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Congressman Vito Marcantonio: “Tribune of the People”. A Study in Genuine Leadership

We remember Marcantonio on the anniversary of his death. An “artist of the possible” who represented his constituents with vision and sense of mission

by Roberto Ragone

Congressman Vito Marcantonio con i bambini di Harlem

Gerald Meyer’s classic study "Vito Marcantonio: Radical Politician, 1902-1954" is a testament to a man who defined integrity and leadership, humanity and compassion. Proud Italian American with roots in Basilicata, "Marc" was Fiorello La Guardia's strong supporter and protege. As the East Harlem Congressman, Marcantonio fearlessly denounced Wall Street greed and Truman's foreign policies that he believed drove the Cold War. Dead at a tragically young age, history has not given him his full due. Until recently, most scholars have maintained that Marcantonio's politics were anomalous to his ethnic milieu. Dr. Meyer's book proves the opposite, Marcantonio's radicalism was formed in the crucible of his Italian American experience. 

During a late 1988 meeting of FIERI, an organization of students and young professionals promoting Italian culture, our president shared a rumor that Al Pacino might play Vito Marcantonio in an upcoming film. Few members were familiar with the radical Congressman from East Harlem but were titillated by the possibility of Pacino’s reemerging on the silver screen. My excitement, however, was more personal. Ever since first encountering him in an African American history class, I had greatly admired Vito Marcantonio and was thrilled that Pacino might play him. This film finally would do justice to a great Italian American.

The project never materialized. This was the height of the Reagan-Bush era, after all, and people were more interested in Wall Street raiders and the pirates of Silicon Valley than in a man whom painter Ralph Fasanella, a loyal supporter, called “the tribune of the people.”

Vito Marcantonio Lucky Corner Ceremony.

As we look at the ideological and partisan dynamics of the United States in contemporary times, and acknowledge another upcoming anniversary of the death of Congressman Vito Marcantonio on August 9, 1954, one cannot help but urgently insist that the story of this unique and unusual political leader deserves to be told. Beginning with the fourth printing of Gerald Meyer’s classic study Vito Marcantonio: Radical Politician, 1902-1954 (State University of New York Press, 1989) in 2014, just before the sixtieth anniversary of Marcantonio’s untimely death of a heart attack after coming up the subway stairs on Broadway by City Hall Park. People are realizing Vito Marcantonio’s story.

Former professor of History at Hostos Community College (CUNY) and a Visiting Professor at Queens College, Meyer might be the only scholar to have sifted through the over sixty boxes of documents on Marcantonio and the American Labor Party archived at the New York Public Library. Meyer’s immersive research includes a review of the correspondence between the Congressman and his constituents, as reflected in his book’s meaty footnotes, which provide additional background, anecdotes, and sidebars about its subject’s colorful and eventful life. As readers will discover, the often complicated facts about Marcantonio’s actual career are far more engrossing than the sometimes simplistic hagiography of political legend.

Vito Marcantonio: remembering an exemplary politician

Growing divides at home based on class, race, and other “identities” along with the paradoxical growth in military presence and decline in military power abroad have made many citizens wonder what genuine political leadership looks like. What can prevent politicians from drifting into dogma, or bureaucracy, or from turning into weather vanes of  opportunism realigning with every passing breeze or entrenching themselves with the “elite illuminati”? Italian Americans, once among the most politically active ethnic groups in this country, have been asking these questions for over forty years.  Combining biography, history, political science, and sociology, Vito Marcantonio: Radical Politician (1902-1954) fills an aching intellectual and emotional void in contemporary America, one best captured by the title of Lee Iacocca’s book, Where Have All the Leaders Gone? (Scribner 2007).

“Great human leaders have this compassion for men,” said Ralph Fasanella in Patrick Wilson’s 1973 article “Fasanella Remembers Marcantonio.” “But strong guys like Rockefeller and these headmen! And a lot of movement people–worried about causes, not about people. You gotta’ have that feeling. It’s a kind of artistry.” For Fasanella, Vito Marcantonio was an artist of the possible because of the way he took the helm and represented his constituents with so much vision, ownership, and sense of mission. Dr. Meyer values Marcantonio’s personal virtues no less, but he also incisively analyzes the confluence of forces, local, national, and international, that created the “Marcantonio phenomenon.” These forces range from the cultural affinity felt by his Italian American and Puerto Rican constituents, to the emergence of a viable third party—the American Labor Party—competing favorably against the Democrats and Republicans, to the rising hopes of international communism and the anti-fascist Popular Front.

