Did mass protest help or hinder their case?

The Sacco-Vanzetti Affair:

America on Trial

AMONG THE more than two million prisoners in the United States, many receive unfair trials, or are caught in the criminal justice system in part because of poverty, their ethnicity, or both. Yet only a handful of cases ever draw worldwide appeals of protest and international media attention. What distinguishes these cases from other cases of injustice, and why are they able to generate such attention? Finally, are international attention and mass protest effective in winning justice for these victims? 

Moshik Temkin, a historian at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government addresses these questions through an examination of the infamous case of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, the two working class Italian anarchists accused in the robbery and murder of a shoe factory paymaster and executed by the state of Massachusetts in 1927. In doing so, he primarily examines international and domestic reactions to the case and how they were shaped by the United States’s newfound global supremacy in the post-World War I period. This is an angle not many authors have explored and makes for compelling reading.

Although Temkin is not primarily concerned with their guilt or innocence, which he writes is an “essentially unknowable question,” he does provide a brief background about the case to outline the climate of anti-radical and anti-immigrant hysteria at the time and the unfairness of the trial:

During their trial, Sacco and Vanzetti were seated in a barred metal cage in the center of the court, a constant reminder of the supposed menace they presented to respectable American society. The evidence against the two men, who pleaded not guilty, was mostly circumstantial, save for the prosecution’s disputed attempt to tie Sacco’s cap to the scene of the crime and his revolver to the shooting. The prosecution could not even show that the two men possessed any of the money from the robbery.

Temkin reserves his greatest scorn for the trial judge, Webster Thayer, whom he calls “An elderly, conformist, vain, none-too-bright Dartmouth man who…did not bother to hide from anyone willing to listen his obsession with ‘arnuchists,’ as he continually pronounced it, and his instinctive loathing of the defendants, their lawyers, and their supporters.”

Nevertheless, the unfairness of the trial and the persecution of radicals and immigrants by the US establishment do not in and of themselves explain why the case became so famous. After all, in 1921, during the trial, all of these elements were present, but the ranks of Sacco and Vanzetti’s supporters were limited to relatively small and isolated groups of radicals. It was not until 1926 that Sacco and Vanzetti began to gain wide popular support. What explains this change—from what Temkin calls the Sacco and Vanzetti “case” to what he calls the Sacco-Vanzetti “affair”?

For Temkin, the key factor lies in the changing relationship of the United States to the rest of the world. The United States’ emergence as the dominant world power in the aftermath of World War I led to a growing unease about American global supremacy and isolationism among European intellectuals—an unease that led them to scrutinize the internal affairs of the country that viewed itself as the greatest democracy in the world. “In France, Britain, Germany, and elsewhere in Europe and beyond,” writes Temkin, “there was a growing perception that the Sacco-Vanzetti case was the symptom of an America gone completely wild after the war, drunk on its own economic and global power, crushing the weak, persecuting the alien, flouting international opinion, isolated from the rest of the world, ignoring reasonable appeals from even the heads of friendly democratic states.”

Inside the United States, many liberals, who between 1919 and 1921 had backed the red scare and the Palmer Raids that rounded up more than 10,000 radicals and immigrants, had come to regret their previous support for these policies. Now, the Sacco and Vanzetti affair played out in terms of a divide between liberals who saw themselves as engaged in a world community and who wanted Americans to engage with the rest of the world—and conservative isolationists who recoiled at any international criticism. Temkin argues that this tension magnified the visibility of the case in the mid-1920s.  

Temkin quotes extensively from international supporters of Sacco-Vanzetti to back up this thesis, and it is a convincing one. The documentation of reactions from abroad also makes for some of the most interesting reading in the book. But while he makes a convincing case that the international context was an important factor, in and of itself, this is not a convincing explanation for how the case could develop into a worldwide phenomenon. After all, the lynching of African Americans, or, closer to home, the discrimination against European immigrants in any number of arenas, could have made a subject for protest among European intellectuals. Temkin has no way to explain this, and he dismisses the efforts of the small number of anarchists and socialists around the United States and Europe who were protesting the conviction before it became a cause célèbre as largely irrelevant, pointing to the fragmentation of the left and its isolation in mainstream society. 

It is undoubtedly true that the campaign gained momentum when liberals and public intellectuals around the world began joining it. But it took the efforts of Aldo Felicani and other anarchists—as well as the work of the Communist Party’s International Labor Defense—to keep the case in the public eye, even if in smaller ways than later on, in order for mainstream opinion and public intellectuals across the Atlantic to catch up and begin championing the case. Temkin is so single-mindedly focused on the role of the United States in the world in making the case into a cause célèbre that he fails to examine how small groups of radicals, alongside a very few well-connected liberals, managed to keep the case in the public eye long enough for more mainstream liberals to join the cause.

