Vito Marcantonio (1902-1954)

Vito Marcantonio (1902-1954) Published in: The Encyclopedia of Third Parties in America, Vol. III. Eds. Immanuel Ness and James Ciment (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 2000): 682-690.
Vito Marcantonio was the most electorally successful radical politician of the twentieth century. From 1934 until 1950, he served seven terms as Congressman from New York City’s East Harlem (in 1944 his district was expanded to include Yorkville). As the only American Labor Party (ALP) member in the House of Representatives for almost the entire period from 1938 to 1950, he articulated the program of the Left on the full range of foreign and domestic issues. He especially distinguished himself as a fighter for civil rights, civil liberties, the rights of labor, and advocacy for the foreign born. Soon after the organization of the ALP in 1936, he led its left wing, and by 1944 became the head of the entire party. Consequently, he gained national recognition. For example, in California’s 1950 senatorial race, Richard Nixon’s organization distributed over 500,000 copies of the by now infamous “pink sheet,” a flyer printed on pink paper, that purported to demonstrate a “Marcantonio-Douglas Axis” by listing bills where the leftist Congressman and Nixon’s opponent, Helen Gahagan Douglas, had voted the same. Though never a member of the Communist Party (CP), on most issues his political positions closely paralleled those of the Party. He repeatedly insisted that “the defense of the rights of Communists is a defense of the rights of all the people in any country where those rights are threatened.” His unflinching adherence to his principles, his devotion to his community, and his identification with the oppressed gained him respect and love among large groups of people who did not share all of his political beliefs. The astounding amount of opposition that he faced from the press and the political system led one of his biographers to conclude that he was “one of the most maligned and most misunderstood politicians in American history.” His ability to maintain the loyalty of his constituency and the support of still larger numbers of Americans—despite a sustained multifaceted opposition remarkable in is its scope and force—speaks to large questions residing at the very heart of the American experience.
Marcantonio was born on December 10, 1902 to an American–born father and a mother who had recently arrived from Italy. His family, which also included a younger bother and his paternal grandmother, lived on East 112th Street between First and Second Avenues in the heart of Italian Harlem, a community which was becoming the largest and the most Italian of America’s Little Italies. His father, Saverio, who supported the family as a carpenter, died when Marcantonio was a teenager. Upon graduating from elementary school in 1917, Marcantonio enrolled in DeWitt Clinton High School, where he encountered an Italian-American educator, Leonard Covello, who decisively influenced his life’s trajectory. Marcantonio participated in all the activities generated by Covello to help remedy the poor academic progress of Italian-American students. His participation included: becoming an officer in Il Circolo Italiano, a student club; enrolling in Covello’s Italian-language class; and, doing volunteer work in Haarlem House, a settlement house located in Italian Harlem.
While attending DeWitt Clinton, Marcantonio met his other mentor, Fiorello LaGuardia. Marcantonio, who had preceded him as a speaker at a convocation, so impressed La Guardia that that he adopted his theme—the need for the government to provide old age pensions—for his own speech. In 1922, when LaGuardia successfully ran for Congress from East Harlem, he appointed Marcantonio his assistant in charge of building an electoral organization and attending to the needs of the district’s residents. After serving in the House for a decade as the nation’s most eloquent and effective urban populist, in 1933 LaGuardia succeeded in becoming the fusion mayor of New York City. His protégé inherited his organization and his seat.
While working in Haarlem House, Marcantonio met another great influence and help, its head social worker, Miriam Sanders, a descendent of old-stock Americans from New Hampshire, who was eleven years older and four inches taller. Shortly after he graduated from New York University Law School in 1925, they married, and although they remained childless, the marriage proved to be satisfying and enduing. Sanders, who kept her own name, played a large role in building coalitions of social agencies for mobilizing the community pressure which resulted in building public housing and other public facilities.