Living at a time when America’s two major political parties have become a little too ingratiating and deferential to corporate and globalist interests – whether they be neo-conservative or neo-liberal in nature – we can only marvel at Marcantonio’s success. Despite taking radical positions far outside the mainstream, his constituents elected him to Congress for seven terms. How was this possible? Meyer methodically catalogs the reasons, breaking down chapters into instructive case studies. These lessons show how radicals can develop far-reaching political traction within their community despite their controversial positions. This practical purpose dictates the organization of Meyer’s thesis. Rather than strictly divide his book into chapters telling a story chronologically, Meyer arranges his material around four crucial questions.

  1. How did Marcantonio’s formative years bond him to a loyal community that returned him to office regardless of criticism from outside of East Harlem?

Vito Marcantonio’s parents had roots in Basilicata, a southern, landlocked region of Italy. Saverio Marcantonio, whose parents came to America, returned to his native town of Picerno where he met Marcantonio’s mother-to-be, Antonia, and married her the same year.

From 1917 to 1921, Marcantonio (or “Marc”, as he came to be called endearingly) attended DeWitt Clinton High School, an all-boys, academically challenging school. While there, Marcantonio tragically lost his father from a trolley-car incident.  Fortunately, three significant role models guided his life and career.

Marcantonio at Lucky Corner. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

His paternal grandmother, who had her finger on the pulse of the neighborhood, advised him on community matters, such as housing and street conditions.. Leonard Covello, his Italian teacher at DeWitt Clinton, became his intellectual mentor and oriented him towards community service.  He convinced Marcantonio to study the Italian language and culture, join him in forming a Circolo Italiano (or an Italian “Circle” ) at the high school. He later replicated it at New York University Law School, where Marcantonio matriculated from 1921 to 1925. Marcantonio could have pursued a more typical, upwardly mobile path to the American Dream. Covello, who had become a Protestant, influenced Marcantonio to remain in East Harlem to advocate for the neighborhood and its residents.

Marcantonio’s third key role model was Fiorello La Guardia, then-Chairman of the Board of Aldermen – the predecessor government entity to the structure consisting of the City Council and the Board of Estimate. From 1922 to 1932, LaGuardia would go on to serve as Congressman of East Harlem, and then Mayor of the City of New York.  La Guardia served as his political mentor. Marcantonio first met Fiorello La Guardia when Marcantonio gave a speech at his high school’s senior-year class assembly in 1921.  In his remarks, Marcantonio underscored the need for social security and pensions.

Addressing the assembly next as guest speaker, La Guardia tore up his own prepared text and picked up on Marcantonio’s topics.  Afterwards, walking up to Marcantonio, La Guardia told the 17-year-old student to seek him out after completing law school.   La Guardia would teach Marcantonio parliamentary procedure, find him a job with the District Attorney’s Office, and offer advice about Marcantonio’s personal demeanor.  (While many people are familiar with La Guardia, his integrity, and successes, few know Marcantonio was a protégé.)

Fiorello La Guardia and Vito Marcantonio

Marcantonio would advance La Guardia’s political career.  Managing La Guardia’s campaign and enlisting his own friends and neighbors as volunteers, the protégé helped reelect his mentor as East Harlem’s Congressman in 1924.  Marc managed the Fiorello La Guardia Political Association, interacted directly with most constituents, and  ensured volunteers followed up on requests. His life-long residency in Italian Harlem, which at that time was America’s largest Little Italy, brought a cachet and credibility that La Guardia lacked among the community’s Italian residents.

La Guardia  ran as a progressive Republican reformer opposing the Tammany Hall Democratic political machine while embracing Democratic Governor Franklin Roosevelt.  However, in 1932, infuriated with Republican President Herbert Hoover’s failure to tackle the Great Depression, voters selected a “straight Democratic ticket,”, electing Roosevelt to the Presidency but unseating  La Guardia in the House or Representatives.  The following year, Marcantonio managed the “Little Flower’s” successful Mayoral campaign. He then won the race to fill La Guardia’s Congressional seat in 1934.

  1. How did Marcantonio manage to vote his conscience rather than be hemmed in by the agenda of a political party or the sentiments of his constituents and still continue to be actively supported?

