Friday, October 23, 2015

Michael Parenti: Growing Up in East Harlem/ October 31

 
Author Stephen Siciliano will give a talk on author Michael Parenti's Waiting for Yesterday: Pages from a Street Kid's Life.” It will take place at the Mulberry Street Branch of the New York Public Library at 10 Jersey Street, in between Lafayette & Mulberry streets. He'll be joined by Vito Marcantonio Forum founding members Roberto Ragone and LuLu LoLo Paschale who will read passages from Parenti's remembrance of his youth in East Harlem. The event will be chaired by poet Gil Fagiani (“A Blanquito in El Barrio”). The date is October 31 and the time is 2 p.m. The event is sponsored by the Vito Marcantonio Forum. If you like it lit, come on out.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

"I Vote My Conscience" : A Primer of Primary Importance

Scholarship on Rep. Vito Marcantonio starts, and probably ends, with I Vote My Conscience.

In her introduction to the book, editor Annette T. Rubinstein wrote that Marcantonio, "set himself the job of interpreting the unrealized possibilities of democracy for his neighbors, and of helping them to achieve the dignity in security they deserved and needed."

Rubinstein set for herself the task of assembling the congressman's work in a way that would demonstrate his achievements in pursuit of that goal.  

Although organized in a reference style, Rubinstein successfully wove series of speeches like strands throughout the text, tracing Marc's advocacy of a broad, yet consistent, set of issues over all his years in the House of Representatives.

A Veritable Laundry List

From the 74th Congress to the 81st session – Marcantonio's last – matters of unemployment, Puerto Rico, Italy and Italian-Americans, civil and voting rights, the Fair Employment Practices Committee, anti-racism, anti-Fascism, pro-slum clearance, the Works Progress Administration all made annual appearances in his speeches. 


Most prominent was the radical's staunch advocacy of labor, and by labor, we are talking about union labor.

His proclamation against Taft-Hartley, the bill that removed the labor movement's incisors, is typical of his pronouncements on strikes, workplace safety, factory floor rights, and collective bargaining.

"What is your justification for this legislation?" he challenged his House colleagues on April 15, 1947, "Oh, you say you are going to give certain rights, a new bill of rights to the American worker. What are you giving him? You are giving him the right to be free, freeing him from unionization, freeing him from his hard-earned protection, freeing him from his union, his only defense against exploitation. You are making him free to be exploited."

Over the years Marcantonio's primarily Italian constituency was joined in his coalition with a new wave of Puerto Rican immigrants.

Unable to separate the problems of these Spanish-speaking immigrants in New York City from the conditions that drove them off their tropical isle, Marcantonio soon became Puerto Rico's spokesman in Congress.


And so, I Vote My Conscience contains a special section apart, “Puerto Rico and It's People.”

Having discussed the island's plight with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Marcantonio was dismayed at the president's ignorance of Puerto Rican affairs under his purview. He had every reason to suspect the affliction was national in scope.


The Puerto Rican speeches in I Vote My Conscience see Marcantonio in professorial form, delivering didactic addresses, primers on the island's history under the yoke of what the good congressman considered U.S. imperialism. 


Early in his first term as congressman, Marcantonio introduced a bill calling for Puerto Rico's independence from the U.S., an oft-repeated act in year to come. During the Depression, he fought for unemployment relief on the island, a minimum wage. He gave a speech, "Five Years of Tyranny," that led to the recall of the island's federally-appointed governor, Blanton Winship.

Editor, Editor

Dr. Rubinstein's choices can't help but give a foundational shape to Marcantonio's work and influence the direction of future scholarship. 


She spent a year on I Vote My Conscience, which she called a “partial political autobiography,” for in her compilation Marcantonio tells his story, not in hindsight, but as an actor in the moment. 

Here is Marcantonio on different stages, all stages really: in the nation's historical crucibles, and in the final grinding hours of the legislative mill, ennobling the cynical sausage-making with democratic sentiment. 
I Vote My Conscience is live drama, a political script. 
 
The 500-page volume boasts more than 150 excerpts of the radical congressman's speeches – mostly to the House – radio addresses and courtroom arguments defending communists during the Red Scare.

