Sacco and Vanzetti
By Vito Marcantonio
Introduction by Wm. Z. Foster
By William Z. Foster
On November 11, 1937, it is just fifty years since Albert R. Parsons,
August Spies, Adolph Fischer, George Engel and Louis Lingg, leaders of the
great eight-hour day national strike of 1886, were executed in Chicago on
the framed-up charge of having organized the Haymarket bomb explosion that
caused the death of a number of policemen. These early martyrs to labor's
cause were legally lynched because of their loyal and intelligent struggle
for and with the working class. Their murder was encompassed by the same
capitalist forces which, in our day, we have seen sacrifice Tom Mooney,
Sacco and Vanzetti, the Scottsboro boys, McNamara, and a host of other
champions of the oppressed.
Parsons and his comrades were revolutionary trade unionists, they were
Anarcho-Syndicalists rather than Anarchists. In the early 'eighties, when
they developed their great mass following, the mass of the workers were
just learning to organize to resist the fierce exploitation of a ruthless
capitalism. The great eight-hour strike movement led by the "Chicago
Anarchists" gave an enormous impulse to trade union organization
everywhere and it was for this that the employing interests had them
hanged. When, for example, the older Chicago unions nowadays go out on
parade on Labor Day, banner after banner bears the historic dale of 1886.
Indeed, the A. F. of L. was practically established nationally at that
time. Although the A. F. of L. had been founded in 1881, it never got a
real hold among the masses until the big strike movement of 1886, which
established the unions in man pew trades and industries and brought about
the reorganization and renaming of the A. F. of L.
In many respects 1937 bears a kinship to 1886. Once again labor is making
a vast surge forward, but on a much higher political level. In 1886, and
the years following, the best that the working class could do in the way
of organization was to produce the craft union movement, which,
notwithstanding all its failings, was an advance in liveability at least,
over the amorphous and confused Knights of Labor. But now, the working
class, grown stronger, more experienced and more ideologically developed,
has given birth to the C.I.O. movement, with its industrial unionism,
trade union democracy, organized political action and generally advanced
conception of the workers' struggle. The militant trade union movement of
today, heading towards a broad People's Front, is the direct lineal
descendant of the great strike movement of the 1886 Chicago martyrs.
Not only has labor matured very much in the fifty years that have passed
since 1886, but so also has the capitalist system that gives it birth. In
1886 American capitalism was young, strong and growing. It had before it a
long period of unparalleled expansion, during which the workers became
afflicted with many illusions about the possibilities of prosperity under
capitalism. Now, however, American capitalism, like the world capitalist
system of which it is a part, has exhausted its constructive role of
building the industries. It is now obsolete and gradually sinking into
decay. Industrial crises follow each other with increasing severity and
the masses are becoming more and more pauperized. The growth of fascism
and war is the attempt of this outworn capitalist system to keep in
existence although history has imperatively summoned it to leave the stage
and to make way for the next order, socialism.
The modern working class, although it has not learned all the needed
lessons of the situation in which it finds itself, is nevertheless rapidly
becoming free from capitalist illusions and is reorganizing itself
accordingly, industrially and politically. Of this renaissance, the C.I.O.
is the greatest mass expression.
The Haymarket martyrs were bold pioneer fighters for socialism and they
paid with their lives for their devotion and clear-sightedness. Although
they sleep all these years in Waldheim Cemetery, their work was not in
vain and they are not forgotten. In keeping green the memories of these
proletarian heroes, the International Labor Defense, the Communist Party
and other progressive and revolutionary organizations are preserving one
of the most glorious of all American revolutionary traditions. The lives
of Parsons, Fischer, Engel, Spies and Lingg, and Sacco and Vanzetti, must
be made more than ever the inspiration of the proletarian youth. We must
indeed realize in life the noble last words of Spies, spoken as he stood
on the gallows with the hangman's noose around his neck:
_"There will come a time when our silence will be more powerful than
the voices you are strangling today."_
By Vito Marcantonio
President, International Labor Defense
_"These are my ideas. They constitute a part of myself. I cannot divest
myself of them, nor would I if I could. And if you think that one can
crush out these ideas that are gaining ground more and more every day;
if you think you can crush them out by sending us to the gallows; if you
would once more have people suffer the penalty of death because they
have dared to tell the truth--and I defy you to show that we have told a
lie--if death is the penalty for proclaiming the truth, then I will
proudly and defiantly pay the costly price."_--(August Spies, just
before he was sentenced to death on October 9, 1886.)
