America’s Dreyfus Case

The Black Flag: A Look at the Strange Case of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti

by Brian Jackson
Routledge & Kegan Paul, 208 pp., $12.95

From its obscure beginnings the case of Sacco and Vanzetti developed into the American case of the century, the linked names echoing across the years, a symbol of man’s injustice to man. At the time of their arrest in May 1920, the pair aroused so little interest that Boston papers scarcely mentioned them in a few inaccurate back-page paragraphs as suspects in the South Braintree holdup-murders of the previous month. After their anarchist comrades had formed a defense committee a socialist newspaperman sent from New York to investigate reported back: “There’s no story in it. Just two wops in a jam.” Yet seven years later Stalin called the Sacco-Vanzetti case the most important event since the October Revolution.

Following the conviction of Sacco and Vanzetti a wave of carefully orchestrated demonstrations took place overseas. Then when the guilty verdict was not followed shortly by sentencing and execution—as would have happened in most other countries—the demonstrations faded away. For six years the case smoldered, suddenly blazing up in 1927 with the publication by Harvard Law School Professor Felix Frankfurter of an article in the Atlantic Monthly and a book, The Case of Sacco and Vanzetti. In that moment of illumination the case became a cause. Frankfurter’s was a clarion call to all liberals, all academics, all concerned citizens. Those convinced by the Harvard professor’s eloquence of the innocence of the two anarchists and the outrage of their trial—though most until then had scarcely been aware of the linked names—embraced their belief with the intensity of a religious conversion.

The belief hardened to a dogma. In 1948 G. Louis Joughin, the co-author of The Legacy of Sacco and Vanzetti, could write that “the literary verdict is unanimously sympathetic to the executed men. Prosecution, judges, and the hostile Massachusetts public majority have not in twenty years found a single literary defender of their position.” Intellectual opinion so solidified that it was not until 1958 that the first crack in the monolith of dogma appeared. Singularly enough this occurred in East Germany with the publication of Professor Johannes Zelt’s Proletarian Internationalism in the Battle for Sacco and Vanzetti. Zelt was given access to government files in Moscow and he used these to attack the bourgeois liberals by showing that the European protest movement at the time of Sacco’s and Vanzetti’s execution was organized, led, and directed from the Communist European Central Headquarters in Berlin. Quite innocently, Zelt demolished the myth of European workers rising in spontaneous indignation against American capitalist injustice.

Then in 1960 a conservative Boston lawyer, Robert Montgomery, who had spent years studying the record, made the first direct challenge to the dogma of innocence with his book Sacco-Vanzetti: The Murder and the Myth. After his rigorous analysis of the argument, anyone dogmatically asserting the innocence of Sacco and Vanzetti had a formidable antagonist to reckon with. James Rorty, an earlier Sacco-Vanzetti street demonstrator and poet of the cause, in reviewing Montgomery’s book for The New Leader wrote that it stood…

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