Its disparate store of speeches, letters, magazine articles, radio addresses and passionate rants from the House Well ultimately piece together the whole story of a remarkable political career without engaging in traditional narrative.


“In the most general terms possible, this book documents what one brilliant and determined leftist could accomplish,” wrote Gerald Meyer, author of Vito Marcantonio: Radical Politician.


The speeches are organized into chapters corresponding with Marcantonio's seven terms in Congress from 1935-1950.

Lionel Berman, who worked with Marcantonio on his last political project, the Good Neighbor Party, wrote descriptions for the index of speeches fronting each congressional session: “Protest against a 'charity wage scale' for the unemployed;” “Against a bill to remove rent controls;” “A radio address setting the record straight on hours, wages and profits in wartime.”


With the discourses organized chronologically rather than by topic, these thumbnail sketches guide the reader/researcher through the broad spectrum of issues Marcantonio addressed as representative of a small, but irrepressible corner of Manhattan.


Sorting Through a Sea

I Vote My Conscience brings to light Marc's bright moments and begins the unearthing of a buried legend; moments Rubinstein fished from a sea of information the congressman crammed into the public record, depicting his radical rhetoric as action.

Meyer recounts that Dr. Rubinstein got her inspiration for the book title upon identifying like phrases from speeches in Marcantonio's first and last terms.


The first came on May 14, 1936, in support of his vote for a bill to prevent family-farm foreclosures, he affirmed that although, “I have no farmers in my district...I shall vote my conscience on this bill.”

The second came in 1950, before casting the sole vote in opposition to the country's entering the Korean War, Marcantonio told his colleagues:


“It is best to live one's life with one's conscience than to temporize or accept with silence those things which one believes to be against the interests of one's people and one's nation.”


Both speeches are found in I Vote My Conscience.


The book was launched by the now-gone Vito Marcantonio Memorial on July 4, 1956, less than two years after the congressman's untimely death.


Marcantonio' wife, Miriam Sanders, served as the memorial's honorary chair and Arthur Schutzer, long-time executive secretary of the American Labor Party, was secretary.


Others members included: Educator Leo Covello; David Freedman, a legal associate of Marc's; a New York Daily News photographer by the name of Bill Price; Louise Berman, a campaign supporter; and her husband, the aforementioned Lionel.


The team was rounded out by Virginia Rosen, a researcher of the congressman's; Robert Rusch, a friend and political associate; and the aforementioned Rubinstein who was, perhaps, the best candidate from Marc's inner circle to edit I Vote My Conscience

A Friend In Deed

Rubinstein worked with Marcantonio for years. A member of the Communist Party, the better portion of her political work came, nonetheless, as officeholder, activist and candidate for the American Labor Party (ALP) during his Marc's reign as state chairman.


She was ALP chairwoman for the fifth assembly district south and ran on the party ticket for both the State House and U.S. Congress.

Rubinstein was eventually blacklisted, her career as a high school principal destroyed. She began anew, eventually writing a storehouse-worth of literary criticism from a Marxist perspective for "Jewish Currents," "Science & Society," "Monthly Review," "New Masses," and "Mainstream." 


She wrote, too, books of criticism, the crowning achievement of which is, The Great Tradition in English Literature from Shakespeare to Shaw.

This background informed the shape she gave to I Vote My Conscience.  

It was Rubinstein's choice to include Marcantonio's April 27, 1944 exchange with the Texan Hatton Sumners (D) over the southern practice of poll taxing.

Marc wanted onto Sumner's Judiciary Committee. Sumner told him no poll tax bill to the House floor. Marc took it to the floor. Sumner accused him of inflaming insurrection in the South:


Said Marc:

“I think we all have a very good idea of the poll tax,” he told the House. “[A]nd we all have knowledge of the white primary law, which deprives people of their democratic rights. That condition certainly does not make for better racial relations.” 


