Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Vito Marcantonio: Civil Rights Pioneer

There is a kind of joyous amnesia to our measuring Sen. Barack Obama's (D-Ill) expansion of the electoral map for his usually hapless party, to the daily, cool dissection of his potential for governance.

Not long ago, only months ago perhaps, such considerations seemed most unlikely.

Still longer ago, 1902 to be exact, a kid was born in New York City who became infected with the idea that African-Americans were entitled to the same rights as everybody else. The odd thing is that the kid was Italian-American.

Vito Marcantonio grew up in the crowded slums of East Harlem and, at the age of 18, stunned a guy named Fiorello LaGuardia with a speech in defense of government protection for the aged.

LaGuardia, “the Little Flower” would eventually become mayor of New York. “Marc” would graduate from NYU Law School and eventually assume LaGuardia’s congressional seat, representing that same East Harlem district, earning his own sobriquet, “the Bread of the Poor.”

Penning a pamphlet for Marcantonio’s 1946 reelection campaign, writer Howard Fast urged voters to, “love him for the enemies he has made. For there is no better assessment of Marc than to catalogue his enemies.”

Chief among them was a Mississippi Republican, Rep. John Rankin, who in 1943 accused Marcantonio of, “harassing the white people of the Southern States,” with his “rump organization,” the Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC).

And it was true.

Aiming to root out discrimination in hiring and industrial relations, Marc first introduced FEPC in 1942 and continued to do so, year in, year out.

The FEPC, Marcantonio said on the House floor in 1950, began with the establishment of slavery in America, a struggle evidenced in the Declaration of Independence and the claim that all men were created equal.

It was a claim, he said, that had been “whittled away” by newfound profitability in sugar and cotton, and finally the Dred Scott decision which, “stated that no Negro had any rights that any white man must respect. Today this doctrine is the real basis of white supremacy, utilized again for the exploitation of the Negro people.”

FEPC, he said, “is the emancipation proclamation in the industrial life of the nation.”

Although his constituency was largely Italian and Puerto Rican, Marc’s greatest efforts were in the area of civil rights.

He introduced the first anti-poll tax bill in 1942 and did so every year he served. He proposed legislation barring discrimination against blacks in the military, offered amendments prohibiting race-based discrimination on projects funded with federal monies, and supported Adam Clayton Powell’s legislation calling for desegregation of public facilities in the nation’s capital.

In 1945, he sponsored a resolution directing the Secretary of Commerce to investigate the employment practices of major league baseball and determine whether it was discriminating against African-Americans; paving the way for Jackie Robinson’s ultimate triumph.

“I know a lot of people are annoyed and disgusted that Marcantonio should be repeatedly offering these civil rights amendments,” he said in 1950, “but I am going to keep on offering them as long as I am here and until we win this fight; because I conscientiously believe, and it has been my guiding political philosophy, that no white man is free in America as long as the Negro is subjected to discrimination and Jim Crow and segregation.”

Jazz great Sonny Rollins recalled, “Coming from the neighborhood, there was also a Communist person who was a big hero in our house, Vito Marcantonio. He was a Communist, and he came from that part of Harlem, Italian Harlem. Vito Marcantonio was a very liberal person. See, these lines are blurred, because to be in favor of treating a black person as an equal, some people would say, ‘Oh well, he’s a Communist,’ automatically. This is the thinking that prevailed, as you know, in many parts of the country. Vito Marcantonio was great, and he was from where we went to school, that area.”

Others were rarely so kind. In its Oct. 25, 1948 issue, Time lamented the fact Marcantonio, “the sardonic, sallow little man who has long been the Communists most zealous congressional spokesman,” would likely be re-elected, thanks to the diligence with which he served his constituents: “Sitting in his grimy First Avenue headquarters, assisted by a battery of secretaries, he put in long hours defending everything from eviction cases to felony raps for the Negroes, Italians and Puerto Ricans who make up almost half the district’s voting lists.”

The question of whether Marcantonio was a communist provided much grist for his enemies. It is worth pointing out that he won both Republican and Democratic primaries alike when necessary; and oftn, both at the same time.

But he was a member and, for a time, leader of the American Labor Party (ALP), which had been formed by New York’s needle trades unions.

Joshua Freeman, author of “Working Class New York,” observed that the ALP was a “key vehicle” of the 1930s “Popular Front” strategy which saw communists helping liberal democratic parties in an effort to stave off creeping Fascism.

Marcantonio traveled with the communists when they were of use to him, left the ALP when they became a burden, and never allowed himself to be red-baited. The charge, he said, “was the red herring to conceal the lack of pork chops.”

In fact, he leaned heavily upon the words of the founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson in particular. Where progressives today see “dead white Europeans” in the American revolutionary leaders, he saw democratic radicals fighting the very same forces he was.

Battling the House Committee on Un-American Activities persecution of radicals in 1947, Marcantonio turned his gaze to the Alien and Sedition Acts’ passage. “Jefferson and the followers of Jefferson were subjected to the appellations of Jacobin and Republican. They were...called foreign agents, because they maintained at the time that the future of liberty in the world depended upon collaboration between the Republic of the United States and the New Republic of France.”

He provided the sole House vote in opposition to the war resolution plunging U.S. armed forces into the Korean Conflict. “You only live once,” he said in the debate, “and it is best to live one’s life with one’s conscience rather than to temporize or accept with silence those things one believes to be against the interests of one’s people and one’s nation.”

In that moment, his lonely struggle was symbolic, but his single-handed efforts, applied with the knowledge and skill of a master parliamentarian, could yield real results.

An April 2006 piece by John J. Simon in The Monthly Review, noted that, “Today, with the city’s highest concentration of public housing, due almost entirely to Marcantonio’s legislative skill, the [East Harlem’s] population remains almost entirely Hispanic and people of color.”

In this instance a lone radical did craft a counterculture of public urban development in the very belly of a larger privately-driven economic system.

In the end, it took a coalition of the Liberal, Democratic, and Republican parties in New York to pry him from office. He did not stop or retreat. As a lawyer for civil liberties he represented W.E.B DuBois and other members of the Peace Information Center charged with failing to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. He fought for union leaders and leftists under siege in the red-baiting hysteria of the times.

Planning to run for Congress anew, Marc dropped dead of a heart attack on lower Broadway. The date was Aug. 9, 1954 and he was just fifty-one-years-old. Cardinal Francis Spellman denied him a Catholic funeral, but thousands packed the streets of East Harlem to say goodbye.

In eulogy, Dubois said Marcantonio “believed in America when it would no longer believe in itself.”

His agenda of integration would become the respectable politics of a future era and the legislation of equality he furiously advocated bore fruit, too.

In our own time, when threats from without and within, actual and otherwise, motivate some to limit the ability of Americans to think and speak independently, his words still provide remedy: “In a period as trying as this, the test of democracy lies in the ability of that democracy to maintain its liberties and to have more freedom rather than less freedom.”

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