Italian Americans Who Fought for Justice

Want to honor Italian heritage? Skip Columbus and learn about these justice fighters.

In the fight to abolish Columbus Day, we invariably hear from people who defend the holiday because it recognizes a historic figure of Italian heritage. Our response is that there are many other people of Italian heritage worthy of attention—people who have played an active role in the struggle for labor rights, gay and lesbian rights, human rights, and civil rights. Here are just a few people of note of Italian heritage.

We welcome your suggestions of people to add to this list. Email zep@zinnedproject.org.

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Angela Bambace

In 1955, Angela Bambace (1889-1975) became the first Italian immigrant woman to hold a leadership position in the International Ladies Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU) as vice president.

Bambace's family had moved from Italy to the United States, settling in East Harlem, where Bambace's mother worked in the garment industry. After completing high school in 1917, Angela and her sister Maria joined their mother at a shirtwaist factory operating sewing machines. There the young women were exposed to the exploitative and dangerous working conditions for women workers of the garment industry.

When the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Association (ACWA) began the fight to unionize the shop, Angela and Maria participated in walk-outs, strikes, and other forms of protest, marking the beginning of their long lives as labor activists.

Bambace's organizing expanded into the network of New York City garment worker organizers and she quickly became known as a fierce champion of labor rights. She would go on to unionizing garment workers in Baltimore, serve as the district manager for the states of Delaware, Maryland, and West Virginia, and become vice president of the ILGWU. Bambace died of cancer at the age of 86 in 1975. [By Kathryn Anastasi.]

Ralph Fasanella

Ralph Fasanella (1914-1997) worked in machine shops and dress shops, drove trucks, pumped gas, and organized workers for higher wages and a better life. He was also a self-taught artist. Many of his paintings reflect a nation of working people who took collective action to improve life on and off the job. Fasanella encouraged people to remember our history and heritages, "Lest we forget." [From the
.]

Fasanella fought with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade during the Spanish Civil War.

While he began painting in the 1940s, his work did not reach national acclaim until after the McCarthy era, in the 1970s. One of his most recognized paintings is of the 1912 Lawrence Textile Strike.

Learn more about Fasanella at www.fasanella.org.

Arturo M. Giovannitti


Arturo Giovannitti (1884-1959), was a poet and labor organizer. In 1912, he traveled to Lawrence, Massachusetts to help his friend and fellow I.W.W. organizer Joseph Ettor lead the Textile Mill Strike, known as the
. Mill owners accused Giovannitti and Ettor with inciting violence. When textile worker Ana LoPizzo was killed during a clash with state militia, striker Joseph Caruso was charged for the murder, and Giovannitti and Ettor were charged as accessories to murder, although they were miles away from the scene. Their trial gained international attention. In a closing statement to the jury, Giovannitti spoke about his dedication to the ideals of the working class (
, pp. 274-277):

We shall return again to our humble efforts, obscure, humble, unknown, misunderstood—soldiers of this mighty army of the working class of the world, which out of the shadows and the darkness of the past is striving towards the destined goal, which is the emancipation of human kind, which is the establishment of love and brotherhood and justice for every man and every woman in this earth.

On Nov. 26, 1912, all three men were acquitted of the charges. [Sources: ItalyHeritage.com, Voices of a People's History, and Bread and Roses Centennial Exhibit]

Learn more about Arturo Giovannitti at www.italyheritage.com.

Vito Russo


"I was fighting for the generations that were going to come after me so that young gay people who were 14 or 15 wouldn't have to grow up the way we did."

Vito Russo (1946-1990) was a gay rights activist and a film historian. Russo is best known for his groundbreaking book The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies, an exploration of the ways in which gays and lesbians were portrayed in film, what lessons those characters taught gay and straight audiences, and how those negative images were at the root of society's homophobia. In 1985, Russo help founded GLAAD, an organization that monitors LGBT representation in the media. [Sources: LGBT History Month website, Vito film, and Celluloid Activist: The Life and Times of Vito Russo]

Read more about Russo at LBGThistorymonth.com and in the biopic, Vito.

View a video of Wallace Shawn reading Russo's "Why We Fight" on the Voices of a People's History Vimeo page.

Sacco and Vanzetti


On July 14, 1921, anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were found guilty of murder despite a lack of evidence and an international campaign for their release. The trial took place during the height of the Red Scare, and symbolized the prejudice views against immigrants, labor unions, and political radicals that was fueled by the Department of Justice raids—known as "the Palmer Raids"—in targeted communities.

Sacco and Vanzetti were executed on August 27, 1927.

Read Woody Guthrie's ballads about the trial.

Read an article by Howard Zinn about the relevance of this case today.

View a video of Steve Earle reading Vanzetti's speech to the court on the Voices of a People's History Vimeo page.

Mario Savio


In 1964, Mario Savio (
1942-1996
) came to public notice as a spokesperson for the
at the University of California-Berkeley, where he led a non-violent campaign to inspire thousands of fellow Berkeley students to protest university regulations, which severely limited political speech and activity on campus.

Savio had volunteered with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Mississippi during Freedom Summer in 1964. He planned to raise money for SNCC on his return to university. That was when he learned of the ban on political activity and fundraising. He launched the first protest on October 1, 1964 when a fellow student was arrested for distributing literature from the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).

The non-violent campaign culminated in the largest mass arrest in U.S. history, drew widespread faculty support, and resulted in a revision of university rules to permit political speech and organizing. This significant advance for student freedom rapidly spread to countless other colleges and universities across the country. Read more.

Also read, "Remembering Mario Savio, 'Freedom's Orator'" by Tom Hayden in The Nation.

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