Wednesday marked the 90th anniversary of the execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two Italian-born anarchists who were convicted of killing a payroll clerk and security guard during an armed robbery at a South Braintree shoe company on April 15, 1920. Despite worldwide protests, Sacco and Vanzetti were electrocuted at Charlestown State Prison on Aug. 23, 1927.
Moshik Temkin, an associate professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and the author of “The Sacco-Vanzetti Affair: America on Trial,” spoke with Metro Minute about the notorious case and why it still resonates.
Why are people still fascinated by their case?
It came to be this kind of national and international scandal because of a number of reasons. One is because of how they protested their innocence; the second is because it became clear that they were not career criminals; and three, it became really political because they were anarchists and radicals and this was a time in which in America there was a backlash against radicalism. This was also a time of anti-immigration and a time in which America was growing into a world power.
The case became really important and because of the way that it played out, and the execution at the end . . . it just resonated over time. Each generation kind of picked it up as a symbol of injustice.
When people want to use an example of injustice in the legal system, Sacco and Vanzetti come up a lot. And it’s not just the US, by the way — you get it all over. I’ve had conversations about this with people in Europe, in Russia, and in Latin America.
How is the legacy of their case seen in today’s context?
We’re living in a time in which a lot of these issues are coming up again. The anti-immigration kind of politics that we have nowadays — this is not new in American history. Sacco and Vanzetti can be considered two earlier victims of a wave of really strong hostility to immigrants and immigration. The same kinds of arguments that you’ve been hearing over the past couple of years — about how immigration is hurting us, hurting American workers, and hurting the American economy and American politics — you heard the same thing back then when they were on trial.
Sacco and Vanzetti were Italian, and at that time Italians were really not considered white, and they suffered from a lot of discrimination. . . . I think their story is kind of a warning that people who think they might be safe in terms of thinking about immigration or anti-immigration . . . might not be safe in the future because people’s notions of what is considered ‘‘really American” changes over time.
Can you share an interesting fact or two about Sacco and Vanzetti?
A lot of people back then were surprised when they met them. Remember that they were put on trial for being bandits. But when people actually started meeting Sacco and Vanzetti, they were stunned by how unlikely criminals they were. They were very thoughtful, very sensitive, very eloquent in their own way. They corresponded with all sorts of people . . . intellectuals and scientists and artists. They made unlikely friendships.
Sacco and Vanzetti did not resemble what people considered to be criminals. Especially Vanzetti. He had a way of making people come away from meeting him in prison . . . people were in awe. They would talk about him almost like he’s a saint. . . . He was a simple person, but he turned out to be this philosopher.