survive.”

While attending De Witt Clinton High School Marcantonio met three people who would have a life-long impact on his political development, Abraham Lefkowitz, a history teacher who later ran for congress on the Socialist Party ticket, helped Marcantonio to understand U.S. history as a constant struggle of the haves and the have-nots to extend the boundaries of democracy. Marcantonio’s interest in the writings of Jefferson and Lincoln dates from his interaction with Lefkowitz.

He first met Fiorello La Guardia at De Witt High School in 1921. La Guardia was then President of the Board of Alderman and maintained ties with the Socialist Party. Later Marcantonio was La Guardia’s protégé and campaign manager.

But it was another teacher, Leonard Covello, the leading Italian American educator of the time, who Meyer contends was the most important figure in Marcantonio’s life. Covello was alarmed at the low academic achievements of Italian American students. He sought to rid them of the idea that Italian meant something inferior. His life-long project was the development of a strategy he termed community-centered education.

Covello’s most innovative idea was the creation of Circoli Italiani, a substitute pro-education peer group, to counter the usually strong Italian American peer group hostility to prolonged education. In this way he was able to lessen the antagonism between U.S. educational institutions and Southern Italian folkways.

Marcontonio was involved in all aspects of Covello’s educational strategy. It was Covello’s influence that led him to community service and total integration into the community. They lived in adjacent brownstones on East 116th Street.

In addition to these early influences on Marcantonio, Meyer reminds us in the first half of the 20th century New York City was a center of radicalism. The base which Marcantonio maneuvered within the maze of political parties was the American Labor Party. The ALP was organized in 1926 to allow the Socialists and left-wing unionists to vote for Roosevelt without registering as Democrats. It regularly amassed 500,000 votes, more than any left party in the United States. The ALP was the longest lasting of the state-level farm and labor parties, and Marcantonio was state chairman until he resigned in 1953.

To Meyer’s credit he devotes a whole chapter to Marcantonio’s relationship to the Communist Party.

Two previous biographies of Marcantonio, Alan Schaffer’s Vito Marcantonio, Radical in Congress (1966) and Salvatore La Gumina’s Vito Marcantonio: The People’s Politician (1969), largely ignore his relationship to the Communist Party. These authors were interested in establishing a positive image of a man who was victimized by an extraordinary campaign of vilification on the press.

Meyer, for example, reveals that in 1950, before the primary and general elections, the Daily Mirror published 58 articles attacking Marcantonio. Its headlines blared: “Marcantonio’s Underworld Machine,” “Marcantonio in Photo with Harlem’s Vice Queen,” “Girl’s Craving Excitement Find it at Marc’s Club.”

The Communist Party reached its zenith in the mid-1940s, with upward of 100,000 members and a sympathetic following in the hundreds of thousands. Its members held positions of influence in the CIO. It was strongest in New York City.

Marcantonio was never a member of the party, but he did defend it against governmental repression and shared many of its ideological perspectives. He also benefited from the party’s formidable resources, such as committed campaign workers and a media network.

The moral price that Marcantonio paid for these resources was his failure to publically criticize the Soviet Union. He was silent about the crimes of Stalinism. Nevertheless, George Charney, New York state Communist Party chair, reports in his autobiography, A Long Journey (1968), that the party leadership still suspected Marcantonio of being anti-Soviet. This stemmed from Marcantonio supporting Indian Prime Minister Jawaharal Nehru’s call for a cease-fire in the Korean War when it appeared that the North Koreans would achieve final victory.

In his final years, Marcantonio was sharply at odds with the party’s assessment that the United States was on the verge of becoming a full-fledged fascist state. He resented the party’s subsequent playing down of left political organizations, such as the ALP.

According to Meyer, “Marcantonio achieved what was not achieved anywhere else in the United States, that is, the mobilization of the latent rebelliousness of the Southern Italians.” He did this by accepting and living in accord with the values of Italian Harlem and by skillfully taking advantage of the political implications of the Southern Italian social structure.

First, there was la famiglia and rispetto, (family and respect), which included courtesy and attention to the desires of older people. Marcantonio once told an associate that the one person he trusted completely was his grandmother.

He was the sole support of his mother, grandmother and reclusive brother, who was probably schizophrenic. They all lived in the same building, along with some cousins, and later with his wife’s invalid brother.

There was also the notion of paesani, that went beyond those who came from the same place in Italy, and meant those who by propinquity and intermarriage, formed a tight inner circle. Allied to this was campanilismo or village-mindedness.

Marcantonio himself never lived more than four blocks from where he was born. An associate of his recalls, that he would frequently ask, “Isn’t Harlem the greatest community in the world?”

Southern Italians had a traditional wariness and hostility toward foreigners. Therefore, the vicious press campaign that was aimed at Marcantonio because of his radicalism and relationship with the Communist Party did not turn the residents of Italian Harlem against him.

