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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 229

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This is the grave of Vito Marcantonio.

Born in East Harlem in 1902, Marcantonio grew up in a poor, nearly all-Italian neighborhood, the son of a father born in the U.S. and a mother from Italy. He became a radical from a young age, outraged by the poverty he saw around him. His father bragged that his own father had marched with Garibaldi before migrating from Italy. He was also very smart and managed to go to law school, graduating from NYU in 1925. He passed the bar the next year and started working for a firm that represented leftists. He moved farther left while there, getting a Marxist education from his fellow lawyers. He then moved toward politics, seeking to get leftists and progressives elected. This started with his work as Fiorello LaGuardia’s campaign manager during his congressional run in 1924 when he won as a Socialist after the Republicans denied him the nomination. They first got to know each other when LaGuardia gave a speech at DeWitt Clinton High School, where Marcantonio was a senior. Introducing him, Marcantonio gave an impassioned speech about the need for old age insurance legislation. Highly impressed, LaGuardia became his first mentor. LaGuardia would later pay back Marcantonio by getting him a position as assistant U.S. Attorney in 1930. Marcantonio would then be LaGuardia’s campaign manager for his 1930 mayoral run.

Marcantonio’s own active political career began in 1934, when he won a race for Congress, representing his East Harlem home, which was growing more black and Puerto Rican. He was close to the Puerto Rican community especially and was fluent in Spanish. He was still a progressive Republican at this time, but that ended soon. He lost his reelection race in 1936. The following cycle, Marcantonio won his seat back, but was now a member of the American Labor Party. He would become the most prominent leftist in Congress. He still served his community very well. For instance, he publicly criticized the trial of the Puerto Rican nationalist Pedro Albizu Campos was convicted of sedition. In fact, he was so locally popular, that not only was the ALP candidate but also sometimes won the Democratic and Republican nomination too!

But he was also a national figure. In particular, he was a strong advocate for civil rights and anti-lynching legislation. He sponsored bills to eliminate the poll tax and ban lynching. Marcantonio also pushed early versions of living wage legislation and of course supported pieces of the liberal New Deal state, not to mention the many potential parts of it that never became law. But he also thought the Social Security Act was a sellout compromise and instead supported an alternative bill that would have covered every American. He also took some pretty radical positions well to the left of the New Dealers. For instance, he publicly opposed a military appropriations bill in 1935 because it gave ROTC too much power on campuses; Marcantonio said it was “forcing American youth to goosestep through the classrooms.” In the end, he actually was a pretty effective member of Congress, despite his open radicalism and unwillingness to caucus with either major party. For example, when he introduced the Anti-Poll Tax bill in 1942, it was caught up in caucus by southern Democrats who hated it. So he went person to person and got their signatures until he had a majority, publicizing it the whole way to build support. Thanks to this, he actually got the bill passed through the House. Sure the Senate made sure it wouldn’t go anywhere, but that’s effective legislating there.

Unfortunately, like everyone, he had his weaknesses. He strongly supported the rounding up of Japanese-Americans into concentration camps in 1942 and talked publicly about his worries of a “Japanese fifth column.” And in fact, Marcantonio’s position on World War II shifted with the Communist Party. He helped found American Peace Mobilization to keep the U.S. out of the war after Hitler and Stalin made their infamous pact and then instantly became a huge war supporter after the Nazi invasion of the USSR. This constant flip-flopping on many issues probably did more to undermine communist support with rank and file workers than anything else they did. It’s not as if other people couldn’t see what was happening.

Of course, Marcantonio got caught up in anti-communist politics after World War II. The FBI investigated his connections. He ran for mayor of New York in 1949 but lost. Marcantonio served in Congress until 1951. What finally did him in was his vote against participation in the Korean War. That was certainly a brave stance in 1950, but even in East Harlem, that opened him up to attack. James Donovan won support of both Democrats and Republicans to take him out. Yet even to the end, Marcantonio was a vocal supporter of leftist causes, not compromising with anti-black racists. In 1947, Adam Clayton Powell offered an amendment to a bill that would have desegregated public facilities in Washington, DC. Of course, southern legislators claimed it would lead to race riots. Marcantonio spoke in support of the amendment:

Now we hear the same cry…in respect to a simple request that this Congress rise up to the dignity of the nation—the dignity the world expects us to rise up to, of practicing the fundamental precepts of Democracy for which men died, both black and white….This is Washington which many would make the Capital of the world. Are we going to hesitate to remove from the Capital of the United States the blot of discrimination and segregation?

He also led the fight against the odious Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, forcing a full reading of the entire 69 pages of legislation to give people time to lobby their congresscritters in opposition to the bill. This didn’t work of course and managed to get Marcantonio lambasted in the media as a communist. But he didn’t care about that.

After his defeat, the American Labor Party basically fell apart. Marcantonio went back to his law practice. He had never given that up and had funded his own campaigns through it. He was ready to get back into politics and was preparing a 1954 run on the newly formed Good Neighbor Party ticket. Unlikely he would have won given the politics of the time, but certainly he was a serious contender. But while walking up the steps out of the subway, he had a massive heart attack and died, only 51 years old.

Vito Marcantonio is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, New York.

If you would like to help this series continue, you can donate to cover the necessary expenses here. I just used some of your donations for a big trip that included visiting 35 graves, many of whom are some of the most odious people in this nation’s history, as well as a few great people. These will be fun to write up and I thank you for making it happen. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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