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HONOR THE MEMORY OF SACCO AND VANZETTI IN THIS THE 80TH ANNIVERSARY OF THEIR EXECUTION BY THE COMMONWEALTH OF MASSACHUSETTS.
I HAD ORIGINALLY INTENDED TO BASE MY COMMENTARY ON THE RECENTLY (2006)RELEASED DOCUMENTARY ABOUT THESE TWO ANARCHISTS BUT I WAS NOT ABLE TO GET THE DVD IN TIME SO THAT THIS COMMENTARY IS BASED ON A REVIEW OF A BOOK I DID EARLIER THIS YEAR-JUSTICE CRUCIFIED, ROBERTA STRAUSS FEURERLICHT, MCGRAW-HILL, NEW YORK, 1977.
Those familiar with the radical movement know that at least once in every generation a political criminal case comes up that defines that era. One thinks of the Haymarket Martyrs in the 19th century, the Scottsboro Boys in the 1930's, the Rosenbergs in the post-World War II Cold War period and today Mumia Abu-Jamal. In America after World War I when the Attorney General Palmer-driven ‘red scare’ brought the federal government’s vendetta against foreigners, immigrants and militant labor fighters to a white heat that generation's case was probably the most famous of them all, Sacco and Vanzetti. The exposure of the tensions within American society that came to the surface as a result of that case is the subject of the book under review. I note that it is as much a polemic on American nativism and Puritan skullduggery as it is a thorough study of the particulars of the case. After reading the book those whose sense of the 1920’s in America was formed by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age will have to think again.
A case like that of Sacco and Vanzetti, accused, convicted and then executed in 1927 for a robbery and double murder committed in a holdup of a payroll delivery to a shoe factory in Braintree, Massachusetts in 1920, does not easily conform to any specific notion that the average citizen today has of either the state or federal legal system. Nevertheless, one does not need to buy into the author’s thesis about the original sin of obtuse ‘righteousness’ that drove the Puritans forebears in the Massachusetts Bay Colony and therefore made it possible to railroad two foreign-born Italian anarchists in 1920 to know that the case against them 'stunk' to high heaven. And that is the rub. Even a cursory look at the evidence presented (taking the state of jurisprudence at that time into consideration) and the facts surrounding the case would force the most mildly liberal political type to know the “frame” was on. That standard response is the minimum one would expect of an author on this subject so long after the events. This author passes that test. Her sympathies lie with the two anarchists and by extension all those who suffered physical and psychological damage from the abysmal social, political and cultural attitudes of the American ruling classes and their henchmen toward the great ‘unwashed’.
Everyone agrees, or should agree, that in such political criminal cases as Sacco and Vanzetti every legal avenue including appeals, petitions and seeking grants of clemency should be used in order to secure the goal, the freedom of those imprisoned. This author does an adequate job of detailing the various appeals and other legal wrangling that only intensified as the execution neared. Nevertheless she does not adequately address a question that is implicit in her description of the fight to save the lives of Sacco and Vanzetti. How does one organize and who does one appeal to in a radical working class political defense case?
The author spends some time on the liberal local Boston defense organizations and the 'grandees' and other celebrities who became involved in the case, and who were committed almost exclusively to a legal defense strategy. She does not, however, pay much attention to the other more radical elements of the campaign that fought for the pair’s freedom. She gives short shrift to the work of the Communists and their International Red Aid (the American affiliate was named the International Labor Defense and headed by Communist leader James P. Cannon, a man well-known in anarchist circles) that organized meetings, conferences and yes, political labor strikes on behalf of Sacco and Vanzetti, especially in Europe. The tension between those two conceptions of political defense work still confronts us to day as we fight the seemingly never-ending legal battles thrown up since 9/11 for today’s Sacco and Vanzetti’s- immigrants, foreigners and radicals (some things do not change with time). If you want plenty of information on the Sacco and Vanzetti case and an interesting thesis about it’s place in radical history, the legal history of Massachusetts and the social history of the United States this is not a bad place to stop. In any case-Honor the Memory of Sacco and Vanzetti.