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Chapters in a Life
Vito Marcantonio, a Congressman from East Harlem from 1935 to 1950, was known for his undying commitment to his constituents. In turn, his diverse ethnic constituents, which included Italian, Puerto Rican, and African Americans, joined together to support him as he took controversial positions, maintaining him in office for 14 years as he pushed for civil rights legislation prior to the Civil Rights Movement, and fought to improve the livelihood of Americans and people throughout the world. He almost single-handedly combated widespread defamation of the foreign-born in general and Italian Americans in particular.
Vito Marcantonio stuck by his positions despite intense opposition. He is virtually forgotten today because he was vilified by the press and the political establishment during the McCarthy Era.
CHAPTERS IN A LIFE
Vito Marcantonio defied the truism of American politics that in the United States a radical politician has only two possible fates: defeat or co-optation. Marcantonio was the most electorally successful radical politician in modern American history. And from his first term when he proposed "reopening and operating shut-down factories by and for the benefit of the unemployed producing for use instead of profit," until his last, when he cast the only vote against the Korean War, his commitment to radical politics never wavered. Unfortunately, to date, the remarkable story of this memorable man remains little known.
"I was born and raised in that district and I know everybody in that district: good, bad, doctors, lawyers, Indians, thieves, honest people, everybody." Vito Marcantonio's entire life and career were inextricably connected with this remarkable [East Harlem] community. The deprivations of Marc's early life and his work among Italian Harlem's poor made him receptive to the surrounding radical currents. He had the opportunity to serve a ten-year apprenticeship to the master politician and parliamentarian Fiorello LaGuardia. Marcantonio serviced the complaints of [LaGuardia's] constituents and attended to the details of the election campaigns. LaGuardia, who had lost his daughter in 1921, treated Marcantonio as a son.
[As Congressman], Marcantonio rarely missed a session and actively participated in the debates. When in 1944 an Alabama Congressman stated that Southerners had known democracy "one hundred years before the gentleman from New York ever saw the Statue of Liberty," Marcantonio responded: "While my people did not come over on the Mayflower [we] are an integral part of the living flesh and blood of our country."
What made Marcantonio utterly unique among all other congressman was his insistence that the Communist party was an "American political party operating in what it considers to be the best interests of the American working class and people." When the party or individuals associated with it came under attack, no one more ardently or effectively came to their defense.
Marcantonio's connection with the Communist movement released a firestorm of opposition. The press campaign intended to discredit Marcantonio, in its scope and the extent of its vilification, has perhaps been unequaled in the entire history of New York City politics. In 1944 his district was gerrymandered to include Yorkville, an area south of East Harlem whose major ethic groups.expressed hostility to left politics. The Wilson-Pakula Act of 1947 prevented him from entering the major-party primaries, thereby necessitating his running solely on the American Labor Party line at a time when it was almost universally identified as Communist controlled. And ultimately in 1950, he was defeated by the "gang up," a coalition candidate of the Democratic, Republican and Liberal Parties. Only the "gang up" could allow Marcantonio's relatively poor showing in Yorkville to overcome the undying loyalty of his East Harlem bastions.
Marcantonio was able to overcome this opposition in large part because his Italian-American, Puerto Rican, and African-American constituents viewed his as an articulate tribune of the people advocating for those who had been left out of the American Dream. Perhaps more pertinently because he lived among them, shared their lives, and personally tended to their problems, he achieved a legendary, even saintly, status. Many recalled his reaching into his pockets to help those facing eviction or in need of school clothing for their children. When I queried an old time resident if anyone in East Harlem opposed Marcantonio, she asked: "Didn't people oppose Christ when he walked the earth?" A Puerto Rican woman who wrote Marcantonio requesting "a small turkey for my children" stated: "You are the bread of the poor people."
