1971 : Joan Baez sings "Here's to you" of Ennio Morricone
This chronicle is the English version (mainly dedicated to an international audience) of the chronicle published in French on the mainly French-history oriented blog “La plume et le rouleau”. Thank you for being lenient towards the translation!
Dear readers of the Chronicles of the Quill and the Roll,
We will today have a glance on a very badly knowned period of the American history: a time placed just after the First World War.
How many among you remember (or simply know) that, at this time, the United States were shaken by a intense social protest movement ? Amost nobody. That is why we will, today, talk about that while celebrating a tragic date
« Here's to you Nicolas and Bart’
Rest forever here in our hearts
The last and final moment is yours
That agony is your triumph… »
This song was composed in 1971 by Ennio Morricone and was the original soundtrack of a movie. It remains probably the most chart-topper of the folk singer Joan Baez. Everybody knows it. I am sure that you already hum it.
But what does it refer to?
It refers to the fact that, 75 years ago, on August 23rd, 1927 in the sinister jail of Charlestown (Massachusetts), Nicola (without s!) Sacco et Bartolomeo (without h!) Vanzetti were executed on the electric chair.
Who were these two men, how and why were they here, and, as always, what conclusion can we draw from this true story?
At the very beginning, it is the story of two young Italian men, naturally attracted by the « American dream », by a an opened society where everybody has the opportunity to try his luck and by the economic growth of a country where everything has to be built. We are there at the beginning of the 20th century.
Nicola Sacco (left) was born in 1892 at Torremagiore, in the south of Italy. His father is not impoverished. Anyway he cannot establish all his sons, practically: buying lands for them.
Then, Nicola takes the boat for America. Landed at Boston, he first does various jobs before finally being hired as a worker in a shoes factory. There, he follows lessons, out of his working hours, in order to become skilled worker. Last, to make a little extra on the side, he also works as a night watchman. Serious, hard-worker, good catholic, he gets married soon and start a family: a beginning of an upward social mobility.
Bartolomeo Vanzetti (right), for his side, is coming from the north of Italy, from Villafalletto where he was born in 1888 in a middle-class family. He is a hard-working pupil and obtains a basic-school leaving certification (at 12). But he will not have the opportunity to continue his studies. His father wants him to work an to get money immediately. Also badly affected by the death of his mother, he decides to embark, at 20 in 1908, for the United States. In love with freedom and independence, he then does multiple jobs that does not give him any real financial ease. He never travels without two books: “The Divine Comedy” (of the Italian poet and writer Dante Alighieri) and “The life of Jesus” (of the anticlerical-oriented French writer Ernest Renan).
The two men are filled with libertarian ideal, they are in love with liberty, the strongly believe in the opportunities offered by the New World. Quickly they both become deeply disillusioned when arriving in the United States. It has to be said that, in the middle of the 1880’s, the immigrants going to the USA come from European countries hardly hit by an economic downturn. These immigrants are no longer Anglo-Saxon people, Protestants and graduated. They mainly come from the poorest agricultural regions of got rid out of home by the endemic poverty and the violence. Passing by Ellis Island, the number of these immigrants therefore rapidly inflates up to 800 000 (!) for the sole year 1914.
This labour force is not very particular when it comes to wages and to working conditions: therefore, these immigrants quickly find a place in the job market. Converse to that, as far as the society is concerned, things are more difficult. These immigrants hardly fit into the existing American society.
Indeed, at the end of the XIXth century, some violent labour and wages disputes arise in the United States. For the Anglo-Saxons people, these disputes are due to the « new immigration », an immigration which, according to them, does not fit with what is called the « americanity ». « Americanity », anyway, is a concept which is hard to translate and more over to understand by an European mind.
The rising of anarchist and protest trends runs counter to a public opinion devoted to the fundamental idea of an America united by the value that have founded it : an chance for each one even, as the same time, the society is merciless for all. The Polish Jews are accused to propagate the Bolshevism since the Italians are regarded as strike causers. In short, every « red » is under suspicion for wanting to sap the foundations of the Union.
On the eve of the First World War, there is therefore a real crackdown against the strikes : the clashes between striking workers and private militias indeed make 20 dead people in the Rockfeller factories in April 1904. At the same time, the methods used by the unions harden: brutal attempt on the life of the mayor of Seattle, of the billionaires JP Morgan or John D. Rockfeller, bombing of the General Attorney’s home of Washington, Palmer and at the corner of the street between Wall Street and Broad Street !
Faced with the social injustice, deeply pained by his change of personal environment, Sacco, now 21 years old, joins the hard wing of the protest trade unions: the anarchist movement, ready to the revolutionary terrorism and to the direct action. There, he meets Vanzetti one year later.
Here is it for the picture.
