Vito Marcantonio, the son of Italian immigrants, was born in East Harlem, New York City on 10th December, 1902. He attended De Witt Clinton High School where he came under the influence of Fiorello La Guardia: "He addressed the school assembly the same day when I made a speech. I shall never forget it. I spoke in favor of old-age pensions and social security. La Guardia made this the theme of his speech to the students."
Marcantonio was a successful student and despite his poor background eventually managed to enter New York University Law School. While at university Marcantonio became involved in politics. In 1924 he joined Fiorello La Guardia in supporting Robert La Follette, who was the presidential candidate of the Progressive Party. This resulted in La Guardia losing the Republican Party nomination. "The Democratic Party, as usual, sought to defeat him. La Guardia asked me to actively participate in that campaign, and together with a handful of our friends and neighbors in East Harlem, we conducted a successful campaign for him and for LaFollette in our congressional district."
In 1926 Marcantonio was admitted to the bar and worked as a lawyer in New York City and served as assistant United States district attorney (1930-31). In 1933 Marcantonio played an important role in the successful election campaign of Fiorello La Guardia as mayor of New York City. Seen as La Guardia's heir apparent, Marcantonio was elected to Congress in 1934 where he represented East Harlem's 20th District.
In Congress he argued against the policy of deporting people like Emma Goldman for their left-wing views: "I do not believe in the deportation of any man or woman because of the political principles that they hold. Irrespective of what a person advocates, he or she should not be molested, because our Government has been based upon the principles of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion and freedom of thought."
Marcantonio was accused of being a secret supporter of the American Communist Party. He replied: "I disagree with the Communists. I emphatically do not agree with them, but they have a perfect right to speak out and to advocate communism. I maintain that the moment we deprive those with whom we extremely disagree of their right to freedom of speech, the next thing that will happen is that our own right of freedom of speech will be taken away from us."
An outspoken politician with left-wing views, Marcantonio was defeated in 1936 but won the seat back in 1938 as the American Labor Party candidate. A strong supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, Marcantonio held the seat for the next twelve years. In Congress he argued that the "unemployed are victims of an unjust economic and social system which has failed." Marcantonio was also a strong supporter of African American Civil Rights.
As Gerald Meyer has pointed out: "In the House, Marcantonio distinguished himself as the major leader for civil rights legislation by sponsoring anti-lynching and anti-poll tax bills as well as the annual fight for the Fair Employment Practices Commission's appropriation. He served as de facto congressperson for Puerto Rico, insuring that it was not excluded from appropriations bills. He also submitted five bills calling for the independence of Puerto Rico (which he called "the greatest victim of United States imperialism") with an indemnity for the damage done to the island by the United States business interests which had replaced tens of thousands of small farms with sugar plantations."
Marcantonio was a fierce critic of Martin Dies and his Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) that was established in 1937. The main objective of the HUAC was the investigation of un-American and subversive activities. This included looking at the possibility that the American Communist Party had infiltrated the Federal Writers Project and other New Deal projects. In 1940 Marcantonio argued: "If communism is destroyed, I do not know what some of you will do. It has become the most convenient method by which you wrap yourselves in the American flag in order to cover up some of the greasy stains on the legislative toga. You can vote against the unemployed, you can vote against the W.P.A. workers, and you can emasculate the Bill of Rights of the Constitution of the United States; you can try to destroy the National Labor Relations Law, the Magna Carta of American labor; you can vote against the farmer; and you can do all that with a great deal of impunity, because after you have done so you do not have to explain your vote.
Marcantonio was against United States involvement in the early stages of the Second World War because he believed it was "a war between two axes, the Wall Street-Downing Street Axis versus the Rome-Tokyo-Berlin Axis, contending for empire and for exploitation of more and more people." However, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor he played an active role in the American Committee for Russian War Relief. Along with Fiorello La Guardia, Charlie Chaplin, Wendell Willkie, Orson Welles, Rockwell Kent and Pearl Buck, Marcantonio campaigned during the summer of 1942 for the opening of a second-front in Europe.
In 1944 a New York State re-districting made possible a new attempt to defeat him by removing part of his old district and adding to the new 18th Congressional District. As Harpers Magazine pointed out: "The Twentieth Congressional District no longer exists. the New York Legislature, dominated by upstate Republicans who have nothing to fear from Marcantonio, has reapportioned the state and tried to gerrymander Marcantonio out of office. In the new Eighteenth District, he will still have most of his East Harlem Spaniards and Italians but life will be complicated by the addition of vast German and Irish hordes from the adjoining Yorkville area." Despite these attempts to remove him, he carried the district by a majority of 66,390.
In 1946, the media did everything it could to defeat Marcantonio and the American Labor Party in East Harlem. Despite the smear campaign he still won by 5,500 votes. As Sidney Shallet pointed out: "What matters to them is not whether Marcantonio is red, pink, black, blue or purple, but that he is 'their' Congressman a... tireless fighter for the man on the streets of East Harlem. He is willing to live in their slums, rub elbows with the best and the worst of them, work himself to the thin end of a frazzle for them. He spends his dough on them, takes up their battles against the landlords.... On occasions... the Congressman even has carried scuttles of coal personally to heatless tenements. Anyone who wants to see him... can do so."