The man who spoke these words had no illusions. He knew that the court he
was facing was a hostile court, an enemy court, a court determined to
stamp out all that he stood for and believed in. He knew, also, that the
truth of which he spoke was much bigger than the little man who sat in a
black gown waiting for him to finish so that he could pronounce the brutal
words that would mean his death on the gallows. He knew that the movement
he represented was bigger than the forces which were trying to crush it
and that it would survive.
Survive it did--to become one of the most powerful factors on the American
scene today, one of the most vital factors in the extension and
preservation of democracy and the rights for which he laid down his life.
And why should we venerate the memory of this man and the other victims of
the Haymarket tragedy? Not simply because they were brave men. Not simply
because they had the courage of their convictions and did not weaken in
the face of death. But because their fight is still going on today,
strengthened by their magnificent pioneer work, because of the foundation
they helped lay for the American labor movement of the present day.
Back in 1886, that movement was still almost in its infancy. Noble
attempts to build it had been made in the days of our Revolutionary
forefathers. But all they did was to lay the groundwork, to drive in the
first piles on which the rest of the structure could be built. The man of
the early 'eighties of the last century began the actual construction.
One of the main issues around which they rallied the working people of
this country was the fight for the eight-hour day. Albert Parsons, only 36
when he was executed, had spent more than ten years actively organizing
American workers. He was a printer, a member of the powerful International
Typographical Union which even in those days had over 60,000 members. He
was a member of the Knights of Labor, the first great trade union center in
American history. He was one of the outstanding spokesmen of the
eight-hour day. An able orator, he toured the United States, soap-boxing,
lecturing and recruiting supporters for the movement.
By his side was August Spies, a German worker from the metal trades
industry, who carried the fight to the Central Trades Body of Chicago to
which he was a delegate. Around them were many others: Adolph Fischer,
George Engel who came to America as so many of our immigrant forefathers
did because he believed "_he would live a free man, in a free country_."
Oscar Neebe, Samuel Fielden, Michael Schwab and young Louis Lingg, only
twenty-three at the time of his death.
Their efforts bore fruit. The movement for the eight-hour day gained
momentum. Union after union discussed the problem and went on record in
favor of fighting for it, until finally the slogan became: General Strike
for the eight-hour day. The date set was May 1, 1886, a day that has now
become the international fighting holiday of labor.
In Chicago, the May Day strike was a great success. Those who remember it
and took part in it tell us that thousands of workers filled the streets.
Some paraded, others gave out handbills, others went in committees from
factory to factory calling the workers out on strike. Despite all the
efforts of a hostile press to whip up hatred for the workers, to alienate
the middle class, to spread the fear of disorder and raise the bogey of
revolution (much as Mayor Shields of Johnstown so unsuccessfully tried to
do when he attempted to introduce the menace of vigilantism into
Johnstown, Pa., during the recent steel-strike with his black helmeted
monkeys), the day passed in absolute peace.
One Chicago daily, the _Mail_, actually carried an editorial addressed
directly to Parsons and Spies. It called them every vile name that the
censorship would pass and stated that any disorder which might occur
should be laid at their door.
In many industries the workers decided to stay out on strike after May 1.
One of these was the McCormick Reaper Plant in Chicago. On May 3, August
Spies was invited by the strike committee to address the pickets at the
factory gate. Just as he finished speaking, the police charged down upon
the assembled workmen with clubs and guns. First reports had it that six
were killed outright and scores wounded. Chicago papers were quick to
point out that _only_ two had lost their lives!
Spies rushed back to the office of the German radical paper, the
_Arbeiter-Zeitung_, of which he was the editor. Hastily he wrote up a
leaflet denouncing the police attack, calling for revenge "_if you are the
sons of your grandsires who have shed their blood to free you_." It ended
with a dramatic call to arms, which Spies upon re-reading ordered stricken
out. The typesetter left it in and at the Haymarket trial which followed
it provided the prosecution with some of its most valuable ammunition in
firing the hatred of the jury.