April 15th, 1920,, in the little town of South Braintree (Massachusetts), in the middle of the main street, two criminals kill two men with guns. The two victims (named Parmenter and Berardelli) are respectively cashier and guard at the Slater & Morril shoe factory and they are conveying the wages of the salary men: USD 16 000 $. The gangsters then run away aboard of a black Buick.
On May 4th, 1920, the police put Sacco and Vanzetti under arrest at the time while they were going to the garage to take delivery of a car belonging to a man named Boda. This car is a… black Buick. The police think that the tyre marks of the two vehicles are equivalent. The police also note that Sacco et Vanzetti carry rifles. The two Italians, however, multiply the lies and the contradictory alibis. They are finally charged for the double crime.
The trial will take place one late later : from May 31 st, 1921 to July 14th, 1921.
It is not, converse to what was often reported, a mockery of a trial. Anyway, on the basis of fragile presumptions and in a very hostile state of mind of the public toward all the lies of the two accused, these are finally judged guilty and are sentenced to the death penalty.
As it is usual in the United States, the Defense has some rather wide possibilities of recourses and appeals. Then, a long and hardly bearable time of waiting begins. It will length, for Sacco et Vanzetti, nearly 6 years.
In the meantime, the pros also try to mobilize forces. The defence mainly relies on the activism of some European Communist parties. Anyway, many writers and various intellectuals participate to support the cause of the two Italians: John Dos Passos (US), Anatole France (France), Modigliani (Italy), Herbert G. Wells (US), Jean Rostand and Joseph Caillaux (France). The point is to condemn the use of the death penalty and its application to a demeanour belief: the protesters are convinced that, in reality, Sacco and Vanzetti were convicted because they were anarchist, poor and from Italian roots, challenging by that the white America and the rich, puritan, scornful and law-and-order minded WASP.
The accused, anyway, keep on denying. They do not deny their very opinion and friendship but only the crime for which they have been judged guilty. Their loneliness is terribly difficult to bear. Each of them will be examined and treated in a psychiatric hospital (1923 for Sacco, 1925 for Vanzetti). Sacco will get rid of it thanks to the reading and to the study of the English language. Vanzetti will use the manual work and the writing of a huge number of letters.
With the time going on and considering, the forces mobilized for them, the two convicted men begin to believe the possibility of a reviewing of their sentence. And suddenly this reviewing appears closer than ever ! In November 1925, a Portuguese immigrant aged 23, Celestino Madeiros, sentenced to the death penalty for the murder of a cashier and jailed at Charlestown too, make a confession: he has participated to the attack of South Braintree. He the clears Sacco and Vanzetti
An appeal is made behind the Supreme Court of the State of Massachusetts. On April 5th, 1927, Judge Thayer, president of this Supreme Court, passes his sentence: the new the existing of some new testimonies does not justify a new trial. Four years later, the sentence is confirmed: the death.
The sole opportunity then remains the pardon of the Governor Fuller, of the State of New York, to save the two sentenced men. One thing to note: this governor is, at this date, candidate to be vice-president of the United States…
Governor Fuller, then, meets Sacco and Vanzetti on July 22nd, 1927, without any problem. Le day after, Vanzetti writes in a postmail: « I do not believe that such a man will make us burn for a cas like ours. » But, on August 3rd, 1927, Fuller refuses the pardon. Three weeks later, Sacco and Vanzetti are executed.
These two unfortunate men are nowadays part of a kind of mythology of which we have to seek and to understand the roots. Since their guilt was never formally proved (and, on the contrary, because their innocence is today almost 100 % demonstrated thanks to the modern technology of the electronic microscopy), Sacco and Vanzetti, more than others, were used to specific aims.
They were sentenced by a puritan America, reactionary and protectionist, embodied by the Presidents Calvin, Harding and Coolidge, of the interwar period, who represented the WASP frightened to see the arrival of new immigrants : it was then a necessity to strike hard to state firmly the American values toward the protests. It was was is called the “native reaction” (where the “natives” are not the Indians but the cow-boys…).
The defenders of the two accused, for their part, were various communist and anarchist groups and parties whose methods and ideology were not frankly better than those they intend to oppose in the frame of the class struggle. It has been at the origin of the historical anti-capitalism and anti-American state of mind widely shared by the European intellectuals and middle-class people. This feeling strongly resurged during the protest of 1968, the Vietnam war (1964 – 1975) and the Irak war (2003 - ?...).
Beware then of the misuse of the symbols and let’s stay at the level of the reasons for which Michael Dukakis, governor of the Massachusetts in 1977, decided, this very year, to celebrate, each August 23, the « Sacco & Vanzetti day »: « (to have) the courage to oppose to the forces of the intolerance, of the fear and of the hate and to unify for the triumph of the reason, of the impartiality and of the wisdom that our judiciary system needs ».
It still really needs them more than ever… since such an injustice would need never to happen…
Have a nice day.