Sacco and Vanzetti

After World War I and The Russian Revolution that brought the Bolsheviks (Communists) to power in Russia, there was a very strong “Red Scare” in the United States. Americans were afraid of immigrant radicals and the foreign political ideas they may have brought with them to America. People with radical political ideas were all of one stripe in the public mind—threats to security. Communism, in particular, was suspect and gave rise to the “Red Scare” and The Palmer Raids that occurred in 1919 and 1920.

A. Mitchell Palmer was the Attorney General of the United States. Palmer and his deputies conducted more than 30 raids in cities and towns of 23 states. Ignoring constitutional rights such as the requirement of a search warrant, Palmer and his deputies rounded up thousands of suspected radical leftists from all over the country. More than 500 immigrants, mostly Italians, were deported for their political beliefs. (Murray, Red Scare: A Study in National Hysteria, 1919-1920.)

Illustrative of this anti-immigrant animus in the United States is the story of Nicolo Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two Italian immigrants who in the 1920s were tried and found guilty of murder during an armed robbery in Massachusetts and executed under dubious circumstances.

Sacco and Vanzetti were believed to belong to an anarchist organization that espoused the violent overthrow of the government. That organization conducted a series bombings in the days before the armed robbery Sacco and Vanzetti did, or did not, commit. For all of these reasons, it would be difficult to find an impartial jury to consider the issues at trial.

The prosecution introduced a substantial amount of evidence regarding the defendants’ radical politics, rather than facts related to the robbery-murder itself. The evidence relating to the robbery and murder was conflicting. There were issues concerning evidence tampering by the prosecution. Some questioned the impartiality of the trial judge. Nevertheless, the defendants were found guilty and sentenced to die. Many believed that Sacco and Vanzetti were not given the benefit of the presumption of innocence, but were convicted because of their immigrant and radical backgrounds.

Because of the questionable circumstances surrounding the trial and conviction, the case became one of the most significant causes célèbres of the era. People from all over the world protested the guilty verdicts and death sentences. Felix Frankfurter, a future Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court but then a Harvard law professor, argued that there should be a new trial. The Boston Herald took the same position in an editorial that won the Pulitzer Prize. Despite all of the attention, Sacco and Vanzetti were put to death in the electric chair in August 1927. Many songs have been written about them.

“Two Good Men, was written by Woody Guthrie, one of the most prolific songwriters in American history. He has been called “The father of the contemporary protest ballad.” (Rodnitzky, Minstrels of the Dawn: The Folk-Protest Singer as Cultural Hero, p. 7.) On his guitar, Guthrie wrote this motto: “This machine kills fascists.” The song is sung by David Rovics. (

Two good men a long time gone,
Two good men a long time gone
(Two good men a long time gone, oh, gone),
Sacco, Vanzetti a long time gone,
Left me here to sing this song.

Say, there, did you hear the news?
Sacco worked at trimming shoes;
Vanzetti was a peddling man,
Pushed his fish cart with his hands.

Sacco was born across the sea
Somewhere over in Italy;
Vanzetti was born of parents fine,
Drank the best Italian wine.

Sacco sailed the sea one day,
Landed up in Boston Bay;
Vanzetti sailed the ocean blue,
Landed up in Boston, too.

Sacco’s wife three children had,
Sacco was a family man;
Vanzetti was a dreaming man,
His book was always in his hand.

Sacco earned his bread and butter
Being the factory’s best shoe cutter;
Vanzetti spoke both day and night,
Told the workers how to fight.

I’ll tell you if you ask me
‘Bout this payroll robbery;
Two clerks was killed by the shoe factory
On the street in South Braintree.

Judge Thayer told his friends around
He would cut the radicals down;
Anarchist bastards was the name
Judge Thayer called these two good men.

I’ll tell you the prosecutors’ names,
Katsman, Adams, Williams, Kane;
The judge and lawyers strutted down,
They done more tricks than circus clowns.

Vanzetti docked here in 1908;
He slept along the dirty streets,
He told the workers “Organize”
And on the electric chair he dies.