In selecting Marc's October 24, 1945, “Objection to Congressman Rankin's reference to Congressman [Emanuel] Cellar as a 'Jewish Gentleman,'” Rubinstein honors him not just as a principled man, but as stalwart friend:

With Paul Robeson at the Lucky Corner (from "I Vote My Conscience.")
“When you single out a person by his race, color, or creed, particularly when you are engaged on the opposite side of a debate from him, you are not doing that for the purpose of merely pointing out that the gentleman's race happens to be Jewish or that the gentleman happens to be a Negro. You are baiting that gentleman. You are baiting him because of his race or because of his color or because of his creed. You are seeking to subject him either to discrimination or hate.”

A Soaring Saxaphone

Through I Vote My Conscience, we know that Marcantonio, in the twilight of his congressional career [May 10, 1950] still found his desk on the House floor a sufficient bullhorn to give the voiceless their say:

“I know a lot of people are annoyed and disgusted that Marcantonio should be repeatedly offering these civil-right amendments, but I am going to keep on offering them as long as I am here and until we win this fight; because I conscientiously believe, and it has been my guiding political philosophy, that no white man is free in America as long as the Negro is subjected to discrimination and Jim Crow and segregation.”

And so on.

Five thousand copies of I Vote My Conscience were printed: 2,000 cloth, 250 “deluxe editions (slip-cased); and 2,750 of a “union edition,” that is, paperbacks.

The book was, at first, ignored and later, like its subject, forgotten. Its publication was the Vito Marcantonio Memorial's most significant and lasting accomplishment.


Before finally folding its tent, the promotion and distribution of I Vote My Conscience became the sole remaining purpose of the Marcantonio Memorial, and its major source of income.

In 1973, An effort by Francesco Cordasco, a professor at Montclair State College led to a republishing of I Vote My Conscience under a different title, Vito Marcantonio: Debates, Speeches, and Writings 1935-1950, published by August M. Kelley Publishers, Clifton N.J. 1973. 


The Pirate Edition

Although Cordasco and his publisher credit the original title and claim the new edition was produced “By Arrangement with The Vito Marcantonio Memorial,” Professor Meyer asserts that it was actually “pirated” and printed without the permission of Ms. Rubenstein, “something she would have gladly given.”

In any case, it's an attractive cloth-covered, hardbound book with a separately copyrighted foreword by Mr. Cordasco, which Meyer conceded “has a few interesting and insightful sentences about Marc...”


In 2002, the second printing of I Vote My Conscience was done under the auspices of the Calandra Institute at Queens College. The printing job went awry, limiting circulation prospects. 


The photo reproductions are poor, but the text maintains the same value no matter the paper's rag content. Copies of the misbegotten, but sole surviving, edition are available from the Vito Marcantonio Forum book shop for a trifle at $10.  

This last edition of I Vote My Conscience contains an updated introduction and biography of Ms. Rubinstein by Gerald Meyer, a letter from Marc to Senator Bilbo, sharp exchanges between the Italian and the southern gents who ran the House, and still other extras that make this sample selection a “complete works” of a unique and nontraditional kind.



Sandlot Baseball Central Park


His figure could have been cut out and pasted into the scene. But he belongs, this guy in a suit not afraid to get dirty. As perfect a metaphor for the political life of Vito Marcantonio as might be captured. The broad-shouldered ballplayers towering over his slight frame will not mistake him for some lightweight politician. Not with this throw. Marc grew up on the streets of East Harlem. He plays to win. The face is wrenched with exertion. Maybe he imagines the catcher's mitt as Mississippi John Rankin's head. The congressman's form has him doing what he should, bringing his throwing shoulder forward so that his chest fronts home plate. His release point is true; is that place at the top of his motion where a small orb of luminescent energy is ready to burst forth like some superhero's fireball. His left hand seemingly upholds his entire body, sustaining energy in motion on four fingertips. He is with black men in a time when black men are being lynched at a fairly brisk pace around the country. They play baseball in their own black leagues, because the white leagues won't have them. Marc would help change that with a call for congressional hearings on racial discrimination in major league baseball. He was not just around for the photograph, which depicts an Italian, showing off his chops at the signature American game, surrounded by what appear to be Cubans. This is Marcantonio's multi-colored counter-narrative to received American history, a story in which he was at ease and at play.



Tuesday, September 1, 2015

"Thieves in the Family," Maria Lisella


Maria Lisella, vice president of the Vito Marcantonio Forum, was recently named Poet Laureate for the Borough of Queens, New York City.