Marcantonio’s uniquely prominent, seven-term tenure as a left-radical Congressman was unique not only for his independence, but his staying power. This is the main thesis of Vito Marcantonio: Radical Politician (1902-1954).  Prior works misstated or misunderstood the Congressman’s political views, even underemphasizing this radicalism.  Distinctively, Vito Marcantonio: Radical Politician (1902-1954) clearly and comprehensively unpacks and dissects Marcantonio’s association with and leadership of the American Left.  Marcantonio did not strictly defer to an ideology or political party. Yet, historically, unlike many other ideological equivalents who lost after one or two terms, Marcantonio persisted for 14 years, from 1935 to 1937 and from 1939 to 1950.

Lucky Corner, tra 116th Street e Lexington Avenue, durante la campagna per la rielezione di marcantonio negli anni '40

Lucky Corner, 116th Street and Lexington Avenue: 1940 Vito Marcantonio’s re-election campaign

Using an approach similar to La Guardia’s, the protégé ran as an anti-Tammany, Republican reformer with a radical Left perspective.  While explicitly proclaiming not to be a Communist, he advocated for the First Amendment right of Communists to express their views. To him, they were the first line of defense of American democracy and political freedom.  Marcantonio’s political perspective also aligned in several respects with American Socialists and Communists and Leftists who were altogether non-Communist and non-Socialist. He passionately fought for civil rights. He eloquently pressed for equality of economic opportunity for all Americans, black and white, native- and foreign-born.

With the distinctiveness of the town crier, he called for government intervention in the economy to protect poor and working people from the moneyed interests.   The radical Congressman publicly heaped deep suspicion and contempt for these interests —Wall Street bankers and financiers, owners of large private industries, [and] large property owners and developers.   From a perspective arguably vindicated today, Marcantonio alleged that these groups sought the benefits of American democracy while pushing the burdens onto the backs of society’s [vulnerable] underdogs. Exploitative, these interests severely underpaid labor, over-charged consumers, and under-contributed to the tax rolls, leaving it to the lower strata of society to fill the government’s revenue gaps.

  1. How did a politician, who was relatively isolated in Congress for his ostensibly “extreme” positions and who focused so much time on personalized constituency services within his district, become a figure of national and international controversy?

Perhaps, the absolutely most remarkable aspect of the question of how he was able to gain great prominence and was allotted tremendous time on the floor to express and fight for his point of view, was that for the last six of his terms (1939-1950) he was a member of a third party, and did not caucus with either of the two major parties.

In the torrent of paranoia and speculation over alleged Communist infiltration in government and society that preceded McCarthy’s McCarthyism, Marcantonio prominently set himself apart.  Many times, he stood alone, holding his ground, challenging the Political Establishment. As liberals throughout the nation lost elections, tempered their positions and points of view, or completely silenced their own voices, Marcantonio’s persistently outspoken radicalism attracted a national spotlight. Prior to the rise of Senator Joseph McCarthy, Marcantonio confronted Congressman Richard Nixon and other public officials who fomented fear by questioning the loyalty of Americans with alleged ties to the Communist Party.  Concerned that government at all levels was undermining the people’s constitutional rights, he stepped up his unconditional fight for equality of opportunity and civil liberties. His struggle did not sacrifice the First Amendment right of the Communist Party to speak its mind.

After President Roosevelt’s death on April 12, 1945, and the Political Establishment views his Administration through the rear-view mirror, the East Harlem Congressman accused President Truman and Congress of dismantling the New Deal and focusing government funds on militarism. Marcantonio viscerally denounced Wall Street.  He accused the financial industry of pressing for a self-serving American foreign policy agenda.  He believed this agenda drove the Cold War. Leading the charge for the American Left, Marcantonio adamantly believed the Establishment was betraying the sacrifices everyday Americans had made against Nazism and Fascism.  Arguably a prophet about the dangers of America’s political direction after World War II, Marcantonio warned against a growing US divergence from its ideals.  He personified those ideals, invoking Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass and Giuseppe Garibaldi, the Italian freedom fighter who deeply admired America’s potential as a model for democracy and opportunity for the world.

Meyer attributes Marcantonio’s electoral stamina to concrete, strategic goals beyond the drama of surviving a hostile political environment. Beginning in 1937, Marcantonio sought to create a viable alternative to the Democrats and Republicans with Mayor La Guardia by supporting the American Labor Party (ALP). Formed by Socialists who wanted to vote for Roosevelt on a ticket other than the Democratic Party, the ALP soon held the balance of power in many New York local and state elections by fostering a period of cross endorsements with the two major parties. After La Guardia’s death, the Congressman then extended his efforts nationally to hold the two major political parties accountable. In 1948, he actively campaigned for Henry Wallace, who had served as Vice President during Roosevelt’s third term, as the Progressive Party’s Presidential candidate.  Marcantonio also sought to create a public record of his perspective.  He hoped this could be used by future generations as a frame of reference for creating a “more perfect Union” and a better world.

