New Book, Film Explore Sacco and Vanzetti Case On this day in 1927, the state of Massachusetts executed two Italian immigrants for the murder of two payroll clerks that the men insisted they didn't commit. A new book and documentary draw parallels to our feelings about immigration then and now.
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New Book, Film Explore Sacco and Vanzetti Case

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New Book, Film Explore Sacco and Vanzetti Case

New Book, Film Explore Sacco and Vanzetti Case

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This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.


I'm Alex Chadwick.

Coming up, a journalist writing about Oakland's Your Black Muslim Bakery was murdered. Now another journalist, Christopher Hitchens, weighs in.

BRAND: First though, just after midnight 80 years ago today, two men were executed in a Massachusetts prison for a crime many people are convinced they never committed.

CHADWICK: The trial and execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti became an international cause celeb. Their trial revolved around issues of immigration and national security, issues that still matter.

NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates reports.

(Soundbite of music)

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: On April 19, 1920, two payroll clerks were killed in a robbery in the Boston suburb of Dwayne Tree, Massachusetts. Italian immigrants Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were charged with the murders. They were tried in what historians now acknowledge was one of the most outrageously slanted cases in American legal history. That trial and the men's subsequent execution sparked worldwide protest and inspired this popular folk song.

(Soundbite of song, "Two Good Men")

Mr. WOODY GUTHRIE (Singer): (Singing) Sacco was born across the sea, somewhere over in Italy, Vanzetti was born of parents fine, drank the best Italian wine.

BATES: Woody Guthrie memorializes Sacco and Vanzetti in the just released DVD of Peter Miller's 2006 documentary "Sacco and Vanzetti." Miller began the film before 9/11 and believes it's even more relevant in a post-9/11 environment.

Mr. PETER MILLER (Director, "Sacco and Vanzetti"): When immigrants started to be rounded up and deported and held without charges, when they're became this xenophobia that arose again in the years since I began the project, I started to really recognize that there were parallels between the past and the present.

BATES: Journalist Bruce Watson agrees. His new book, "Sacco and Vanzetti: The Men, the Murders and the Judgment of Mankind," re-examines many of the original elements of the case, as well as previously unpublished information. Watson says initially America was more tolerant of immigrants since most of them came from Northern European stock. But the welcome mat was yanked back in the late 1800s when the immigrant profile changed.

Mr. BRUCE WATSON (Journalist): And around 1890 it really shifted to Italians and Southern Europeans, and that caused a lot of alarm and a lot of racism, quite frankly.

BATES: People complained the newcomers were too clannish, too poor, and uninterested in assimilation. It was in this atmosphere that Sacco and Vanzetti were accused of the payroll murders. Although both men protested their innocence and eyewitness accounts were conflicted at best, Boston authorities were convinced they had their men. The fact that the Italians were avowed anarchists weighed heavily against them.

Again, Bruce Watson.

Mr. WATSON: I think it's important to clear up what anarchism was at that time. On one side it was the naive belief of true dreamers that someday society could get along with no government, but there was another small fraction of anarchism that was violent and was responsible for assassinations and bombings.

BATES: And the argument raged as to which kind of anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti were. After their arrest, it took months to bring the two men to trial. During that time, they were condemned by much of the mainstream media and many politicians. A guilty verdict seem preordained.

Both Bruce Watson and Peter Miller feel potential witnesses for the defense were discredited simply because they spoke only Italian. Others were pressured by the prosecution to change their testimonies. Finally, after seven years of appeals, Sacco and Vanzetti were executed.

In the film, composer Anton Coppola(ph) remembers.

Mr. ANTON COPPOLA (Composer): It was this hot summer night in 1927, it was hot in Boston. It was hotter in New York, I think. We're trying to watch the electricity because we were told that the force of the electricity going through the electric chair would in some way diminish the power of the light. So I think we were looking for that.

BATES: Immediately after, around the globe, in Europe, South America, Africa and Asia, there were demonstrations protesting the prejudice that saturated the trial proceedings. Many thought the two political activists had become martyrs. Bruce Watson says while the world protested, Boston had a different reaction.

Mr. WATSON: The powers-that-be in Massachusetts circled the wagons and they decided we are not going to let the world tell us anything about our courts.

BATES: Both Watson and Miller refrained from telling us their personal opinions about Sacco and Vanzetti's guilt or innocence. Watson says there may never be a definitive answer. And each agrees that the issues that made Sacco and Vanzetti important to history continue to echo in the present.

(Soundbite of song, "Red Wine")

Mr. GUTHRIE: (Singing) Oh, pour me a drink of Italian red wine, and let me taste it and call back to mind, once more...

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

(Soundbite of song, "Red Wine")

Mr. GUTHRIE: (Singing) my soul a story as great, if not greater than all. It was 1920, the 5th of May, the cop and some buddies took these men away, off of the car and out and down, and down to the jail in Brockton town.

CHADWICK: And there's more coming up on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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