Shortly thereafter, Lisella was
interviewed by Anthony Julian Tamburri, dean, Calandra Institute, Queens College, City University of New York.


Tamburri noted that Lisella is the first Italian-American and only the second woman named to the Queens poet laureate's post. It is worth noting the author of Thieves in the Family, was not appointed, rather won a competition.


In the interview, Lisella tells Tamburri she, “always had a fascination for language, of which poetry is a more natural expression based on breath, talking and sound.”


She says much the same, verse-wise in, “How ever did you know” from Thieves:


(excerpt)


“My lips form words

my ears hear whispers
of phonetic harmony,
accents, my favorite vowels
while riding trains past
the Postojna caves in the snow,
lacy edges of the Adriatic.”

This predilection as practice is found in “Bats,” eight pages later:


Pipistrello,

Italian word for bat that sounds
like the sounds they make when they fly
in black formations over our heads
almost invisible, always audible.”

“Comfort Zone” represents a “how-to” find those sounds:


(excerpt)


“She shadows people's sounds

in bars, restaurants,
charts their courses
across crowded rooms.

Peopled subway cars, a mine

of foreign bodies violating
the eighteen-inch comfort zone,
flesh pressed against flesh,
against steel, poles protect.
Conversations spoken nose to nose
erupt and simmer.

She sneaks up behind them

a Mata Hari of the spoken word.
Non-sequiturs seep into her pen,
appear on her pages,
compel her to scribble,
stealing strangers' whispers.”

Lisella told Tamburri that the study of African-American poets such as Langston Hughes gave her a sense of the outsider's voice, a voice she could relate to: “I was not totally American, not really Italian, but I had this otherness, and that poetry really spoke to me.”

Her verse confronts her otherness – or some other little Italian girl's otherness – in “No Earrings for Tina” :

(excerpt)


“I was seven when I realized

none of the girls in school wore pierced earrings.

My mother, insisted,


said it was buona fortuna for girls to start off life with a piece

                 of gold in their ears.
She didn't understand this was America,
where only the zingare wore gold in their ears and told
            fortunes.
American girls never put holes in their ears.”

Later, Tina throws her earrings out the window of the elevated train, breaking with a piece of her rootedness, anxious to become an American girl.

Thieves in the Family looks outward, considers the otherness of others than the storyteller. Understands.

Of “Las Andeanas en Astoria,” the poet laureate writes:


(excerpt)


“Built low to the ground

like squat mountain climbers,
their bodies are silent.
Cartwheels squeak,
high-pitched notes rattle.
Gray squirrels scatter
in black branches above.
If these women were back home
trudging wheelbarrows
across the Mita del Mundo at noon,
they would not cast a shadow.”

Tamburri observed how Lisella's work is shot-through with depictions of class, expressions of gender and ethnic remembrance.


“I learned from the feminist movement,” she said, “not to be ashamed of where you came from. Understand that the private skills you learned from your grandmother and mother – negotiating – could be used publicly; that these skills were transferable. That helped me learn how to write about it in poetry.”


“Empty Chairs”


(excerpt)


In the name of the father

and of the son, but what of
the daughters, sisters, and mothers?

It's an Italian woman's trick
to look just so, ears sealed.

Like a bitter clerk

you tally your inventory of grievances.

Your discontent starts

with the women of this house.”

“I Listen” strikes more optimistic notes, blends food-making, the affect of industrial apparel sewing upon a certain class of woman, and the hierarchy that reigns in the New World echo of the southern Italian cortile.


(excerpt)


“I see them in a heaven steaming with kitchen vapors.

Zi' Catuzza rolling her napkin into cigarillos
repeating her mantra, 'No man is good enough for any woman.'
She had a bad husband I tell myself.
Zia Raffaela presses vanilla pizzelle
Cugina Lisabetta beats an octopus into submission,
cooks it pink, sprinkled with olive oil, lemon, oregano.

I hear laughter among them, I am

on the other side of the curtains one of them sewed--
it matches the tableclothes, the aprons made
of remnants gathered from the sweatshop floor.
Forbidden to banter, I am invisible, but I see them.”