Along the way, the major political parties and the media made repeated attempts to defeat him.  In 1944, in response to Marcantonio’s winning control of the ALP’s Manhattan organization, the ALP’s more conservative wing broke away and formed the Liberal Party.  This group joined forces with the major parties by attempting to vitiate Marcantonio’s political strength and undermine his vision.  In 1944, the Democrats and Republicans gerrymandered Marcantonio’s seat. They removed northern portions of the “La Guardia district” and tacked on the heavily German and Irish and upper-income areas of Yorkville and Sutton Place, stretching from East 96th Street to East 59th Street.

In 1946 while seemingly making inroads, Marcantonio suffered several setbacks that eventually led to his defeat.  Marcantonio opened a second  political headquarter in Yorkville. According to Vito Marcantonio: Radical Politician (1902-1954), constituency requests for services grew as high in Yorkville as they were in East Harlem.  The Democrats and Republicans continued to cross-endorse with the American Labor Party, valuing the deciding votes coming from the ALP.  However, in the same year, because of their anti-Marcantonio strength in Yorkville, the Republicans, for the first time, did not designate their ticket to Marcantonio.  The East Harlem Republicans ignored their Party’s official candidate and continued to help their local favorite.

One notable exception took place when, in 1946, East Harlem Republican political operative, Joseph Scottoriggio, who vocally disagreed with his club’s decision to support Marcantonio, and who ostensibly was prepared to deliver hundreds of votes for the official Republican candidate, was savagely beaten by several men on the early morning of Election Day. Several hours later, after Scottoriggio died, the press and the political establishment presumed Marcantonio had authorized a political murder.  A federal investigation found no wrongdoing, and Marcantonio maintained his seat in the House of Representatives.  After the longest grand jury investigation in New York history, the State dismissed the Scottoriggio case.

The case continued to have political repercussions. Because of the murder and investigation, and the growing Cold War anti-Left sentiment, the New York State Legislature passed the Wilson Pakula Act in 1947.  The law required a political candidate to receive the approval of the head of a political party in order to petition for that party’s nomination.  In effect, Marcantonio could run only under the ALP designation. In the past, most of Marcantonio’s volunteers had come from outside the district, many of whom were Communist Party members.  Many of these volunteers would  “petition” — collecting  the sufficient number of signatures  from voters registered with a party to secure the designation of that party.  Wilson-Pakula required that campaign volunteers collecting signatures be registered members of the political party whose designation they were trying to win for a candidate. The law also required volunteers to be residents of the district where they were petitioning.  Consequently, limited to the ALP slot, Marcantonio now needed to persuade past and future volunteers, many of whom were Democrats and Republicans, to register or re-register as ALP members.

Marcantonio’s persistently outspoken radicalism drew national attention especially to his 1948 and 1950 campaigns. The Democratic, Republican, and Liberal Parties had begun refusing to cross-endorse Marcantonio and other ALP candidates.  The press published vitriolic, lurid accusations, calling Marcantonio a Communist, mobster and pimp, who exploits the miseries of the poor.  Marcantonio dramatically emerged victorious in 1948.   Some believed his victory was partly due to the Democrats putting up a weak candidate for Congress in exchange for ALP support of Mayor Bill O’Dwyer’s brother, Paul O’Dwyer, for Congress.

  1. Besides the paradoxical question of Marcantonio’s lasting power despite his controversy and political obstacles, the book implicitly frames the inverse question: why did he eventually lose despite so much local support?

In exploring Vito Marcantonio’s political defeat, Meyer uncovers an irony meriting additional attention.  Marcantonio understood that collective action requires a sense of interdependence among people with similar interests, needs, and concerns.  However, Marcantonio’s independence as well as the desire to serve people personally drove him to create coalitions without deferring to the agenda of any particular organization. The organizations and personalities with whom he chose to associate for collective action propelled and sustained his success.  Yet these associations widened his vulnerability and exposed him to defeat. Local mobsters – several from his childhood with whom he had remained friendly and whose rights he defended in court –  provided resources (e.g. from volunteers to social clubs for campaign logistics). However, they became fuel for feeding the attacks by the media and political establishment—to generate fear, anger, and even hatred for the East Harlem Congressman.