All you people ought to be like me,
And work like Sacco and Vanzetti;
And every day find some ways to fight
On the union side for workers’ rights.

I’ve got no time to tell this tale,
The dicks and bulls are on my trail;
But I’ll remember these two good men
That died to show me how to live.

All you people in Suassos Lane
Sing this song and sing it plain.
All you folks that’s coming along,
Jump in with me, and sing this song.

“The Ballad of Sacco and Vanzetti, (Parts 1, 2 and 3)” (1971) from the soundtrack of the movie Sacco and Vanzetti, written and sung by Joan Baez, is similarly sympathetic toward the accused and is critical of the criminal process they endured.;;

“Give to me your tired and your poor
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me. ”

Blessed are the persecuted
And blessed are the pure in heart
Blessed are the merciful
And blessed are the ones who mourn

The step is hard that tears away the roots
And says goodbye to friends and family
The fathers and the mothers weep
The children cannot comprehend
But when there is a promised land
The brave will go and others follow
The beauty of the human spirit
Is the will to try our dreams
And so the masses teemed across the ocean
To a land of peace and hope
But no one heard a voice or saw a light
As they were tumbled onto shore
And none was welcomed by the echo of the phrase
“I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

Blessed are the persecuted
And blessed are the pure in heart
Blessed are the merciful
And blessed are the ones who mourn

Father, yes, I am a prisoner
Fear not to relay my crime
The crime is loving the forsaken
Only silence is shame

And now I’ll tell you what’s against us
An art that’s lived for centuries
Go through the years and you will find
What’s blackened all of history

Against us is the law
With its immensity of strength and power
Against us is the law
Police know how to make a man
A guilty or an innocent

Against us is the power of police

The shameless lies that men have told
Will ever more be paid in gold
Against us is the power of the gold
Against us is racial hatred
And the simple fact that we are poor

My father dear, I am a prisoner
Don’t be ashamed to tell my crime
The crime of love and brotherhood
And only silence is shame

With me I have my love, my innocence
The workers and the poor
For all of this I’m safe and strong
And hope is mine

Rebellion, revolution don’t need dollars
They need this instead
Imagination, suffering, light and love
And care for every human being

You never steal, you never kill
You are a part of hope and life
The revolution goes from man to man
And heart to heart
And I sense when I look at the stars
That we are children of life, death is small

My son, instead of crying be strong
Be brave and comfort your mother
Don’t cry for the tears are wasted
Let not also the years be wasted

Forgive me, son, for this unjust death
Which takes your father from your side
Forgive me all who are my friends
I am with you, so do not cry

If mother wants to be distracted
From the sadness and the soulness
You take her for a walk
Along the quiet country
And rest beneath the shade of trees
Where here and there you gather flowers
Beside the music and the water
Is the peacefulness of nature
She will enjoy it very much
And surely you’ll enjoy it too
But son, you must remember
Do not use it all yourself
But down yourself one little step
To help the weak ones by your side

Forgive me, son, for this unjust death
Which takes your father from your side
Forgive me all who are my friends
I am with you, so do not cry

The weaker ones that cry for help
The persecuted and the victim
They are your friends
And comrades in the fight
And yes, they sometimes fall
Just like your father
Yes, your father and Bartolo
They have fallen
And yesterday they fought and fell
But in the quest for joy and freedom
And in the struggle of this life you’ll find
That there is love and sometimes more
Yes, in the struggle you will find
That you can love and be loved also

Forgive me all who are my friends
I am with you
I beg of you, do not cry

“Sacco’s Letter to His Son, words written by Nicolo Sacco (1926) and music written by Pete Seeger (1950s); sung by Pete Seeger on this video (, reflects Sacco’s sympathies for the poor immigrants.

If nothing happens, they will electrocute us right after midnight,
Therefore here I am, right with you, with love and with open heart,
As I was yesterday.
Don’t cry, Dante, for many, many tears have been wasted,
As your mother’s tears have been already wasted for seven years,
And never did any good.
So son, instead of crying, be strong, be brave
So as to be able to comfort your mother.