Aside from Public School 50 located in El Barrio, which was named for him, no other memorial to date has been raised in memory of this politician who when he died had an estate worth less than $10,000, and who in 1950 when faced with almost inevitable defeat could rise to his feet and declare in the House of Representatives: "I have stood by the fundamental principles which I have always advocated, I have not trimmed. I have not retreated, I do not apologize, and I am not compromising."
From shortly after ten in the morning on August 9th, 1954, when upon emerging from the subway, Vito Marcantonio fell dead on Broadway at City Hall Park, until his burial three days after, Italian Harlem was absorbed in saying farewell to Marcantonio, the radical Congressman who served East Harlem in the House of Representatives from 1934 until 1950. Marc (as everyone in East Harlem called him) had merged with this community: it was if neither could exist without the other. He had been born in 1902 in the heart of this, the largest and most Italian of all the Little Italies, and when he died he lived on the community's corso, East 116th Street, four blocks from where he was born.
For the next two days, in Giordano's funeral parlor, a procession of openly weeping people passed by the bier at a rate of one thousand per hour. His mother's keening in Italian set off even greater displays of grief. Throughout the community in the windows of tenements and stores appeared black bordered signs which read simply: "We Mourn Our Loss." Black wreaths appeared besides the doors.
The day of his funeral the police halted traffic on First Avenue at East 115th Street to allow the assembling of a funeral procession of more than one hundred vehicles headed by fifteen coaches filled with flowers. In the surrounding streets, ten thousand openly wept. Over twenty thousand persons passed Marcantonio's bier. From the tenement windows, additional onlookers participated in their final farewell. The sense that swept through the crowd was: "Who will fight for us now?" People blessed themselves according to the Catholic custom and waved good byes as the cortege would its way through the community stopping at his home. Then it traveled to his political headquarters in Italian Harlem, El Barrio, the Puerto Rican community which with which it shared East Harlem and Yorkville, a predominantly Irish and German-American community to the south.
Everything - except perhaps its enormous scope and extravagant expressions of loss - resembled the typical funeral of a prominent son of a traditional Italian-American community. Funerals represented the most important ritual moments for this community, the situation around which the community reassembled and reassured itself. It constituted the ultimate assertion of the Italian way of life as transported to America. Italian Harlem gave Marc its most spectacular funeral because he their loyalest son, its most fervent defender.
Above all else Italian Harlem valued Marcantonio's simply living there throughout his entire life. He had not only physically lived there, he lived the life of that community: he got his hair cut across the street, bought the newspaper on the corner, stayed up with his friends till the early hours in a corner café. In ways small and large, he observed the customs of the community. He shared the same modest brownstone with his mother and grandmother, he kept his jacket on around women, and maintained his boyhood friendships, including those who worked at the post office or for the rackets.
Marc's funeral attracted not only Italian Americans, but almost equally large numbers of African Americans, Puerto Ricans, and many from outside the boundaries of East Harlem. When he reached the bier, one Black man held his son up to see Marcantonio and said: "Say good bye to the best friend the Negro people ever had." Paul Robeson (singer, actor and political activist who sang for Marcantonio on Election Night and whose 100th birthday we celebrate in 1998) distributed a press release (and eulogized Marcantonio) describing his as "The Thaddeus Stevens of the first half of the twentieth century."
The diversity of the crowds of mourners resembled the composition of the honorary pall bearers. They included Marc's boyhood friends (Frank Maurelli and Vincent Velella); leaders of Italian Harlem (Leonard Covello and Joseph Boccia); Puerto Rican leaders (Manuel Medina and Gilberto Concepcion de Garcia); African American leaders (Andronicius Jacobs and W.E.B. Du Bois); Communist leaders (Ben Gold and John Abt); famous leftists (former Minnesota Gov. Elmer Benson and Corliss Lamont.). In Woodlawn Cemetery (in the Bronx), fifty feet from LaGuardia's burial place, an impressive tombstone reads: "Vito Marcantonio: Defender of Human Rights."