The noteworthy success of his 1948 campaign spotlighted Marcantonio’s  unraveling political leverage.  While tightening the race among the two major parties, the Progressive Party suffered a severe defeat at the national level. The only other ALP member in Congress, Leo Isaacson, representing an East Bronx district, lost to a candidate who won the nominations of the Democratic, Republican, and Liberal Parties. While running for Mayor in 1949, he attracted bursting crowds of people to his events throughout the City. In the mayoral race, Marcantonio had garnered close to 15 percent of the vote in the city and captured one-third of the Italian American vote, a majority of East Harlem’s electorate, and widespread support in other poor districts. By losing the Mayor’s race, the ALP failed to position itself politically to have influence through a citywide electoral post. The following year, in 1950, was the same year that Marcantonio cast the sole vote against the Korean War Resolution and other controversial matters before the House of Representatives, the Republican, Democratic, and Liberal Parties joined forces behind one candidate. As they had with Isaacson, they unseated East Harlem’s Congressman.  Marcantonio  garnered a significantly larger number of ALP votes in 1950 than two years before, but the East Harlem support did not offset the opposition turning out to the polls in Yorkville and Sutton Place.

W. E. B. Du Bois. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Vito Marcantonio maintained his presence in public life while contemplating a political comeback. He kept his political headquarters open, addressing “constituency” concerns as a private citizen. In 1951, in a nationally renowned case, he won acquittal for W. E. B. Du Bois in his pro-bono defense against FBI accusations that this venerable African American intellectual was a foreign agent.  In 1953 as Chairman of the New York State American Labor Party, Marcantonio called on members to unite behind its candidate for Mayor.  He predicted the nation would soon overcome McCarthyism, and thus, advocated that the ALP sustain its efforts to create a viable third party.  Many leftists abandoned the ALP candidate to “work within the system” to support the Democratic candidate. Consequently, in response to the ALP’s humiliating electoral numbers, Marcantonio resigned from the ALP Chairmanship.  Ironically, despite his feelings of betrayal, the spokesperson of the American Left took up the cause of defending the First Amendment rights of the Communists even more passionately.

Meyer’s study elucidates why Marcantonio’s untimely death of a heart attack in August 1954 was a political catastrophe.  The Congressman’s  one-man standoff against “McCarthyism” took place over a period beginning as far back as  the end of World War II –  and thus 5 years prior to the rise of Senator McCarthy himself and 8 years prior to newsman Edward R. Murrow’s televised criticism of Senator McCarthy, captured in the [Hollywood] film, Good Night and Good Luck. Ironically, Murrow’s successful confrontation against McCarthy made Marcantonio’s political comeback even more viable, occurring months before Marc launched his campaign. The tripartite alliance against him was coming apart and the newspapers began to predict he could win. Marcantonio had just picked up freshly printed forms for petitioning when he stepped off the stairway of the City Hall subway stop, walked through the park to Broadway, and collapsed, with City Hall behind him and the Woolworth Building at the catty corner, situated diagonally south and west, on the other side of the street.

Through its thorough explanation of its various components, the book also  successfully conveys how tragic and even heartbreaking  it is  that most people are unfamiliar with or misinformed about, the  “Marcantonio phenomenon.” As underscored in Vito Marcantonio: Radical Politician (1902-1954), when the former Congressman died, he lived only four blocks from where he was born.  Inspired by  his role models, and feeling connected to his community, he lived among its residents and built bridges among the different ethnicities and races that populated East Harlem. The honorary pall bearers and over 10,000 people attending his funeral represented a cross section of races, ethnicities and religions. They included Covello, Du Bois, Manuel Medina, El Barrio’s ALP leader, and Marcantonio’s barber and long-time friend, Luigi Albarelli. Friends, public leaders, and political officials all offered remembrances, including Covello and Paul Robeson.  Eulogies were delivered in the House of Representatives by Congressmembers   John A. Blatnik (D. Minnesota), Congressman Emanuel J. Celler (D. New York), Congressman Herman R. Eberharter (D. Pennsylvania), Congressman Clare Hoffman (R. Michigan), Congressman Arthur Klein (D. New York), and Congressman Eugene J. McCarthy (D. Minnesota).

Vito Marcantonio_multicultural illustration

Marcantonio’s posthumous reputation, however, was less fortunate. While American history whitewashed and co-opted La Guardia as a colorful ethnic hero, it completely erased Marcantonio’s name and obliterated his memory. Perhaps it was following the example of the Archdiocese of New York, which denied Marcantonio a Requiem Mass and refused him a Catholic burial. He rests in unconsecrated ground in the Bronx’s Woodlawn Cemetery. Marcantonio is perhaps the only Catholic politician in American history who was denied a Catholic burial.