Marcantonio’s ability to attract and keep in his life people such as Covello, La Guardia, Sanders, and ultimately thousands more—depended on a set of personal qualities that served him well throughout his life. All the descriptions of Marcantonio describe a handsome and striking figure. When he was forty-two, a journalist limned him as “looking at least ten years younger than he is. He is shorter than average [five feet five inches] and wiry in build. His eyes, hair, and complexion are dark. His face is well-molded and attractive. His most noticeable feature is a pair of broad but badly stooped shoulders. Because of this his head is constantly tilted forward.” Earlier descriptions state that “he was handsome enough to be taken for a movie hero,” or that “he had the Bourbon look of combined sensuousness and asceticism.” He possessed a wide range of oratorical skills that could rivet the attention of street corner crowds, whip into a frenzy the faithful, impress his colleagues of the House, and even convince judges and juries to decide in favor of indicted leftists. He seemed convinced of his own importance and this permitted him to demand the help of the Left as well as the full energies of his staff, and the devotion of thousands of volunteers. He gave fully to his constituents and “the cause,” and he anticipated loyalty and devotion in return. Hundreds of people believed that he was their close friend and that they were leaders in his organization. There was seldom any cause for anyone who shared his beliefs to question this. He never learned to drive, never left the United States, and indulged in only one form of recreation—hanging out with his childhood friends at night after tending to the needs of his constituents, which literally included giving away all his own money. This contributed to his constituents’ widespread sense that Marcantonio needed them. The attacks on Marcantonio, especially because they were so frequently linked to attacks on the community, actually welded his East Harlem constituents even closer to him.
Marcantonio’s radicalism originated in from the surrounding political milieu. From 1910 to 1920, Jewish East Harlem was a Socialist Party bastion that almost succeeded in electing Morris Hillquit to Congress and did succeed in electing Socialist City Aldermen and State Assemblymen. While he attended DeWitt Clinton, teachers had been fired because of their radicalism. He was also affected by the political outlooks of his mentors. Covello could best be described as a Christian Socialist, who infused his educational and communal work with the social gospel, and LaGuardia, as a left populist, who fiercely opposed laissez faire capitalism. When Marcantonio clerked in the law firm of Hale, Nelles, Shorr, he was befriended by Joseph Brodsky, a leading lawyer for the Communist Party, who connected him to Communist-led activities and organizations. For example, in 1937, Marcantonio assumed the presidency of the International Labor Defense, a legal-defense organization closely tied to the CP, for which Brodsky served as chief counsel.
East Harlem—a tenement district whose population consisted almost entirely of working class people, 90 percent of whom in 1930 were first- or second-generation Americans, also shaped Marcantonio’s politics. Throughout this period, Italian Harlem remained by far the largest of its communities, and El Barrio, the Puerto Rican community was more or less rapidly replacing Jewish Harlem. There also existed significant Finnish-, Greek-, and African-American communities. All of these nationalities formed stable dense communities that created their own social infrastructures—churches, social clubs, stores. They were almost self-contained and impervious to many of the tendencies of the wider society. As a result, for more than half a century East Harlem’s residents proved willing to vote for third parties and support radical politicians whose positions were congruent with their economic and social realities.
Marcantonio was immersed in the life of this area. He walked in the church processions, became godfather to innumerable babies, and socialized with boyhood friends, including those who had been in trouble with the law. When Marcantonio died, his last residence was located on 231 East 116th street, next door to Covello’s home, and just four blocks from the house where he had been born. One of his biographers noted that: “Few men in public life have been so intimately linked with a particular urban neighborhood.”
In Congress, Marcantonio had a distinguished career, which gained him the loyalty of his constituents, the respect of his colleagues, and widespread notice from the general public. His first term, 1934 to 1936, was anomalous. Although he had been elected as a Republican, together with a score of other radicals he proposed socialistic measures, such as the nationalization of idle factories and co-sponsored a resolution calling for “production for use.” Defeated in 1936 in the Democratic landslide, he returned to Congress in 1938 as an ALP representative, a third-party designation that consigned him to the most inconsequential committee assignments, such as the House Administration Committee. Indeed, in the Seventy-eighth Congress (1942-1944), he served on no committee whatsoever. His ALP affiliation also effectively prevented him, except in certain unusual circumstances, from sponsoring legislation, because the processing of bills took place in committees organized by the two major parties.
His mastery of parliamentary procedure allowed him to compensate for his outsider status. For example, in the postwar period he appended to every appropriation bill what he termed “the all-Harlem rider,” whose adoption would have precluded the expenditure of any monies to governmental agencies or private companies practicing discrimination. Repeatedly, this compelled the Democrats and other avowed liberals to demonstrate their commitment to civil rights, because he called for a public roll-call vote on this amendment. Also by demanding an engrossed (that is, printed) version of a bill, he forced the postponement of a vote, thereby allowing some time for those affected by the bill to politically mobilize against it. Lastly, his conscientiousness served him well. In 1946, the New York Sun stated that Marcantonio “has responded to more ‘yea’ and ‘nay’ roll calls and spoken often on a wider variety of subjects than have any of his colleagues.” His astute manipulation of parliamentary procedure and his probity gained him respect even from ideological enemies that at times resulted in tangible benefits. For example, in 1948 Nixon, the floor leader of the Mundt Bill which would have effectively outlawed the Communist Party, ceded additional time to Marcantonio, the recognized leader of the opposition to bill, to present his case.
