July 24, 2014
By Joe Maniscalco
New York, NY – Although largely overlooked today, Vito Marcantonio was one of the most potent champions for working men and women in the 20th Century. On August 9th, at 1 p.m., the late U.S. congressman and labor advocate will get an opportunity to speak directly to today’s constituency at a special event held at Woodlawn Cemetery commemorating the 60th anniversary of his untimely death.
“Politics is what partly obliterated Marcantonio from history,” says Roberto Ragone. “Fiorello La Guardia may have been laundered and made into this colorful ethnic hero who read the comics to the kids – but Vito Marcantonio was obliterated.”
Ragone, a public relations and communications specialist, as well as an actor, started portraying Marcantonio at special events about two years ago, and is now part of an organized effort to get the Italian-American legislator and American Labor Party member, the recognition supporters insist he deserves.
Before his surprising death in 1954 at age 51, Marcantonio represented a diversely ethnic East Harlem constituency in Congress for a total of 14 years, beginning in the late 1930s. A protege of Fiorello LaGuardia, Marcantonio steadfastly stood against militarism, the Taft-Hartely Act and the worst of McCarthyism.
“He understood that the anti-Communism [campaign] was damaging to the working class and other minority people,” says Gerald Meyer, a CUNY educator and Marcantonio scholar. “Marcantonio said, ‘Behind anti-Communism marches Fascism.’”
Maria Laurino, author of "Were You Always an Italian?" and "Old World Daughter, New World Mother," in addition to the companion book to the upcoming PBS "The Italian Americans" series, also believes that Marcantonio’s life and accomplishment should not be forgotten.
“I think Vito Marcantonio is a very important figure for Italian Americans, and all Americans today – a liberal congressman who fought for social justice and civil rights,” Laurino says. “He also was an anti-Fascist long before many other politicians and journalists understood the dangers of Mussolini’s regime. He was probably one of the most radical left politicians in Congress, and yet he managed to serve for 14 years. He was continually reelected because he, along with his mentor Fiorello La Guardia, devoted themselves to the needs of their East Harlem constituents.”
Despite the post-Bloomberg wave of progressivism dominating New York City politics, Meyer maintains that no one in today’s political arena can compare to Vito Marcantonio.
“He really was the spokesman for the American Left,” Meyer says.
Laurino maintains that the political spectrum has swung so far to the right, that it’s hard to imagine that a politician like Marcantonio could even exist today.
“While Marcantonio was not a Communist, the media did associate him with the Communist Party, and today such an association would be the death knell for a politician,” Laurino says.
Maybe so. From the outset, Mayor Bill de Blasio has closely aligned himself with La Guardia's legacy – but when asked to comment on Marcantonio’s life and contributions, City Hall failed to respond.
Politics aside, Ragone remembers Vito Marcantonio as a uniquely courageous elected official who resolutely voted his conscious, and earnestly devoted himself to his individual constituents.
“Marcanotnio made the decision to spend more time with day-to-day people rather than lobbyists,” Ragone says. “Today, politicians have to constantly meet with lobbyists and PACs.”
August 9th’s special commemoration will meet at the last stop on the 4 train, a half block from Woodlawn Cemetery’s Gate House, intersection of Jerome and Bainbridge avenues, at 1 p.m. For more information, visit vitomarcantonioforum.org.
“[Marcantonio] was such a dedicated and tireless public servant that even on the 60th anniversary of his death, he still has a devoted coterie of admirers,” Laurino says. “Perhaps the 21st century will treat him more kindly.”