In a sense, Italian American Studies also excommunicated Vito Marcantonio. Until recently, most scholars have maintained that Marcantonio’s politics were anomalous to his ethnic milieu. Dr. Meyer’s book proves the opposite. Marcantonio’s radicalism was formed in the crucible of his Italian American experience.  This insight has social as well as biographical value.

Meyer showcases an Italian American community, often typecast by current popular culture as ideologically conservative and reactionary, as, instead, progressive and activist.  This was possible, however, because early Italian American leaders, such as Marcantonio’s role models Fiorello La Guardia and Leonard Covello, functioned as beacons. They illuminated and guided their communities, but they also withstood the spotlight of public scrutiny. They earned their neighborhood credibility door to door.

Contrast that with the reputation of  liberals that began to emerge in the late 1960’s and 1970’s and continues to the present day with designations such as “radical chic,” “New New-Left,” and “Social Justice Warriors”.  They wine and dine donors and lobbyists inside the Beltway and only get a glimpse of local constituents at staged rallies and photo ops and set as their motto, “Tell them what you want them to do, impose it on them, and make yourself the exception.”  They judge their political opponents, but don’t mind the problems in their own backyard. Whereas Marcantonio is the Good Samaritan, in comparable terms, these so-called “best and brightest” behave more like the first two passersby in the same Biblical story: they can’t tend to the problem immediately in front of them because they are too hurriedly self-absorbed by a self-serving, or self-indulgent cause or priority.

They might rally around identity politics, particularism, and tribalism.  However, these sentiments blind and bind, “opiate” and obviate them from universal issues of justice. Some believe empowering others means making them angry at the socio-economic group immediately above or below them. Some even put a working class white man from a working family on the same moral plane as a corporate male or a celebrity male with power and privilege.  In fact, the selective tolerance of pervasive Italian American stereotypes by the Modern Cultural Left reflects their uninformed (or misinformed) hypocrisy, their lack of deep intellect and integrity, and their inability to intuitively benchmark compared to the Old Left, as personified by Marcantonio, La Guardia, Roosevelt, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, an evolved, post-Mecca Malcolm X, and Bobby Kennedy in his final campaign.

Marcantonio’s approach was more like: “give them what they want, then you can give them what you want,” (to paraphrase a quote from the film, Big Night, in which the owner of a commercialized Italian restaurant advises the owner of a restaurant who wants to offer unique Italian cuisines).  In fact, Marcantonio would have added, “…and don’t make them feel obligated to accept what you want.” By becoming attuned to, and serving the immediate and practical needs of his constituents, Marcantonio positioned himself to inspire and motivate them to support him on more distantly national and international concerns.

Offering a unique lesson for contemporary political science and campaigns, Vito Marcantonio: Radical Politician (1902-1954) reconstructs a profile of Italian American Republicans and Democrats.  They stood by Marc, not as an ideologue, and certainly not as an elitist, but as a populist looking out for them.  Many were indeed registered Republicans alienated from the Irish-dominated, anti-Italian Tammany Hall Democratic machine. They preferred to vote for Marcantonio on the Republican Party designation when he received it.  If he lost the Republican primary, they still cast ballots for him under Democratic Party or ALP designations.

As the idealism and solidarity of the New Deal and World War II yielded to the suspicion and treachery of the Cold War and anti-Communist witch hunts, the political murder of Joseph Scottoriggio proved the perfect pretext for smearing Vito Marcantonio. Yet the Establishment also struck at this Achilles’ heel with other allegations that played to white America’s racism and xenophobia. Meyer documents the significance of the murder, which gathered the longest grand jury in New York State history; but the real trial, he demonstrates, took place in the court of public opinion. The media capitalized on prevalent, virulent stereotypes in the public mind associating violence with Italian Americans, Italian Harlem, local mobsters, and the Congressman. Marcantonio needed to defend himself against these accusations while fighting propaganda against him alleging schemes to “bring Puerto Ricans” illegally into New York City, as well as sympathies with the Communist Party doctrine and a Stalin-controlled Soviet Union.

Italian Harlem viewed an attack on Marc as an attack on the community and on all Italian Americans.  They pulled the lever for him accordingly; in the community’s defense, many walking to the polls with newspapers under their arms containing anti-Marcantonio articles and editorials, some with blaring headlines.   In Dr. Meyer’s book, a respectful and loyal Italian American community serves as the backbone of Marcantonio’s electoral support.  They vote for him and volunteer for him in operating the political organization and assisting the community.