And when you want to distract her from the discouraging soleness
You take her for a long walk in the quiet countryside,
Gathering flowers here and there.
And resting under the shade of trees, beside the music of the waters,
The peacefulness of nature, she will enjoy it very much,
As you will surely too.
But son, you must remember; Don’t use all yourself.
But down yourself, just one step, to help the weak ones at your side.

The weaker ones, that cry for help, the persecuted and the victim.
They are your friends, friends of yours and mine, they are the comrades that fight,
Yes and sometimes fall.
Just as your father, your father and Bartolo have fallen,
Have fought and fell yesterday. for the conquest of joy,
Of freedom for all.
In the struggle of life you’ll find, you’ll find more love.
And in the struggle, you will be loved also.

As reflected in the following song, often immigrants were excluded from jobs because of their nationality. No Irish Need Apply, was written in 1862 by John F. Poole most likely due to the number of Irish immigrants who came across the Atlantic during the Irish Potato Famine, 1845-1852. Circumstances had not changed in the twentieth century, and the song was equally applicable. Here is a version sung by the Weavers. (

I’m a decent boy just landed from the town of Ballyfad
I want a situation, yes, and wants it very bad
I seen employment advertised – “It’s just the thing,” says I
But the dirty spalpeen ended with ‘No Irish Need Apply’

“Woah,” says I, “but that’s an insult, though to get the place I’ll try”
So I went to see the blaggard with his ‘No Irish Need Apply’
Some may think it a misfortune to be christened Pat or Dan
But to me it is an honor to be born an Irishman

Well I started out to find the house, I got it mighty soon
There I found the old chap seated, he was reading the Tribune
I told him what I came for, when he in a rage did fly
“No!” he says, “you are a Paddy, and no Irish need apply”

Well I gets my dander risin’, I’d like to black his eye
To tell an Irish gentleman, ‘No Irish Need Apply’
Some may think it a misfortune to be christened Pat or Dan
But to me it is an honor to be born an Irishman

Well I couldn’t stand it longer, so ahold of him I took
And I gave him such a whelping as he’d get at Donnybrook
He hollered “Milia murther,” and to get away he did try
And swore he’d never write again ‘No Irish Need Apply’

Well he makes a big apology, I bid him then good-bye
Saying “when next you want a beating, write ‘No Irish Need Apply'”
Some may think it a misfortune to be christened Pat or Dan
But to me it is an honor to be born an Irishman.

“The Argentines, The Portuguese, and The Greeks, was meant to be a comical comment on immigration written in 1920 by Swanstrom and Morgan and reflects an anti-immigrant state of mind. It is played by the Edward Meeker Orchestra at ( )

Columbus discovered America in 1492
Then came the English and the Dutch
The Frenchman and the Jew
Then came the Swede and the Irishman
Who helped the country grow
Still they kept a coming and now
Everywhere you go

There’s the Argentines and the Portuguese,
The Armenians and the Greeks
One sells you papers, one shines your shoes,
Another shaves the whiskers off your cheeks

When you ride again in a subway
Notice who have all the seats
And you’ll find they are held by
The Argentine and the Portuguese and the Greek

There’s the Ritz Hotel and the Commodore and
The Vanderbilt and the rest
All of them are classy, up to date hotels
They boast accommodations of the best
When you ask the clerk for a room and bath
He looks at you sarcastically and speaks
Why we’re all filled up with the Argentine
And the Portuguese and the Greek

There’s the Oldsmobile and the Huntmobile
And the Cadillac and the Ford
There are the motors you and I can own
The kind most anybody can afford
But the Cunningham and the Mercury
And the Rolls Royce racing free
Ah they all belong to the Argentine and
The Portuguese and the Greek

There are pretty girls, there are witty girls
There is every kind of a girl
Some you like a little, some a little more
But none of them will set your heart a whirl
When you really feel you’ve met your ideal
A girl with smart and chic
You will find she belongs to an Argentine or
A Portuguese or a Greek

They don’t know the language
They don’t know the law
But they vote in the country of the free
And the funny thing when we start to sing
“My Country Tis of Thee”
None of us know the words
But the Argentine, the Portuguese, and the Greek.