Thursday, August 09, 2012
The Day 'The Marc' Died
"If it be radicalism to believe that our natural resources should be used for the benefit of all of the American people and not for the purpose of enriching just a few...then, Ladies and Gentlemen of the House, I accept the charge. I plead guilty to the charge; I am a radical and I am willing to fight it out until hell freezes over."
On this day in 1953, Vito Marcantonio fell dead on the streets of New York. He was downtown at City Hall to file for a run at his old Congressional seat.
The "New York Daily News" rendered the scene these passages:
"Drenching torrents greeted him as he returned to his law office from a weekend in Connecticut on a summer Monday morning. He was hatless and raincoatless as he got off the train at City Hall Park, and he began to trot through the downpour, and he was just at Broadway and Warren St. when he quietly dropped dead.
"Rushing through the rain themselves, New Yorkers in their fashion ignored the fallen man on the curb for 10 minutes or so. Finally, a passerby alerted a cop. A priest from nearby St. Andrews was summoned to administer extreme unction. One of the dead man's law associates came down to identify the body. Someone eventually thought of retrieving the forlornly soaked gold-initialed briefcase from the gutter."
And such was the day The Marc died.
We can console ourselves in the fact that there are no happy endings when it comes to the final step, and instead focus on what the man was in life.
A titan of New York and national politics, at the height of his power, he could enter the Democratic, Republican and American Labor Party primaries and win them all so as to avoid a general election fight.
He had allies in culture. Dashiell Hammett worked on his mayoral campaign, writer Howard Fast drafted political literature. He was allied with Dorothy Parker and the patrician painter Rockwell Kent.
For all that bohemian glitter, his biographer Gerald Meyer insists, Marc mostly played cards with the Italians in his East Harlem neighborhood where he was born and which he never left.
His own loyal constituents declaimed him "The Bread of the Poor," for his vision of a Congressman as an all purpose helper and guide through the system. And this he did in ways too numerous to list here. Needless to say, it was practical, hands-on kind of stuff.
In return, their support allowed him to withstand the attacks of columnist Walter Winchell, a full bore assault waged by Tycoon William Randolph Hearst through his newspapers, and a blanketing surveillance launched by J. Edgar Hoover at the FBI to win some 12 noisy years in Congress for himself.
There, he was a phenom, a shock to the southern gentleman who ran the shop and expected deference from junior members. Blessed with a golden beak, The Marc was also a master of the substantive game. The House Parliamentarian said Marcantonio was the only one who knew more about procedure than him.
Controversial in the Italian-American community for his unabashedly left-wing life, Marcantonio is an unblemished saint in the Puerto Rican community.
They were part of his district with strong links and recent links to their Isle. He saw them impacted directly by the politics of Puerto Rico and made it a point to intervene in its affairs on behalf of its beleaguered residents and his own neighbors.
He was a friend to black people and worked with disparate elements in that community such as Philip Randolph of the Pullman Car Porters Union and famed singer and activist Robeson
He fought to successfully open the arms industry to the employment of African-Americans during World War II.
He was a constant thorn in the side of President Franklin Roosevelt for his nettlesome introduction of anti-lynching and civil rights measures. These ran against the wishes of powerful Southern Democrats who killed them in exchange for articulate, public dressings-down by The Marc.
He told one such congressional rival that he was ready to campaign in his district and affect his defeat. The southerner said that Marcantonio campaigning against him could only help his cause.
"Oh I don't plan to campaign against you," Marc responded. "I'm going to campaign FOR you."
Hopefully we've taken the sad date and turned it on its head. Made it more of a celebration through remembrance. Why? Because sometimes we owe it to those with lives exemplified by self-sacrifice and service to the weak among us.
Marc's was one such life.