This mutual support and respect between Marc and his community, according to the book’s thesis, forms the foundation and springboard behind how a man who “never left the neighborhood” became a national, even legendary, and now almost mythical figure. Marcantonio embraced the values of the Italian community and even  accepted his childhood friends, regardless of their path in life.  His example makes one wonder whether political representatives, at some level, should authentically live the lives of their constituents. Since meeting with interest groups is intensive and time-consuming, can a modern political leader make time for voters in the same personal manner as Marcantonio did?

Meyer’s book does not answer this question, and it sometimes fails to address the compromises, blunders, and contradictions of Marcantonio’s career. For example, he sometimes was forced to soften his criticism of Benito Mussolini, even during the Abyssinian War of 1935, because so many Italian Americans took pride in Il Duce, whose accomplishments were used to discredit prejudice against Italian immigrants.  Did Marcantonio lose his first reelection campaign in 1936 as an anti-Tammany Hall Republican in Roosevelt Democratic sweep because he had been conspicuously critical of Mussolini, and did he temper his approach because of that defeat?

But the East Harlem Congressman’s biggest ethical and political challenge was his position on America’s involvement in World War II prior to Pearl Harbor. Marcantonio found himself caught between principles and pragmatism.  Philosophically, Marcantonio suspected both the Axis and the Allies of having imperialist motives.  Unlike many of his Congressional colleagues, however, he did oppose redirecting funds from the New Deal to military defense. Because he received electoral support from American Communists, some of whom were ALP members, both philosophically and politically, it made sense to him for the Soviet Union to avoid war with Nazi Germany.  He did not embrace the Machiavellian attitude of many heads of state who would be pleased to see Nazis and Communists kill each other even though it was in democracy’s best interests to come to the aid of the Soviet Union.

For his own reasons, he opposed US entrance into World War II for most of the same period that the federal government and the American citizenry objected to intervention.  Even so, Marcantonio differed strikingly from his more mainstream colleagues on the issue of American intervention.  On the record,  Marcantonio made it abundantly clear he was not a conscientious objector, did not promote isolationism, and would not cater to isolationist sentiment. Nevertheless, he opposed the first US conscription bill of 1940. His opposition of the second conscription bill, however, was not strictly based on principle or conscience. During July 1941, the month the bill was proposed, the US was officially neutral but aided Great Britain’s  defense. A month earlier, however, Germany had invaded the Soviet Union.  Privately, Russia’s betrayal convinced Marcantonio to support the war; publicly, he still opposed conscription. According to a footnote in Meyer’s book, Communist Party leader Earl Browder contended in the late 1950’s that Marcantonio had confided voting against the bill based on “political expediency. ”  Browder said Marcantonio’s vote had factored in the current views of his constituents and the need to maintain his relationship with the anti-conscription block in Congress.  The East Harlem Representative opposed the bill because he believed supporting it would have been  “confusing” at that point after speaking  in opposition to American involvement  months before.

The second conscription bill dramatically passed by one vote despite Marcantonio’s reluctant opposition. While it seems clear that if Marcantonio were the deciding vote on the Korean War resolution he would have still opposed it, what would he have done if he were the deciding vote on the conscription bill? How would he have explained it? How does it reflect his politics and personality? How would it affected his political incumbency, and what steps would he have needed to take as part of his political survival?

The Congressman did not shy away, but gingerly sought the right time to officially change his position to favor an American declaration of war.  When he did  advocate for American entry in October 1941, a little over a month before Pearl Harbor,  he did not equivocate in disclosing that his support coincided with Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union four months before.  Even though he could have, he did not  mute or downplay that connection. When challenged by a Congressional colleague, he  passionately defended his perspective, ending his remarks with a dramatic assertion of his “interest in the defense of America, existing,” he proclaimed, “since the day I was born.”

Yet, regardless of his own (and very common) view of Great Britain’s standing as a colonizer throughout the world, it is unclear why Marcantonio was more concerned about American vulnerability from the scenario of Germany invading Russia with Britain still resisting defeat compared to a scenario of a defeated Britain  and a neutral, un-attacked  Russia. No one apparently asked the Congressman this specific question; and he never went out of the way to answer it. Ultimately, it would be speculative to say that Marcantonio avoided this argument and committed a sin of omission. However, even the most principled politicians, including Abraham Lincoln, had committed sins of omission to at least buy time in the face of an opposition refusing to engage in good faith dialogue on the merits of abolishing slavery as a war aim  – and opposition bent on the goal of the unseating the leader even if they are acting against the best interest of the American people in their attempts to do so.