Richard Rovere described the work of Marcantonio after his election: "The scene in the La Guardia Club after one o'clock on Sunday looks like nothing so much as a busy day in the clinic of a great city hospital. Marcantonio and three or four secretaries sit at desks on a platform in the front of the main hall. Before them on wooden camp chairs are about a hundred constituents, many of them cradling infants in their arms... as many as four hundred may come and go in an afternoon.... They speak in Spanish, Italian, English, and various mixtures of the three. Marcantonio can always answer in kind, throwing in a little Yiddish if the need arises. Mostly their problems concern money or jobs."
Along with his colleague, Leo Isacson, Marcantonio campaigned for equality in the armed forces. When Eugene Hoffman of Mitchigan argued against this move, Marcantonio pointed out: " The doctrine that has been advanced here by the gentleman from Michigan is a doctrine of insult to the various races that compose this great nation. When he speaks of an inferior race, what is it? When he speaks of a superior race, what is it? Contemporary history has demonstrated conclusively that only Nazis, those who imposed on this world the most barbarian rule ever conceived by man or devil, were capable of talking of superior races or inferior races or of denouncing the intermingling of races."
Marcantonio joined forces with Emanuel Celler to argue against the formation of the Central Intelligence Agency. "With all of the vast powers that are given this agency under the guise of research and study, you are subjecting labor unions and business firms to the will of the military. You are opening the door for the placing of these intelligence agents, supposed to deal with security pertaining to foreign as well as internal affairs, in the midst of labor organizations... I am sure if it were not for the cold war hysteria, very few Members of the Congress would vote for that provision. Certainly the majority would not vote to suspend the rules so that you must take this bill as it is without any opportunity for amendment, despite its serious implications against the security of the liberties of the American people."
On the morning of 20th July, 1948, Eugene Dennis, the general secretary of the American Communist Party and eleven other party leaders, including John Gates, William Z. Foster, Benjamin Davis, Robert G. Thompson, Gus Hall, Benjamin Davis, Henry M. Winston, and Gil Green were arrested and charged under the Alien Registration Act. This law, passed by Congress in 1940, made it illegal for anyone in the United States "to advocate, abet, or teach the desirability of overthrowing the government".
Vito Marcantonio decided to help with their political defence. During this period of McCarthyism, this was political suicide. As one political commentator pointed out: "Marcantonio's opposition in the 81st Congress to both major parties on such fundamental issues as foreign policy, labor relations and civil liberties had become so outstanding that extraordinary measures were taken to prevent his reelection. A three party coalition of the Democratic, Republican and Liberal parties, supported by every major newspaper in New York City, backed a single candidate against him." The New York Times ran a series of editorials on three successive days urging his defeat. Even so, Marcantonio still won over 40% of the votes in the 18th congressional district.
After his defeat he maintained his two neighborhood offices so the people of East Harlem could still visit him to gain help with their problems. Marcantonio remained one of the strongest opponents of Joe McCarthy and the Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and was legal counsel of civil rights activist, William Du Bois.
Marcantonio was also opposed to the Korean War: "Tragically, after 27 months of killing in Korea, with 119,000 American casualties, some of us accept the Korean conflict as we do the flowing of the Hudson River. After 14 months of talk at Panmunjom some have come to feel that this so-called police action or little war is something with which we can live. They have forgotten that war in our time is like cancer if it is not stopped it spreads. If this Korean war is not stopped now, it too will spread... The resolving of every other issue, civil rights, labor, civil liberties, agriculture, the economic well-being of the American people, depends on cease fire in Korea."
In 1952 Presidential Election Marcantonio supported Vincent Hallinan, the leader of the Progressive Party. "A vote for the Progressive Party in 1952... is a vote as valuable as that cast for the Liberty Party in 1840 against slavery, and for the Free Soil Party in 1848 and 1852 against extension of slavery. It is a vote similar to the one that made up the one million votes for Eugene V. Debs in 1920, which in turn led to the four million votes for LaFollette in 1924 and for victory for Roosevelt in 1932. Great causes were never won by sacrificing a real fight and substituting for it the seeming lesser evil."
In 1953 Marcantonio decided to resign from the American Labor Party and to campaign for his old seat as an independent: "I shall continue to strive as an independent for the things for which I have striven so hard. I shall continue to do so as an independent endeavoring for the political realignment which is inevitable. It is as inevitable as the failure of the Republican and Democrat foreign policy and the economy that is based upon it."
Vito Marcantonio, who practiced law until his death of a heart attack on 9th August, 1954. Probably the most left-wing person to hold a seat in Congress, over 20,000 people attended Marcantonio's funeral in New York City.