April 15th marks the 100th anniversary of the crime that propelled Italian immigrant anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti into the international media spotlight: the robbery and double murder at the Slater & Morrill Shoe Company Factory in South Braintree, Massachusetts. Arguably the most famous criminals tried in the 20th century, in a trial that incited a flurry of debates over the manipulation and use of insufficient evidence, questionable testimony, and ethnic bias against defense witnesses, Sacco and Vanzetti were found guilty and spent seven years in jail until their execution on August 23, 1927.
In the 1920s, Sacco and Vanzetti came to symbolize the failure of American justice, drawing massive outpouring of support, including world-wide protests and a funeral cortege where over 200,000 people lined the streets of Boston. Their story reflects tensions around class, race, and politics that still reverberate in today’s discussions about white supremacy, historical memory, immigrant rights, surveillance, workers’ rights, the Antifa movement, and the right to protest in the name of social justice.
Their story is deeply entrenched in the Italian-American psyche. Growing up in Southeastern Massachusetts not too far from the site of their arrest in Bridgewater, I heard my family talk about Sacco and Vanzetti as if they were older, distant relatives. My father and grandmother spoke of them only rarely, in hushed tones over dinner, suggesting a combination of curiosity and fear. Their story highlighted the suppression of labor radicalism and the repercussions of anti-immigration laws, ethnic prejudice, and intolerance during the tumultuous yet formative decades of the early 20th century. Their legacy has long been shrouded in silence—one that has shaped my family’s perspective and, to a larger degree, that of Italian Americans across the U.S.
But the story of Sacco and Vanzetti does not belong to Italian Americans alone; the two men have inspired radical resistance in new but familiar ways. For example, the Sacco and Vanzetti Commemoration Society (SVCS) works to end “political persecution” and the “scapegoating of immigrants.” The SVCS holds annual public lectures and discussions by scholars and activists about the significance of the case today. In 2015, I attended one of the protests they organized, a march from the Boston Common to the North End (the city’s oldest and a notably Italian neighborhood) directly past the historical marker noting the site where the Sacco and Vanzetti Defense Committee met. I was struck by the disconnect between the anarchists holding political signs reading “No to State Repression!” and “Abolish the Death Penalty” and the mildly curious tourists eating at local establishments on Hanover Street. In addition to musical performances, several speakers addressed the fight for international social justice, drawing connections between Sacco and Vanzetti’s struggle and contemporary events, including political prisoners across the world as well as the Black Lives Matter Movement. But the importance of remembering Sacco and Vanzetti seemed lost on the crowd of people walking by, perhaps because people didn’t support the gathering’s overt political message but maybe because they didn’t recognize the names of the two men whose memory inspired the march. Confronting history—even as this march took place on Boston’s Freedom Trail, the story of America’s independence—appeared to be too revolutionary an act.
They may not be adequately remembered in Boston, but their hometowns of Torremaggiore and Villafalletto host annual events on “Sacco and Vanzetti Memorial Day.” Family members and activists plan marches, community events, and even revised elementary school curricula to teach younger generations about the case and raise awareness of the persecution the two men faced as immigrants and radicals in the U.S. The Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti Association, a political and cultural organization led by Sacco’s grand-niece, Fernanda Sacco, also organizes programs honoring Sacco and Vanzetti. Italy’s reclamation of Sacco and Vanzetti points to a political intervention that emphasizes the intersections among ethnicity, class, citizenship, and activism—difficult lessons learned as a result of the men’s conviction.
In the U.S., we largely ignore the history of labor radicalism and political activism. As historian Stephanie Yuhl writes in “Sculpted Radicals: The Problem of Sacco and Vanzetti in Boston’s Public Memory,” only a few commemorative markers of this story exist in the U.S. today. Public history seems to forget, she writes, that “Their actions, both violent and nonviolent, addressed very real historical grievances that are an essential part of the complex national narrative that we strive to represent.” The efforts of men and women across the U.S. who organized strikes and labor protests during the early 20th century labor movement—anarchists, syndicalists, and activists alike—ought to be recognized more publicly. So, too, should those walking off the job today, from striking teachers and nurses to the Amazon and Instacart workers who recently protested the lack of appropriate safety equipment and sick leave during the COVID-19 pandemic. These activists show us that ordinary people can effect social change.
Such recognition should go beyond physical markers. We could take a cue from Italy and incorporate the study of work and labor action into K-12 education, teaching young people how essential workers are not only in a time of crisis, but every day. Incorporating a working-class studies approach in curricula early on could make ethnic and working-class history more visible. And that, in turn, might encourage us to recognize more fully how the most vulnerable members of society help all of us survive.
The story of Sacco and Vanzetti can help us to remember and understand the more radical side of the Progressive Era. Even before the Great Depression drew attention to economic inequality, they remind us, immigrant labor radicalism was pushing back against xenophobia, precarity, and the decline of unions. As the centennial of their executions looms ahead in the coming years, it is time to reconsider how we remember Sacco and Vanzetti today. They are not just labor’s martyrs. They were part of a growing international working-class movement—one that built upon solidarity and the pursuit of social justice. Honoring their memories can help inspire working-class activism now.
Michele Fazio, University of North Carolina-Pembroke
Michele Fazio is a Professor of English and a former president of the Working-Class Studies Association. She recently won the University of North Carolina Board of Governors Award for Teaching Excellence.