Maria's work in the recuperation of Vito Marcantonio's legacy, she said, “is an expression of my progressive politics and my consciousness about community. Italians are often seen as just taking care of home just being centered around the self and family.”

“Wakes”

(excerpt)


“Uncle Joe is flanked

by garish fans of gladiolas
in Neopolitan reds, Sicilian magenta
My non-Italian sister-in-law
calls them 'Italian flowers.'

My mother's Manhattan cousins

a sub-tribe of the larger tribe –
huddle, live together, eat together,
never leave W. 4th St., never marry.
One sneezes and they all catch cold.”

Said Lisella: “I didn't grow up with parents like that. My parents were very active.”

One of her parents may have been like the humble chevalier depicted in “Romance.”

“I stand beneath

the Eiffel Tower's black steel netting
knowing my father's French past

kept him one step beyond

the surly brood of Italian men
filing into the parlor on Sundays.
A WWII vet, he taught the Senegalese, Algerians,
tutored me in an ethical landscape
of honor, loyalty – old fashioned words.

He and his friends Yves, Viggo, Rolanda

never belied their resistance days,
ordinary heroics in a living room in Queens.”

Introverted and personal, Thieves in the Family simultaneously covers a geography wide as the world tracked Lisella as a travel journalist, poetry pad in tow.

Havana, makes an appearance as do Venice, Palermo, Dubrovnic, the Algarve, The Bronx, and Rome where the “Lovestruck” Bernini sculptures:


(excerpt)


“assuming their positions

on pedestals
in time to gape
at us studying them.
They've returned breathless
from a Bacchanalian feast,
careful not to stain
their marble bodies with blood rich wine.”

To wander the world is to walk with the Gods.


Wherever she has gone, and even when she has been home, Lisella has made it her particular craft to seek out and listen to exotic voices, “stealing strangers' whispers” for the benefit of her readers.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

The American Labor Party Considered at the Mulberry Street Public Library


Was the American Labor Party the most consequential third party in U.S. politics during the 1930s and '40s, or perhaps the entire 20th century?

Gerald Meyer, author of “Vito Marcantonio: Radical Politician,” took to the Mulberry Street Library podium May 9, and gave airing to these issues while mapping out the American Labor Party's (ALP) history and trajectory.

Meyer said that without the American Labor Party, New York City would have been denied the unique social-democratic configuration it acquired under La Guardia, and the left, a true national spokesperson during the 1930s and 1940s in Marcantonio.

With La Guardia and Marcantonio both having run on the Republican ticket, their leftward lurch in the late 1930s meant they needed a place to hang their ideological hats, The ALP provided the rack.

In 1937, La Guardia had to run for a second term. “And this becomes critical,” noted Meyer, “because there had been reform mayors before in New York City, but they never would win the second time. They would become mayors and start to clean up New York City, the corruption and the cheating at the ballot, and forget to take care of the poor.

“In the next election... back would come Tammany Hall, over and over again.”

In his first winning campaign for mayor, La Guardia ran as a Republican, but did so with the backing of the Fusion Party, which between 1933 and 1937 had been hollowed out.

“So how is he going to win an election running as a Republican in 1937 in New York City? Well, it's the American Labor Party,” said Meyer.

La Guardia prevailed. The ALP's participation in the election, said Meyer, was “priceless,” representing 36 percent of The Major's total vote haul. When he ran for a third term as mayor in1941, the Little Flower got exactly the same percentage of votes from the American Labor Party as four years earlier.

A Key to Electoral Success

Meyer asserted that the votes enabling La Guardia to win handily came from the ALP.

“Here we are talking about something big,” Meyer stated. “This is a big deal. What you have now is the mayor of New York City – keeping in mind the importance of New York – creating a social-democratic metropolis. That's what occurred in New York. A city orchestra. Who ever heard of such a thing? I mean who needs socialism when you have La Guardia?

“Everything was happening. All kinds of housing projects, wonderfully designed, with a thoughtfulness about how they would be situated to maximize the amount of light coming in. La Guardia said, 'I want to make people happy.' A lot of us didn't even have parents that wanted to make us happy.”