The book more successfully documents distinctions among Sacco and Vanzetti’s supporters. Their defense campaign had been spearheaded by Aldo Felicani, an anarchist comrade of Sacco and Vanzetti’s, since 1921. But in 1927, Gardner Jackson, a part-time stockbroker, formerBoston Globe reporter, and socialite, became co-chair of the committee. As middle-class liberals became more and more influential in the defense campaign, radicals became more and more marginalized within it. 

Temkin documents debates between radicals and liberals around the strategy of the defense campaign. Liberals “chose a legalist-pragmatic approach, stressing proper procedure and confidence in the existing judicial and political system,” while radicals “opted for politicized, extralegal protest and radical action.”

This description is useful for anyone who has been an activist around criminal justice issues, as the debate about which strategy is most effective plays out time and time again. Temkin, ultimately, sides with neither camp. According to him, the very international campaign for Sacco and Vanzetti that made them into household names also doomed them to execution. The two anarchists were executed not “in spite of all the worldwide protest on their behalf,” but “in part because of them.” He documents newspaper editorials and the reactions of public officials involved in the case, from Massachusetts Governor Alvan T. Fuller, to Harvard University president Abbott Lawrence Lowell, who Fuller appointed to head a commission to review the case, to show that the more protests came from outside the state and outside the country, the more conservative media and politicians grew intransigent against the two men.

Whether the international protest campaign helped or hurt the case of Sacco-Vanzetti is not just a question for scholars. It is of crucial importance for those of us fighting to stop executions today. The question it raises is whether there is a role for concerned ordinary people around the country and the world who want to stop an unjust execution or conviction, or whether a case is best left to the lawyers battling in the courtroom. On the surface, Temkin appears to have a compelling argument. After all, it is objectively true that in 1927 Massachusetts, the campaign to save Sacco and Vanzetti led Fuller and Lowell, key decision-makers in the case, to harden their position against the two men. The problem with this conclusion, however, is that it ignores what would have happened without such a defense campaign, as even Temkin is forced to admit when he writes that “the Sacco-Vanzetti affair presents historians with a paradox. On the one hand, without the appeals and protests of non-Americans, there would have been no ‘affair’ to speak of, and probably no hope for Sacco and Vanzetti; their executions would have been carried out but without as much national and international controversy.”

In drawing both the conclusion that early organizing efforts on behalf of Sacco and Vanzetti were largely ineffective, and the conclusion that the campaign on their behalf ultimately hurt their chances at survival, Temkin makes the mistake of looking at this particular case in isolation from other major national cases. In fact, there are a significant number of cases in which widespread attention did not materialize until years after the original conviction, when the defendant has been faced with an execution date. In part, this is a function of the sheer number of cases that go through the criminal justice system and the lack of scrutiny on the court system in general.Over time, however, small activist efforts can lead to greater attention on a case, especially when faced with the emergency of an execution date. Over the past several years, this has been true in the successful campaign to save Kenneth Foster Jr. in Texas, as well as in unsuccessful efforts to save Troy Davis in Georgia.

It is instructive to examine successful campaigns to stop executions, such as the Communist-led Scottsboro defense campaign just a few years after Sacco and Vanzetti’s execution, and more recently cases like Kenneth Foster’s in Texas and Mumia Abu-Jamal’s in Pennsylvania. There is very little question that without a public activist campaign, in all of these cases, those facing the death penalty would have been executed. And yet, in many of them, the same aversion to “outside agitators” could be found among the local establishment. In the Scottsboro case, for example, some of the worst venom was reserved for the defense attorney, Samuel Leibowitz, about whom the prosecution urged the jury to “show…that Alabama justice cannot be bought and sold with Jew money from New York.” With Mumia’s case, the more international support he received, the more adamantly the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police demanded his execution. Yet these national and international campaigns also sparked enough concern about public embarrassment among public officials, and enough scrutiny on the cases for judges and politicians to give them a second look.

What powerful protest campaigns do everywhere is to divide the ruling classes, as different sections have different answers for how to respond to them. Some members of the ruling class decide to harden their stance while others decide to grant concessions. Campaigns around judicial cases are no different—something Temkin fails to see. A better conclusion than the one he draws is that in any case in which poverty, racism, and unpopular views determine the outcome of a case, supporters of the defendant face an uphill battle. Through perseverance and an international campaign that highlights the injustices of a case, they can sometimes prevail, though they often do not. On the other hand, an effective defense in the courts is rarely enough, and any chance at success requires such an activist campaign outside the courtroom. 

The Sacco-Vanzetti Affair is a worthwhile read inasmuch as it highlights and extensively documents the international dimensions of the protest campaign in support of the two men. But it falls short in underplaying the role of radicals in keeping the case alive, and the role public protest can play in stopping an execution. 


Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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