The key to the Vito Marcantonio Political Association was the dispensing of services in a direct and personal way. Unlike constituents of other political machines, the residents of his district were encouraged to see the leader on a first-come, first-served basis. Everyone who went to his clubhouse saw Vito Marcantonio. People who saw “the Congressman” had the sense that “Marc fixed it.”

Southern Italians came from a country where the abyss between the rich and the government necessitated intermediaries, or what were called padroni. Vito Marcantonio was the most ideological of his contemporaries, yet as the padrone par excellence, none took more to heart the immediate concerns of his constituents.

To an unusual degree Puerto Ricans shared the values of family, community and padronismo. In addition, El Barrio (as East Harlem came to be known by its Spanish-speaking residents) had a significant history of left-wing radicalism. For example, it was the only community in which the ALP constituted the majority party. Meyer writes that “El Barrio and Marcantonio constitute an almost perfect marriage of constituency and political leader.”

Meyer’s book debunks the notion of a negative cultural determinism that depicts the inhabitants of Italian American communities as racist goons. Throughout his tenure in office, Marcantonio joined the interests and historical fates of the African American, Puerto Rican and Italian American people. He referred to them, “as our sons of Garibaldi, {Eugenio Maria} De Hostos, and Frederick Douglas.”

He did this legislatively by supporting a bill to abolish a poll tax that discriminated against all three groups. In 1942 he introduced the first bill to permanently ban discrimination in employment. During World War II he attached “Harlem Riders” to bills for the appropriations of armaments in order to ensure fair hiring practices in the defense industry.

He engaged in well-publicized battles with racists like Mississippi Senator Theodore Bilbo, who said he would fight against Marcantonio’s anti-discrimination legislation to prevent whites from being “contaminated by Negro blood.”

With regard to Marcantonio’s outlook on civil rights, Meyer quotes from a House speech: “The Negro people have waited too long and have suffered too much under Jim Crow to wait for the success of gradualistic solutions.”

As the Italian population of East Harlem declined, the Puerto Rican population grew. The voters of El Barrio became an essential component of Marcantonio’s electoral successes.

From 1936 to 1950, Marcantonio was the most prominent advocate of Puerto Rican rights in Congress. He played a more important legislative role than Puerto Rico’s resident commissioners in the House, since they were barred from voting. In fact Marcantonio served two constituencies in the House: his congressional district and Puerto Rico itself.

Meyer catalogues a long list of initiatives Marcantonio took in behalf of Puerto Rico. In 1936 he introduced a bill for Puerto Rican independence and a declaration of U.S. responsibility for the disastrous state of the island’s economy. In 1939 he won the inclusion of Puerto Rico in the extension of the Social Security Act.

The Congressman was also instrumental in blocking the 1943 Cole amendment that would have cost the Puerto Rican treasury $70 million in rum revenues. He also got the U.S. government to buy large quantities of Puerto Rican coffee after World War II and, in 1946, to restore Spanish as the language of instruction in Puerto Rican public schools.

Marcantonio also combatted racism in his own community. In 1938, in the midst of the congressional campaign, a series of violent confrontations broke out between Italian American and Puerto Rican youths. The two communities quickly became armed camps. Marcantonio was a key figure in defusing the situation, chairing unity meetings that attracted 2,000 residents.

Meyer quotes a woman from Italian Harlem who recalled that “Marcantonio got out of his sick bed and spoke everywhere. He was most forceful in condemning violence on the part of Italians, reminding them constantly that they, too, had once been the butt of violence, segregation, and discrimination, and it was particularly shameful for them to indulge in such tactics against others.”

In September 1945, a fight broke out in Benjamin Franklin High School between black and white students at a time of far more serious disturbances in Chicago and elsewhere. Marcantonio personally contacted Mayor La Guardia, arranged for Frank Sinatra to appear at the school and organized an integrated contingent of Franklin students to march in the Columbus Day parade.

He also sent a letter to the residents of Italian Harlem that Meyer quotes: “The same people that hate us…who discriminate against us, also hate the Negro people, the Jews, the Catholics, the foreign born…And those that would divide us include, unfortunately, traitors among our own people.”

After the racial killing in Bensonhurst, the major New York papers unleashed a fusillade of stereotypes and insults at Italian American communities. The working class residents of those neighborhoods were branded low-intellect, Mafiosi, greasers and “Guidos.” It was reminiscent of Marcantonio’s day, when Italians were called “congenitally recalcitrant” by The New York Times and his followers labeled “the scum of the slum” by the Daily Mirror.

Gerald Meyer’s stirring biography serves to remind us that the core of Marcantonio’s success was his ability to build a coalition of diverse ethnic and political viewpoints.

Vito Marcantonio: Radical Politician, 1901-54, ends on a sad note, as Meyer points out the historical neglect that has befallen “the most important left-wing politician in the history of the United States.” I hope this book will go a long way towards changing this state of affairs. I hope, in particular, that it reaches a significant progressive and Italian-American audience.

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