Sacco and Vanzetti Memorial (1977)

[1977's] annual Soil of Liberty picnic was called to observe the 50th anniversary of the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti. On August 21st, some 40 people gathered and Tom Copeland gave the following talk.

Welcome and thanks for coming to this anarchist picnic. Anarchist picnics are a tradition around the world, occasions used by anarchists to enjoy each other's company, to develop solidarity around political activities and to raise money for anarchist causes. Many anarchist picnics were held across this country during the 1920's to raise money for the defense of Sacco and Vanzetti. It seems appropriate, therefore, that our picnic today honor these two men.

This coming Tuesday marks the 50th anniversary of the execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartholomeo Vanzetti by the state of Massachusetts. They were electrocuted August 23, 1927. I have read and studied their case over a number of years. I've been interested in the cases' enormous influence and in the monumental legal injustice done to them. As a future anarchist lawyer, I am particularly concerned about the legal issues of the case. A special significance for me is that my birthday falls on the same day as Sacco and Vanzetti's execution, August 23rd. This gives me a sense of a special bond with them.

Sacco and Vanzetti were born in Italy and immigrated to this country around the turn of the century. They were unskilled laborers working long hours for little pay. Sacco eventually became a shoemaker and Vanzetti a fish peddler. Both were radicals and well known public speakers involved in local strikes and anarchist activities, hard-working members of the rank and file anarchist movement. They fled to Mexico during World War I to escape the draft.

In 1920 a pay master and his guard carrying a $15,000 payroll were killed and robbed in Braintree, Massachusetts. Shortly thereafter, Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested and charged with the two murders. In 1921, a jury found them guilty and they were sentenced to die.

The political climate in America at this time had a great impact on the Sacco-Vanzetti case. The radical movement had reached a peak immediately following World War I. There were large organizations of Socialists, Wobblies, Communists and Anarchists. In 1918 the Bolshevik Revolution caused many US radicals to believe that an American revolution which would overthrow capitalism was just around the corner. 1919 brought a national steel strike, the Seattle general strike and the Boston police strike. The country experienced a wave of bombings supposedly by anarchist and radical groups. The power of labor and the strong influence of radicalism displayed themselves massively.

This political upheaval struck fear into the hearts of powerful business interests and the state and federal governments. The media became gripped in an hysterical passion of anti-radicalism. Congress passed the Sedition Act, which provided for the deportation of aliens who held objectionable economic or political views. In 1920, the federal government conducted a nationwide round-up of radicals. Coordinated by J. Edgar Hoover, these "Red Raids", as they were called, netted 2,000 arrests in New York alone. In Boston, 500 men and women were marched through the streets in chains. Over 10,000 people were arrested across the country. Membership in a radical organization was the only evidence against these people. Their civil rights were completely ignored. Many were arrested in the middle of the night without search or arrest warrants. 700 aliens including anarchists Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman were deported. The law they were deported under remains in effect. Today alien anarchists can still be deported for their beliefs.

It is with this background in mind that the Sacco-Vanzetti case is best understood. The government was spying on the anarchist organizations around Boston and looking to frame some radicals as scapegoats for the Braintree killings. When arrested, Sacco and Vanzetti were armed and carrying anarchist literature.

Their trial was a farce. Feelings ran high against radicals and foreigners. They were convicted on circumstantial evidence, unreliable testimony by the prosecution's witnesses, and on what the prejudiced judge called a "consciousness of guilt." The testimony of numerous defense witnesses giving alibis for the defendants was discounted by the judge and jury because their witnesses were Italian and spoke with thick accents. After their conviction the judge said to a friend, "Did you see what I did with those anarchist bastards?"

The American legal system denied Sacco and Vanzetti justice. The question of their guilt or innocence aside, the evidence presented against them should never have resulted in a conviction or execution. They suffered the agony of waiting in jail for over seven years while countless futile court appeals were tried. The legal system operated then, as it does now, on a perverse, inflexible logic system. A defendant can be innocent and yet the law will not free him. In this case, the appeals court for Sacco and Vanzetti only ruled on whether the verdict itself was just. The courts were frankly unwilling to apply the facts of the case to free the two men.

The Sacco and Vanzetti case attracted a tremendous amount of support from liberal and radical groups across the country. Thousands of dollars were raised at rallies and picnics like this one to fund the defense committee. It has become the most famous criminal case in American history. But despite the millions of people who believed in their innocence Sacco and Vanzetti were executed on August 23, 1927 in the Massachusetts State Prison. On the day before their execution, millions demonstrated, demanding that they be freed. Over 250,000 people came out for their funeral in Boston.

Sacco and Vanzetti were killed for their anarchist ideas. They never would have been tried and convicted without the prevailing prejudice against aliens and radicals. Vanzetti once said, "We call ourselves Libertarians, which means briefly that we believe that human perfectibility is to be obtained by the largest amount of freedom, and not by coercion, and that the bad in human nature and conduct can only be eliminated by the elimination of its causes, and not by coercion or imposition, which cause greater evil by adding bad to bad."

In another letter from prison in 1923 Vanzetti said, "The anarchist goes ahead and says; all that is help to me without hurting the others is good; all that helps the others without hurting me is good also, all the rest is evil. Anarchists look for their liberty in the liberty of all, for their happiness in the happiness of all, for their welfare in the universal welfare. I am with them."

That's the history of the Sacco and Vanzetti case. I think it's important for their story to be retold again and again to each succeeding generation. Their case is not an isolated example of American justice making a mistake. Similar cases and current political trials familiar to us all indicate that these are not mistakes but rather systematic attempts by the government to crush anarchist and radical dissent with state violence and official lawlessness.

We all are aware of continual government repression. At times maybe we're too preoccupied with the forces of authoritarianism. It's an immense task we face as anarchists in helping to create a free society. But let's not become cynical about our lives and ideals. Sacco and Vanzetti experienced the solidarity and love of millions of comrades around the world. They felt a joy in their own commitment to changing society. They had a great hope that their comrades would continue on with the work that was left to be done.

Two days before they died, on August 21st fifty years ago today, they wrote a letter to their defense committee from the death house of the Massachusetts State Prison. We are the descendants of those men and women who worked so hard in their defense and to whom Sacco and Vanzetti addressed this letter:

"Dear Friends and Comrades of the Sacco-Vanzetti Defence Committee: After tomorrow midnight, we will be executed, save a new staying of the execution by either the United States Supreme Court or by Governor Alvan T. Fuller…

We feel lost! Therefore, we decided to write this letter to you to express our gratitude and admiration for all what you have done in our defense during these seven years, four months, and eleven days of struggle.

That we have lost and have to die does not diminish our appreciation and gratitude for your great solidarity with us and our families.

Friends and Comrades, now that the tragedy of this trial is at an end, be all as of one heart. Only two of us will die. Our ideal, you our comrades, will live by millions. Just treasure our suffering, our sorrow, our mistakes, our defeats, our passion for future battles and for the great emancipation.

Be all as of one heart in this blackest hour of our tragedy. And have heart.

Salute for us all the friends and comrades of the earth.

Long life to you all, long life to Liberty.

Sacco and Vanzetti"

Fifty years later, we remember these two anarchists. I think their lives should give us a greater appreciation of the tradition of anarchism in this country. And I think that we all should take the time we spend together today to appreciate our own lives and the good work we all are doing. Let's celebrate and enjoy the afternoon.

From: Soil of Liberty Vol 3 No 5, Nov-Dec 1977.