When Marcantonio died on August 9, 1954, the business of the House was halted to hear a series of extraordinary eulogies. A liberal Democrat, John Blatnik of Minnesota, stated: “Vito Marcantonio was a real friend of mankind who always fought for the underdog. Few Members of this distinguished body were his equal as a parliamentarian and floor strategist. . . . He fought the good fight and did it well.” A Republican, Clare Hoffman, from Michigan followed: “He not only knew the parliamentary procedure which governs the House, but he never lacked the courage to use that knowledge to further the legislative program to which he adhered. He was so far to the left that I could not go along with his views. However, no Member of the House ever doubted his sincerity or failed to recognize his ability or his effectiveness. Our colleague served the people of his district vigorously, consistently, and sincerely.”
His most conspicuous legislative initiatives were in the area of civil rights. From 1941, when it was introduced, until 1945, Marcantonio skillfully maneuvered the reluctant House to approve the appropriation for the Fair Employment Practices Commission, which outlawed discrimination in hiring by corporations who were parties in government contracts. In 1945, he secured its imperiled funding by attaching its appropriation to an omnibus bill that included eighteen war agencies. In 1942, he introduced the first bill in United States history to permanently ban discrimination in employment. That same year, in recognition of his work on behalf of civil rights and the more open acceptance of leftists in the New Deal coalition, Marcantonio’s version of the House bill to outlaw the poll tax was presented—and was passed by a vote of 265 to 110. However, in both that year, and again when it was passed in 1945, it was filibustered in the Senate. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., in 1948, endorsed Marcantonio calling him “the most consistent and steadfast friend of the Negro and Puerto Rican people in Congress, barring none.”
Characterizing Puerto Ricans as the “most exploited victims of a most devastating imperialism,” the radical Congressman also proposed legislation on their behalf. He submitted five bills calling for the independence of Puerto Rico with an indemnity to compensate for “the disastrous state of the economy of Puerto Rico and the abysmal poverty of its people.” In myriad ways he served as the Congressman for Puerto Rico, which had no voting representative in Congress, by, among other things, ensuring that: it was included in appropriation bills, that Spanish be restored as the language of instruction in the public schools, and that the United States Treasury not appropriate the major source of its revenue, that is, the tax on Puerto Rican-produced rum.
Marcantonio also represented a singular—almost lone—voice in defense of the foreign born and the Italian-American people, a majority of whom according to the 1930 Census were first- and second-generation Americans. In a speech broadcast nation-wide in 1940, he attempted to mobilize opposition to the Smith Act, which among other things, called for the registering and finger printing of resident aliens, by reminding the American people that the: “test of a democracy lies in its ability to preserve its institutions of equality. [This means] no discrimination, no segregation, and no persecution of the foreign born.” Similarly, during the entire course of World War II, Marcantonio became the major defender of the Italian Americans. In a radio address broadcast nationally in 1942, he warned that: “The detractors and malingers of our loyal Italian Americans are . . . causing disunity, depriving our Nation of the services of skilled men and women. Those who deny opportunities to our Italian Americans, or to any group because of their race, color, creed, or national origin, are doing the work of enemy agents and saboteurs.” In 1944, Marcantonio demanded that the House pass a resolution recognizing Italy as an ally, noting that: “[The Italian people] overthrew Mussolini. They are fighting the Nazis. . . . 300,000 Italian partisans are fighting them in the northern part of Italy.”
He repeatedly and consistently presented the House of Representatives— and therefore the nation—with well reasoned, documented, and impassioned speeches that outlined the Left’s positions on every major issue. He gave major speeches in opposition to every major bill institutionalizing the domestic and foreign Cold War. He also actively engaged in the deliberations on the full gamut of legislation. One speech by Marcantonio on the floor of the House often resulted in two, three, or more retorts. These, in turn, presented the ALPer the right to respond. However, because of the domestic consequences of the Cold War, he became increasingly isolated until in his last term he frequently cast the sole nay vote on contempt citations emanating from the House Un-American Activities Committee and on appropriations bills for military expenditures. Ultimately he cast the only vote in opposition to the Korean War, challenging his colleagues to remember that they “can keep making impassioned pleas for he destruction of communism, but I tell you that the issue in China, in Korea, and in Viet Nam is the right of these peoples to self-determination, to a government of their own, to independence and national unity.”
