Lessons of Sacco and Vanzetti

08/23/2007 11:39 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Just after midnight on August 23, 1927, two Italian immigrant radicals were killed in the electric chair in Boston. The execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti sent shock waves throughout the world, and millions watched in horror as their seven-year legal nightmare came to a close. As we mark the 80th anniversary of this landmark event, we would do well to consider the lessons that the Sacco and Vanzetti case -- and the sadly familiar era in which it took place -- offer us in post-9/11 America.

Sacco and Vanzetti came to America looking for freedom, adventure, and a chance to earn some money, much like tens of millions of other immigrants around the turn of the last century. Sacco worked in a shoe factory and Vanzetti was in itinerant fish peddler. Both had lived quiet lives in Italian immigrant enclaves near Boston, but their betrayal by their adopted country would make their names famous around the world.

The prosecution of Sacco and Vanzetti was the most visible outrage of the so-called "red scare" that followed the First World War. A nation caught up in the jingoistic spirit of war looked on approvingly as the federal government ran roughshod over civil liberties in an effort to apprehend and punish suspected enemies within our borders. An ambitious attorney general rounded up, imprisoned, and deported thousands of radicals, peace advocates, labor activists, and other undesirables, often without charges or hearings. Special zeal was directed at Italians, especially Italian anarchists, a small number of whom -- including Sacco and Vanzetti -- were committed to waging a revolutionary struggle against the American capitalist state.

But Sacco and Vanzetti were not put on trial for their political beliefs or for revolutionary activities. They were accused of a robbery at a shoe factory in which two men delivering the payroll were mercilessly gunned to death. The evidence against Vanzetti was non-existent. The case against Sacco rested largely on perjured eyewitness testimony and what now appears to have been manufactured ballistics evidence.

The outcome of the Sacco and Vanzetti trial had little to do the evidence presented in court. When the jury foreman was asked by a friend if he thought the two "guineas" might in fact be innocent, he replied "damn them, they ought to hang them anyway." When Sacco took the stand, the prosecutor focused on his radicalism and his opposition to World War One. After the jury provided a speedy conviction, Judge Webster Thayer threw out a series of subsequent appeals by defense attorneys citing perjured testimony and judicial bias. Thayer, who referred to the defendants as "anarchist bastards," even refused to consider the confession of a small-time criminal who said he'd participated in the robbery and insisted that Sacco and Vanzetti had nothing to do with it.

We'll never know if Sacco and Vanzetti committed the shoe factory murder, and the question of guilt or innocence remains politically volatile even to this day. A recent flap based on a misreading of a letter by the novelist Upton Sinclair is the most recent proof of the ongoing radioactivity of this subject. But to focus on the issue of innocence or guilt is missing the point. The more fundamental question is whether they received a fair trial, and the answer is a resounding no.

More important still is the question of what we can still learn from their story. As our country remains fixated on the threat of domestic terrorism today, we would do well to reflect on how we responded to similar threats eighty years ago. Were we really more secure as a country as a result of the unconstitutional attacks on radical movements in the 1910s and '20s? Did the judicial murder of Sacco and Vanzetti help protect us from crime and terror?

Muslims and Arabs have become the current targets of racial profiling in the name of protecting our security. Looking at history will remind us that such treatment used to be reserved for Italians, now a fully-assimilated immigrant group whose members includes two justices on the Supreme Court. Does a defendant's ethnicity or political creed continue to shape the kind of justice that we offer in this country? How often do we still think something along the lines of "damn them, they ought to hang them anyway" when considering the fate of a defendant from an unpopular ethnic group, or whose beliefs are antithetical to our own?

Sacco and Vanzetti's fate also raises unsettling questions about capital punishment. As hundreds of death penalty convictions are now being overturned due to the introduction of new evidence, can the electrocution of these two men 80 years ago remind us of the folly -- not to mention the brutality -- of killing a defendant before the truth is settled?

Perhaps the greatest lesson we can take away from the Sacco and Vanzetti case was its ability to inspire millions of people to stand up on behalf of justice and reason. As the case played itself out over seven years in the 1920s, the unfairness of Sacco and Vanzetti's treatment in the courts fueled protests not just in the United States but throughout the world. Protests erupted in Boston, New York, and dozens of American cities, as well as is Paris and London, Tokyo and Buenos Aires, numerous cities in Africa, and countless other places. Books, poems, operas, and works of art further publicized the story of the two men and their legal ordeal. Would such a movement happen today?

Peter Miller's documentary SACCO AND VANZETTI has just been released on DVD - check it out at www.willowpondfilms.com