The national movement to bring down statues that symbolize historical oppression is gaining momentum in Massachusetts. The North End’s Christopher Columbus statue has remained out of sight since it was decapitated by protesters after George Floyd was killed. While some people, especially in the Italian-American community, want to bring the statue back, it’s time to put someone else on a pedestal.
Every grade-schooler learns the jingle: In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Though Italy didn’t exist in 1492 — Columbus was apparently Genoese — students usually are taught that he was an Italian explorer who voyaged across the Atlantic to establish intercontinental trade between Europe and Asia on behalf of his benefactors, Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain. Instead, he and his men landed on a Caribbean island (which one is disputed) and enslaved the indigenous Taíno people he encountered in Cuba, Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic), and other islands, a violent colonization that took many lives. The explorers accidentally infected and killed many Native people with the European diseases they carried. Columbus symbolizes violence and unchecked power, and doesn’t deserve a statue any more than he deserves a federal holiday. Textbooks no longer lionize him as they once did.
What if, instead of reinstalling that monument to Columbus, who never set foot in what became the United States, we cast a new one of two Italians who were wrongfully convicted of murder and executed: Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. Yes, this might be considered controversial to the many people who were taught in grade school that Sacco and Vanzetti were murderers. But it could be a good starting point to introduce kids to how widespread wrongful convictions are and the reasons for criminal justice reform.
The case involved an armed robbery 100 years ago at the Slater and Morrill Shoe Company in Braintree. A paymaster and guard at the company were shot to death and $15,000 (worth about $194,000 today) was stolen. The criminals were described by eyewitnesses as foreigners with oily skin. Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested after picking up a car, believed to be connected to the crime, from an auto repair shop. The theory about the car was later disproven, and the defendants had alibis. Neither had a criminal record. But they were nonetheless convicted in 1921 and executed in 1927.
Following a blitz of press coverage in America and Italy, Sacco and Vanzetti became internationally recognized figures. Many people believed the two were innocent and labor organizations and the American Civil Liberties Union championed their cause. There was speculation that a local gang had actually committed the crime. For years after the trial and executions, people in Massachusetts and around the world protested, rioted, and took part in strikes. It remains among the most notorious cases in US history.
Here’s who Sacco and Vanzetti really were: Italian immigrants who came to Massachusetts in 1908 seeking a better life. Sacco was a shoemaker; Vanzetti, a fish peddler who worked part time in construction. They were hardworking people during a time when Italians struggled for acceptance in America and anti-immigrant sentiment was rampant; they were often discriminated against and treated with contempt. My grandfather, a first-generation Italian American living in Worcester, was alive at the same time as Sacco and Vanzetti. He used to tell stories about how he got teased because of his dark skin — even his friends called him “Coke” after the color of soda.
Sacco and Vanzetti’s struggles navigating class, prejudice, and politics are just as relevant in today’s protests and discussions of racial injustice as ever. They became friends through their activism opposing World War I, and believed in the equal distribution of wealth, restoring power to the people, and workers' rights.
Sacco and Vanzetti were working-class people — heroes, in my view — fighting for immigrants' rights and equality. In return they faced discrimination and were considered a dangerous threat by the powers that be of their day.
A retrial was never granted, though many believed it should’ve been. On August 23, 1977, the 50th anniversary of Sacco’s and Vanzetti’s executions, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis issued a proclamation declaring it Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti Memorial Day, stating that they were never given a fair chance through the eyes of a prejudiced justice system and that their names should be cleared of the unjust stigma of murder. Dukakis urged that the case be used as a needed reminder of “the resolve to prevent the forces of intolerance, fear, and hatred from ever again uniting to overcome the rationality, wisdom, and fairness to which our legal system aspires.”
In 1997, a plaster casting of a bas-relief commemorating Sacco and Vanzetti, created decades before by Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor of Mount Rushmore, was formally accepted by Mayor Thomas Menino. It remains on display at the Boston Public Library. We should do more.
As an Italian American, I was shocked when I first learned about the Sacco and Vanzetti case in my Advanced Placement US history class. My ancestors could’ve easily suffered the same unfortunate fate. Had Sacco and Vanzetti been alive today, I’m convinced they would be out in the streets protesting racial injustice, calling to defund the police, and urging lawmakers to dump discriminatory policies.
It’s time for Boston’s Italian Americans to memorialize new heroes. We should look no further than Sacco and Vanzetti, who fought for the rights of everyday people.
Megan Montgomery is a communications consultant in Boston. Send comments to email@example.com.