During the postwar period, he insisted that the creation of an alliance with Germany to oppose the Soviet Union would only lead the United States to join with fascism’s collaborators and the colonial powers in a world wide counterrevolution that was completely contrary to the intention of the wartime Alliance. As a corollary to this, he argued that the cost of engaging in a global Cold War was the dismantling of the New Deal. A five-hundred-page volume published by a memorial society after his death, which consisted of excerpts from these speeches in the Congressional Record, could serve as an eloquent compendium of the Left’s political outlook during this entire period. Although the positions advocated by Marcantonio seldom resulted in a majority vote, as long as he was in Congress that sector of the political spectrum known as “the Left” had a voice that compelled a response by the House of Representatives and even the nation. His work shows how one convincing and determined voice could articulate an alternate vision to American mainstream politics.
Marcantonio’s views and activities engendered an extraordinary degree of opposition. With the exception of the Daily Worker and PM (and its successors the Star and later the Compass), New York City’s commercial press attacked Marcantonio with a vehemence and extremity that is perhaps unique. In 1942, The Sun editorialized that: “There is only one contest in the whole city which should deeply concern our patriotism. That is the contest in [Marcantonio’s district] . . . . Any party that nominates Marcantonio will smear itself darkly.” In 1948, urging his defeat, the Daily Mirror told its readers: “Marcantonio is a world figure. . . . It is not stretching any point to say that the results of the election in [his district], East Harlem, New York, will be major news in London, in Paris—and Moscow.” The same year, the New York Times published a series of three lengthy editorials advocating his defeat because of “his faithful adherence to the Communist line.” Most extraordinary, however, was Marcantonio’s treatment by the New York Mirror, which in 1950, for example, published fifty-eight articles about Marcantonio under headlines such as: “Marcantonio’s Under Machine, “Marcantonio in Photo with Harlem’s Vice Queen,” etc. Moreover, the New York press circulated the accusation, in the words of a Daily Mirror article, that: “Marcantonio’s principal strength comes from the hordes of Puerto Ricans enticed here from their home island, for the value of their votes, and subjected to pitiful poverty which Marcantonio has done nothing to alleviate—except force thousands on city relief.” Sadly, the racist canard that “Marcantonio brought the Puerto Ricans to New York and put them on welfare so that they would vote for him” remains a part of New York City’s mythology. Nor was this vilification confined to New York City. Kate Smith interrupted here nationwide radio broadcast to call for his defeat and Walter Winchell repeatedly singled out Marcantonio for invective.
Although these press attacks damaged Marcantonio’s reputation in the City and the nation, they made little impression on his constituents who continued to vote for him by the usual overwhelming pluralities. However, his electoral victories had depended on New York State’s election law which permitted candidates by petition to enter as many primaries as they wished regardless of their own party affiliation. Having already secured the nomination of the ALP, Marcantonio entered the primaries of the major parties. In every election year he had won in at least one of—and in 1942 and 1944 he won both—the primaries of the major parties. In 1947, the New York State Legislature passed the Wilson-Pakula Act, which forbade candidates registered in one party from entering the primaries of other parties without the assent of those parties’ county executive committees. This bill, which Marcantonio stated had his picture on it, meant that henceforth he would have to run solely on the ALP line. In 1948, for the first time, he ran without major party affiliation—and won. Finally, in 1950, the Democratic, Republican, and Liberal coalesced behind George Donovan, a Tammany Hall stalwart, who despite Marcantonio’s increased vote from 36 percent in 1948 to 42 percent, defeated the radical Congressman. The sixty-three percent of East Harlem’s voters who cast their ballots for “their Marc” could not compensate for his vote in Yorkville—which was predominantly German- and Irish-American, and where the average family incomes were 61 percent higher—where it fell to 25 percent. He still received far more votes on the ALP line than did George Donovan on either the Democratic Republican, or Liberal party line.
It is not surprising that an advocate of Puerto Rican independence who also served as a lawyer for the leaders of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party would be defeated in an election held six days after two Puerto Rican Nationalists attempted to assassinate the President. Nor is it surprising that a candidate who vocally opposed the Korean War would be defeated, especially by what Marcantonio called a “gang up” of the State’s three other parties. What requires explanation is how a politician this radical facing this degree of opposition won seven elections to the House of Representatives.