Marcantonio’s neutrality paralleled Roosevelt’s and the nation’s for much of the same period from 1939 to 1941. However, when Nazi violence intensified against the Jews during that time, why didn’t Marcantonio support intervention as a matter of conscience?  To what extent was he aware of the problem? Did he believe the severity of Jewish treatment was not as problematic as the imperialist motives of the nations at war? One would be hard-pressed to argue that Marcantonio’s actions reflected indifference towards the world’s Jews. The Congressman from East Harlem certainly fought against anti-Semitism, and even sponsored prior to World War II a community meeting entitled “Italians Don’t Hate Jews,” to foster better relations between the two groups.  Arguably one of the most impressive moments of Marcantonio’s career was when he rose spontaneously to call for a point of order and confronted another  Congressman for stirring opposition to  a piece of legislation by characterizing Rep. Emanuel Cellar, one of its Congressional proponents, “the Jewish gentleman from New York.” Marcantonio spontaneously stood up immediately and spoke out eloquently without having had the opportunity to prepare notes or collect his thoughts.

Despite these loose ends, Marcantonio’s paradoxical moments in his life, through his vision and persistence, personifies the potential survival and success of the American Left. The voltage of his personality, especially his hopefulness and determination, catalyzed and electrified a movement poised to survive and rebuild after McCarthyism. What would have happened if he had staged a viable comeback in 1954, if his great heart had not finally given out on those subway stairs? But if we truly wish to inherit Marcantonio’s legacy, we must learn from rather than enshrine the past.

Nostalgia breeds passivity. To prevent that from happening, Meyer skillfully parallels the passing of Marcantonio with that of his era, yet also ironically inspires empowering the less powerful through the book’s clarion call of insights about leadership and collective action. Marcantonio’s sense of his own uniqueness and importance bolstered his confidence and conviction. Ironically, this same individuality prevented him from even considering a successor, dooming his organization and movement to perish shortly after him. His single-minded sense of purpose did not plan into the distant future.  This paradoxical solitary sense of purpose through collective action defines Marcantonio and his actions. If explained sooner in the book, this paradox would have served as a prism for an even more fascinating read.  Yet this insight emerges as a remarkable springboard for reflecting back on Marc’s story after completing the book.

Vito Marcantonio’s Lucky corner, Harlem

In the final analysis, Vito Marcantonio emerges with a renewed relevance in critiquing contemporary America. Vito Marcantonio: Radical Politician [ (1902-1954)] shows the East Harlem Congressman to have been a man of courage and conscience, prominently standing up for the rights of everyday people.   Marcantonio offered his voice loudly and persistently for Americans disadvantaged, regardless of their economic status, race, ethnicity and religion.  He demanded that Congress and the White House ensure for these Americans equality of opportunity, the autonomy and entrepreneurship to thrive, and the purchasing power to advance themselves and their family.  With the same characteristics he opposed the regressive distribution of taxation and subsidies favoring corporations and large property owners, which he viewed as coming at the expense of the survival and success of people with fewer means.   Marcantonio’s view also applied to postwar Europe and developing nations, including the struggling populations of formerly colonized emerging nations like Korea.

“When this man spoke at a rally,” Ralph Fasanella recalled, “you should have had him taped. This man was a Beethoven when he spoke. A real symphony. Brought you right around. He had the turmoil and the anguish of the people. And he also had the intellectual depth. Tremendous intellect, but you’d never know it the way he spoke. ‘Hey you! Come over here! Hey you! What number you takin’?’ [Marc] knew everybody. Even the gangsters.”

Meyer’s book is timely and urgent and suggests why the family in Tony Kushner’s 2009 play The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures are the fictional cousins of Vito Marcantonio. His story speaks to a world that has become politically aware but is unsure how to act. The Internet has heightened dissatisfaction with the status quo, but most people treated the Occupy Wall Street movement, here and abroad, as a spectator sport.  In 2012, Time Magazine named a generic “protester” its person of the year.  The oppressed and marginalized still desire coherence in their political philosophy and leaders, and even from their opponents, who so often set the terms of political debate in our country.

Vito Marcantonio: Radical Politician, 1902-1954 offers a model for strong and grounded leadership with qualities we crave today:  inclusiveness and earthiness in its attitude, community-centered in its foundation, cogent and coherent in its thinking, and forthright and consistent in its character. These elements made Vito Marcantonio lead and fight for ordinary citizens with every fiber of his being.

 

 

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