|From||United States of America|
|Birth||10 December 1902, East Harlem, USA|
|Death||9 August 1954, Civic Center, USA (aged 51 years)|
|Politics||Republican Party, American Labor Party|
Vito Anthony Marcantonio (December 10, 1902 – August 9, 1954) was an Italian-American lawyer and politician who served East Harlem for seven terms in the United States House of Representatives.
For most of his political career, he was a member of the American Labor Party, believing that neither major party supported the interests of the working class. For two years prior to his switch to the Labor Party, he was a pro-New Deal member of the progressive branch of the Republican Party as a supporter of Fiorello LaGuardia.
Marcantonio represented the neighborhood of East Harlem in New York City, which was home to many ethnic Italians and Puerto Ricans. He spoke Spanish, Italian, and English.
Later in his life, Marcantonio became more left-wing and was decried by reactionaries for his alleged support from Communists during the 1940s.
Early life and education
Marcantonio was son of an American-born father and Italian-born mother both with origins in Picerno, in the Basilicata region of southern Italy. He was born in the impoverished Italian Harlem ghetto of East Harlem, New York City. He attended New York City public schools (becoming the only member of his class from East Harlem to graduate from De Witt Clinton High School in Hell's Kitchen) and eventually received his LL.B. from the New York University School of Law in 1925.
After passing the New York bar examination in 1926, Marcatonio began practicing law. He clerked at the law firm of Hale, Nelles & Shorr, known for its representation of radical individuals and organizations. There, he worked with labor lawyer Joseph R. Brodsky, who "significantly contributed to his left orientation" toward Marxism.
In 1924, he became campaign manager for the congressional campaign of Fiorello La Guardia, then a Progressive–Socialist. Together, LaGuardia and Marcantonio also campaigned for U.S. Senator Robert M. La Follette for U.S. President.
From 1930 to 1931, he worked as an assistant United States attorney.
Marcantonio was first elected to the United States House of Representatives from New York in 1934 as a Republican. He served in the House from 1935 until 1937, but was defeated in 1936 for re-election.
Marcantonio's district was centered in his native East Harlem, New York City, which had many residents and immigrants of Italian and Puerto Rican origin. Fluent in Spanish as well as Italian, he was considered an ally of the Puerto Rican and Italian-American communities, and an advocate for the rights of the workers, immigrants, and the poor.
In 1939, Marcantonio criticized the 1936 prosecution and conviction of Pedro Albizu Campos, president of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party for sedition and other crimes against the United States. In addition to defending the Puerto Rican and Italian communities and common workers, Marcantonio was a strong advocate of Harlem's African American communities and fought vehemently for black civil rights decades before the civil rights movement of the 1950s–60s.
In either 1937 or 1938, Marcantonio became a member of the American Labor Party. He was elected to the House again from New York in 1938, and served this time for six terms, from 1939 to 1951, being reelected in the elections of 1940, 1942, 1944, 1946, and 1948. He was so popular in that district that he sometimes won the Democratic and Republican primaries, as well as the American Labor Party endorsement. Aside from Marcantonio, the only American Laborite congressman was Leo Isacson, who served in Congress from 1948 to 1949, after winning a special election. He was defeated in the next general election.
In 1948, Marcantonio was an avid supporter of former Vice President Henry A. Wallace, who ran for President on the Progressive Party ticket.
In 1949, Marcantonio ran for mayor of New York City on the American Labor Party ticket, but was defeated.
In 1950 he was defeated by the Democrat James Donovan for his House seat, after a particularly vociferous campaign against the congressman because of his refusal to vote for American participation in the Korean War. In that election, Donovan had the broad-based popular support of the Democratic, Republican, and Liberal parties. The passage of the Wilson Pakula Act in 1947 also played some part in Marcantonio's defeat. The law prevented candidates from running in the primaries of parties with which they were not affiliated. It was widely perceived as being directed against Marcantonio.
As the sole representative of his party for most of his years in Congress, Marcantonio never held a committee chairmanship. After his defeat in 1950 and the withdrawal of Communist Party support for the ALP, the party soon fell apart.
Marcantonio, who was arguably one of the most left wing members of Congress, said that party loyalty was less important than voting with his conscience (he was usually the only member of his party elected to office). He was sympathetic to the Socialist and Communist parties, and to labor unions. He was investigated by the FBI because of his alleged sympathy with communism and ties to the Communist Party.
In 2010, historian Thaddeus Russell described Marcantonio as "one of the greatest champions of black civil rights during the 1930s and 1940s." He sponsored bills to prohibit the poll tax, used by southern states to disenfranchise poor voters, and to make lynching a federal crime.
However, while Marcantonio was a noted proponent of anti-racism, during the war he agreed with the internment of Americans of Japanese descent.
In 1940, Marcantonio helped form the American Peace Mobilization (APM), a group whose aim was to keep the U.S. from participating in World War II (thus similar in aim to the right wing America First Committee). Before the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact (a Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact) was signed in Moscow 23 August 1939, the APM's precursor organization, the Comintern-directed American League for Peace and Democracy, had been anti-Nazi. Marcantonio served as the APM's vice-chair. He appeared in a newsreel in 1940 denouncing 'the imperialist war', the line taken by Joseph Stalin and his supporters in the Soviet Union until the invasion of the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany. The Pact lasted until the Germans broke it by invading the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941. In 1942 Marcantonio worked to expand the U.S. military commitment to a second front in Europe against the Nazi expansion. The USSR ordered Communists throughout the world to promote the idea to help it defeat Nazism. Marcantonio was also a Vice President of the International Workers Order, a fraternal benefit society unofficially affiliated with the Communist Party.
In 1950, Marcantonio opposed American involvement in the Korean War. He argued that North Korea had been the victim of an unprovoked attack by South Korea. He cited articles by I. F. Stone, a radical journalist.
Freedom of expression
In 1941, Marcantonio represented Dale Zysman, a high school coach and board member of the New York City Teachers Union a.k.a. Jack Hardy, a communist writer for International Publishers, in a New York Board of Education hearing. Marcantonio asked for a ten-day stay because the Board had failed to present "an itemized bill of particulars," which stay the Board denied. Zysman walked out.
Later life and death
After his defeat in mayoral and congressional elections, Marcantonio continued to practice law. It was his law practice, maintained while in Congress, that had generated the money by which he substantially self-financed his political campaigns.
At first he practiced in Washington, D.C. but he soon returned to New York City. At the time of his death in 1954, Marcantonio was running for Congress as the candidate of a newly formed third party, the Good Neighbor Party. He died on August 9, 1954, from a heart attack after coming up the subway stairs on Broadway by City Hall Park in Lower Manhattan.
Marcantonio's collection of speeches, I Vote My Conscience (1956), edited by Annette Rubenstein, influenced the next generation of young radicals. His defense of workers rights, his mastery of parliamentary procedure, his ability to relate to the workers in his district while also engaging in worldwide issues, made him a hero to a certain section of the left. Rubenstein's book was reprinted in a new edition in 2002.
Tony Kushner's play, The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, has a main character who is a fictional "cousin" of Vito Marcantonio. The play premiered in Minneapolis in 2009 and had a brief run off Broadway in New York in 2011. Another highly praised run of the play took place at the Berkeley Repertory Co. theater in Berkeley, CA in 2014.