That same evening a committee of trade unionists decided to hold a protest
meeting in the Haymarket Square in Chicago, on the night of May 4. Several
thousands people attended. Spies opened the meeting and stated its
purpose: to discuss the question of the eight-hour day and to protest the
police shootings at the McCormick plant. Parsons, who had just returned to
the city from a speaking tour was hurriedly sent for and rushed over with
his wife, Lucy Parsons, and their two children, to lend a hand.
The speakers stood on an empty wagon for a platform and addressed the
crowd for about two hours. Reporters covering the meeting, instructed to
take down only the "most inflammatory" remarks made, testified from the
witness stand at the subsequent trial as to the mildness of the speeches.
In the audience was the mayor of Chicago, Carter Harrison, who was quickly
satisfied by its peaceful nature and went in person to Police Captain
Bonfield with instructions to call off police reserves and send his men
home. They would not be needed.
Just as the last speaker, Samuel Fielden, was saying, "_In
conclusion----_," a good part of the crowd had been driven home by rain
which began falling when he started his speech--a squad of armed police
descended upon the Haymarket Square. Mumbling orders for the crowd to
disperse, they fell upon the assembled men and women with clubs and guns.
At that moment, someone--to this day unknown--threw a bomb into the midst
of the meeting, killing one policeman outright and wounding scores of
These are the facts of the Haymarket meeting and the events which lead up
to it. What the press made of it was the prelude to one of the rawest
frame-up trials in American history.
All the leading radicals in the city were rounded up and arrested. Many
more were indicted in their absence and heavy rewards were posted for
their capture. Among these was Albert Parsons, who had left before the end
of the meeting, and had fled to a safe hiding place when the man-hunt
began. The newspapers from coast to coast, our worthy _New York Times_ not
excepted, howled for their blood, raved about an Anarchist plot to blow up
Chicago, seize the government, murder, arson, pillage, rape--the whole
program which William Randolph Hearst has made only too familiar to the
On June 21, 1886, the trial began. Eight men were singled out as
victims--August Spies, Albert Parsons, George Engel, Adolph Fischer, Louis
Lingg, Samuel Fielden, Michael Schwab and Oscar Neebe. Efforts to postpone
it until the hysteria had died down failed. The men who came forward to
defend the Haymarket victims were conservative lawyers headed by one,
Captain Black. Convinced of their innocence and enraged by the efforts to
railroad them to the gallows, they did their best to provide adequate
defense. But they had illusions about the justice available in the
American courts. They planned, for instance, to have Parsons walk into the
courtroom and surrender himself, asking for a fair trial! This they were
sure would make a "good impression" on the judge and jury!
The judge, Judge Gary, gave one of the most shameful performances that
this country has ever seen, and it has seen plenty from its judges. He
helped choose the jury---to make sure it would convict. He questioned men
who stated they had already formed an opinion about the case, had definite
prejudices against Anarchists, Socialists and all radicals, were not
certain they could render an impartial verdict--and ruled that they were
not disqualified! He said from the bench that "_Anarchists, Socialists and
Communists were as pernicious and unjustifiable as horse thieves_," and,
finally, in charging the jury, that even though the state had not proved
that any of the eight men on trial had actually thrown the bomb, they were
nevertheless guilty of a conspiracy to commit murder.
The bigoted speeches of the prosecutor Grinnell, and his aides, are
equalled only by the speeches of the prosecution in the Mooney case, the
Herndon case, the Scottsboro case. In other words, they established a fine
precedent for all anti-labor prosecutions to follow.