Marcantonio did not rely entirely on his effectiveness as a tribune to ensure his electoral victories. He helped build and lead a wide array of organizations that contributed to his successes. First, of these was of course the ALP, which guaranteed him an electoral line, and which also provided enormous bargaining power with the two major parties. The ALP, which averaged approximately 14 percent of the vote in New York City, held the balance of electoral power because New York State’s unique election laws have permitted cross endorsement of candidates. Hence, although it seldom could win an election in its own name, its endorsement could generally guarantee the election of one or the other major party candidate. Behind the scenes, these endorsements were at times traded in exchange for the major parties’ nomination of sacrificial lambs, that is to say, nominal candidates. Even when the major parties forwarded serious local contenders, their representatives in East Harlem carried on a charade, because there Marcantonio was “the all-party leader,” who because of his overwhelming popularity, friendship networks, ethnic identification, and extension of services ruled East Harlem. The ALP, which in 1949 boasted over 170 clubhouses in New York City, mobilized its members to electioneer in Marcantonio’s district. The left wing unions also mobilized their staffs to work for Marcantonio and utilize their shop steward structures and newspapers to promote his candidacy. The International Workers Order, a leftist fraternal organization, had lodges throughout the district which supported the radical Congressman. Although it generally worked through these organizations, the Communist Party also directly helped him through its press and by mobilizing its membership. Of course by 1950, all of these organizations were in the process of being destroyed by an intensifying and widening repression.
Marcantonio’s political style: “combined a personal, pragmatic style of ‘machine politics’ with a progressive legislative program based on radical principles.” His political organization—machine if you will—was simply the most elaborate, efficient, and best staffed in New York City. Every election district had a volunteer captain and within these districts many individual buildings also had captains who responded to assembly district leaders; these in turn answered directly to Marcantonio. Each resident within the district was canvassed more than once each year. Throughout his district, this maximized voter registration (which was, until 1954, an annual requirement for voting in New York), and voter turnout, which in 1946 reached 96 percent—the highest of any district in New York City. Canvassers asked voters to sign “pledge cards,” that is certificates declaring their support for the Congressman. Also based on their inquiries about the residents’ needs, they ensured that each one received a letter signed by Marcantonio which invited them to visit him at either his clubhouse in East Harlem on Sunday or the clubhouse in Yorkville on Saturday, where he pledged “to do my best to be of service to you.” Literally thousands of people thus availed themselves of the services of the Vito Marcantonio Association in order to obtain: repairs in their apartment, admission to public housing, welfare, help relating to an immigration problem, legal advice, help filing tax returns, or advice about a personal problem. One reporter stated that “Marcantonio’s club after one o’clock on Sunday looks like nothing so much as a busy day in the clinic of a great city hospital.” He greeted each of the constituents personally, and after briefly listening to their request referred them to a member of his staff. He did not lease until the last person was serviced and he did this every weekend. His willingness, availability, and effectiveness became legendary. He estimated that each year his organization processed, either by these face-to-face transactions or by correspondence, twenty-five thousand “contracts,” as his office referred to them.
On August 8, 1954 while on his way to his law office after having stopped at a printer to arrange for the petitions for his Congressional race as the candidate of the newly organized Good Neighbor Party, Marcantonio fell dead in the rain at City Hall Park in front of the Woolworth Building. The police sent for a priest to administer the last rites of the Catholic Church because religious medals were found on his person. Nonetheless, Cardinal Spellman refused to allow him a Catholic burial because “he was not reconciled with the Church before his death.” After the biggest funeral in the history of Italian Harlem, he was laid to rest in Woodlawn Cemetery close to LaGuardia. His tombstone reads: “Vito Marcantonio: Defender of Human Rights.”

By Gerald Meyer, Ph.D.

LaGumina, John Salvatore. Vito Marcantonio: The People’s Politician.
Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt, 1969.
Meyer, Gerald. Vito Marcantonio: Radical Politician, 1902-1954. Albany:
SUNY Press, 1989.
Ojeda Reyes, Felix. Vito Marcantonio y Puerto Rico: por los trabajadoes y por
la nacion. Rio Piedras, P.R.: Ediciones Huracan, 1978.
Rubinstein, Annette, ed. I Vote My Conscience: Debates, Speeches, and Writings
of Vito Marcantonio. New York: Vito Marcantonio Memorial, 1956.
Schaffer, Alan. Vito Marcantonio: Radical in Congress. Syracuse: Syracuse
University Press, 1966.