The trial lasted 63 days. The jury was out only three hours. That's all
the time they needed to examine the mountain of evidence presented in
those months. It is true that most of it was perjured, framed-up evidence
prepared by the prosecution, wild-eyed stories of the men leaping from the
wagon which was really a barricade, flaming pistols aimed at the police,
etc. The rest was quotations from their writings and speeches made years
before the Haymarket meeting was ever dreamed of. The verdict was a
foregone conclusion: death for all but Oscar Neebe and for him 15 years in
The judge thanked the jury from the bench and announced that there were
carriages outside the door waiting to take them home. The press of the
entire nation congratulated Chicago upon having such upright and
courageous citizens to serve on juries. Chicago papers collected a purse
of $100,000 to divide among them as a reward for work well done.
The case was appealed to the Illinois State Supreme Court which, on March
18, 1887, found no errors on which it could reverse the verdict. This
despite affidavits proving that the jury was chosen from a carefully
selected panel of enemies of the men by the bailiff and the judge and many
other flagrant violations of civil rights, too many to enumerate.
And then came the appeal to the United States Supreme Court. Old as they
are, none of the present incumbents were then sitting on the bench. But
their worthy forerunners were equally reactionary. They found no
constitutional grounds for reversal! Of course not, even though the right
of free speech and assembly had been trampled underfoot at the Haymarket
Square, the right to a fair trial made into a cruel farce.
On November 11, 1887, Albert Parsons, August Spies, Adolph Fischer and
George Engel were led out to the gallows. At the last moment, yielding to
the terrific pressure of protest which had been developed by the defense
in the last months, and a great wave of general sympathy with the men
throughout the country, Governor Oglesby commuted the sentences of Fielden
and Schwab to life imprisonment. Two days before the execution--when the
defense committee had mobilized a great movement in Chicago--tables for
signing petitions to the governor had been set up in the city streets, the
able police of Chicago, worthy ancestors of those police who murdered
eleven steel strikers at the Republic plant on Memorial Day, 1937,
suddenly discovered a bunch of "bombs" in the jail where the men were
held. On the next day they announced that Louis Lingg had committed
suicide by blowing his own head off with a small bomb!
Hitler used the Reichstag fire. Chicago used "bombs."
The men died bravely, like the heroes that they were. Spies' last words
spoken on the gallows were prophetic: "_The day will come when our
silence will be more powerful than the voices you are throttling today_."
He was right, righter than he knew. That silence is making itself heard in
the auto factories of Michigan, in the steel mills of Pennsylvania and
Ohio, on the docks, in the mines, in textile factories. The eight-hour day
is a reality. The defense of the rights of labor is a reality. The great
movement for industrial unionism and democracy which they dreamed of is a
reality--in the C.I.O.
They did not die in vain. Taught by the lessons of the Haymarket tragedy,
such an organization as the International Labor Defense has been built by
the workers and progressive people of America, to stand guard and prevent
such legal murders today. Tom Mooney is still alive, J. B. McNamara and
Warren Billings; Angelo Herndon is free, four Scottsboro boys are
free--though all were threatened by the same fate as the victims of the
Haymarket martyrs. Reaction still takes a heavy toll of victims, but it
must reckon with the might of organized, united mass defense represented
and organized by the I.L.D. For example, the Nine Old Men who have made
the United States Supreme Court the stronghold of reaction with the same
callousness as their predecessors, arrogantly refused to review the appeal
in the case of Haywood Patterson, one of the innocent Scottsboro boys. But
the fight goes on, until all the remaining five are free.
We are dedicated to the cause--their cause--of freedom and democracy, to
the struggle for justice and defense of the rights and liberties of the
* * * * *
There are two other labor martyrs who must be honored at the same time as
the Haymarket heroes. The tenth anniversary of their death coincides with
the fiftieth anniversary of the former in this year of 1937.
Again let us listen to the words of one who faced his doom:
"_I am suffering because I am a radical, and indeed I am a radical; I
have suffered because I was an Italian, and indeed I am an Italian; I
have suffered more for my family and for my beloved than for myself; but
I am so convinced to be right that you could execute me two times, and
if I could be reborn two other times I would live again to do what I
have done already_." (Bartolomeo Vanzetti, just before he was sentenced
to death on April 10, 1927.)
To me those words are particularly poignant. For I am an Italian, and
proud to be of the same people that produced such a great spirit as
Vanzetti, the descendant of Garibaldi, the forerunner of those heroic
anti-fascist brothers who are today fighting Fascism and Mussolini in
Italy and in Spain.
Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were poor Italian workers. Both came
to this country like all our countrymen in search of peace and work and
plenty. Both found only hard work and hard knocks. Sacco was a
shoe-worker. Vanzetti had followed many trades after his arrival here in
the summer of 1908. He worked in mines, mills, factories. Finally he
landed in a cordage plant in Plymouth, Massachusetts. That was the last
factory job he held. For here, as in all the others, he talked union and
organization, and organized a successful strike. After that, he was
blacklisted for good and had to make a living peddling fish to his Italian
neighbors in the little town known as the cradle of liberty.
During the years 1919 and 1920 two phenomena made their appearance in the
state of Massachusetts. One was national, the other local. The first was
Mitchell Palmer's red delirium which caused him to hunt radicals with the
same zeal but much more frenzy than the old Massachusetts witch hunters in
every corner of the land. The second was a wave of payroll robberies
obviously executed by a skilled and experienced gang of bandits.
In April, 1920, both these currents crossed the paths of Sacco and
Vanzetti. Their friend Andrea Salsedo was arrested by Palmer's "heroes,"
tortured, held incommunicado for 11 weeks and thrown from the eleventh
story of the Department of Justice office in New York City to his death.
This happened on May 4, 1920. Early in April the Slater and Merrill Shoe
Factory paymaster was murdered in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, and some
$15,000 carried off. On May 5, Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested in South
Braintree, Massachusetts, and held on suspicion of being the guilty
bandits. After he nabbed them, Chief of Police Stewart discovered, with
the aid of Department of Justice agents, that he had two dangerous
radicals marked for "_watching_" in Department files in Washington.
What happened after that, though it lasted seven long and torturous years,
is fairly familiar to the American people. It ended ten years ago in the
electric chair at Charlestown Jail in Massachusetts. The finest minds in
the world, the greatest masses of workers and their friends, made their
protest known to the American government, through its embassies, before
its government buildings, in the streets and roadways of America.
But Judge Webster Thayer, who bragged, "_Did you see what I did to those
anarchistic bastards_," disregarded all the evidence proving their
innocence, poisoned the minds of the already hatred-ridden jury against
them, with speeches about the soldier boys in France, the flag,
"consciousness of guilt," the perfidy of "foreigners." The witnesses for
the defense proved the innocence of Sacco and Vanzetti beyond the shadow
of a doubt. Italian housewives told of buying eels from Vanzetti on the
day of both crimes with which he was charged (another payroll robbery
committed on Christmas eve, 1919, was thrown in for good measure against
him, to secure that conviction first and bring him to trial for murder as
a convicted payroll robber). Sacco had an official from the Italian
Consulate in Boston to testify for him. He had been in Boston on the day
of the Bridgewater crime enquiring about a passport to Italy for himself,
his wife and child. The official couldn't forget him, because instead of a
passport photo he brought a big framed portrait of his whole family with
Ballistic testimony from an expert who was a state witness was brought to
show that the fatal bullet was not Sacco's, but to no avail. New trials
were denied. The State Supreme Court upheld the murder verdict. The
governor upheld it. He appointed a special commission of professors headed
by President Lowell of Harvard, and they upheld it. Four justices of the
United States Supreme Court were contacted for a stay of execution. All
On August 22, 1927, Sacco and Vanzetti were legally murdered by the State
of Massachusetts. The tragedy of their untimely and cruel death is still
an open wound in the hearts of many of us who remember them as shining
spirits, as truly great men such as only the lowly of the earth can
We of the International Labor Defense call upon all the progressive
people in America today to help us honor their memories by helping us
fight the reaction, the bigotry, which brought about their death, by
helping us defend and protect the victims of the present and the future.
During the fifty years that have passed since 1887 the toll of victims has
grown. But though the road is red with the blood of these martyrs, the
triumphant march of labor towards progress and democracy has not been
halted. The example of steadfastness which they have set up before us has
strengthened us in our determination to carry on the fight in which they
lost their lives. On this anniversary, we give our pledge. It shall be
done. Reaction, fascism and the terror which it brings in its path shall
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