Gerald Meyer at Mulberry Street Library
Stated Meyer: “There is no other American mayor in any city, at any time, that has the record and background of La Guardia. He was a treasure and great hero.”
The American Labor Party's triumph with La Guardia in '37 meant Marcantonio no longer had to campaign as a Republican, or just as a Republican. He ran on the ALP line and garnered a resounding return to Congress in 1939.

To the mass organizations of the left, Marcantonio became a hero who spoke at their conventions and gave voice to their concerns in the House of Representatives.

“And they would become enrolled members in the American Labor Party,” said Meyer. “What a good beginning.”

Reelecting Roosevelt

The ALP arose, in 1936, around a very specific goal: the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Meyer suggested that, upon his ascendance to the presidency, it was not suspected that FDR would enact such a radical, leftist program.

Roosevelt, Meyer said, knew he needed New York to be reelected and, consequently, showered the Depression-era city with federal largesse, making it the 49th entity for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in addition to those established for each of the 48 states.

New York City, said Meyer, received something like one-fourth of all WPA monies allocated nationwide.

“Hundreds of playgrounds were built, all the swimming pools still being used, the public libraries, public schools, Brooklyn College campus, Queens College campus, the Triboro Bridge, the IND (Independent Subway System) subway, the list is just endless,” said Meyer.

“By 1936, progressives of all sorts really understood that the need for reelecting Roosevelt was overwhelming. New York was critical, because at the time, it had 47 electoral votes (today it has 26).”

Standing in Roosevelt's way was the socialist vote in New York City. Meyer said there was a large base of Jewish working class people for whom socialism was a kind of secular religion that had replaced the old one they left behind in Eastern Europe.


In New York, the Socialist Party had achieved vote tallies as high as 300,000 and this had the Roosevelt coalition worried.

“So the ALP, in a very specific way, was intended to win over this voting block for Roosevelt. It was just that specific,” Meyer emphasized. “But as soon as the ALP began, as soon as a word was spoken, there was an absolute flood of interest.”
Professor Meyer suggested the party's name had something to do with its early success.

“Names are very important,” he said. “American Labor Party. To have the word “Labor,” in the name and to suggest there is a party that is now going to exist, explicitly representing the working class, is a tremendous phenomenon.”

The ALP had the support of a union movement in ascendance, access to a constituency and the means of activating them, means to educate them through union newspapers, and the resources to provide staff and money in a consistent way, not just for three months, but for 20 years, said Meyer.

“So the party was really based on top of this tremendous infrastructure of union and labor organizations,” he observed

The American Labor Party was able to provide the organization and ideological outlook, with a connection to unions, which ensured the Roosevelt would win the nomination and the election.

It's About New York

The key to the ALP's political power was its base in New York, said Meyer. “This is not happenstance really, the tremendous number of electoral votes, New York being the media capital, the intellectual center of the U.S., the response to the ALP was just enormous.”

The American Labor Party mobilized all its resources to reelect its congressman from New York, Marcantonio. It was the top priority and established the East Harlemite as a national spokesperson for the American left through the 1930s and 1940s.

Said Meyer: “Marcantonio, in seven terms as congressman between 1934 and 1950, in no uncertain terms, gave us what we never had again, a national spokesperson. He articulated brilliantly, eloquently and consistently over the entire spectrum of issues... agricultural policy; there are no farms in East Harlem, none.

“I don't know that if he had come from Minneapolis it would have occurred and this makes the ALP incredibly important,” said Meyer.

But the legal mechanics of voting and sharp organizational skills both played significant roles in the American Labor Party's rise.

The ALP is a state party, he explained. The U.S. Constitution designates the organization of elections to the states, which means different laws in different states.

The oddity of “fusion,” or cross-endorsements of the same candidate by different parties, makes it easier to field third party candidates in New York State than it is elsewhere.

“This is what we have to think about with the ALP,” said the Hostos Community College Professor Emeritus. “It is allowed to appear in New York in ways that it would be very difficult to do anywhere else.”


Uniting Outsiders

The Democratic Party's declining status among certain groups voters helped, too. In New York, the reality was one of a political machine run by Irish-American politicians, much the same as the Catholic Church in the Empire State.

The Democratic Party was in favor of the New Deal social program, unions, social security and redistribution, but simultaneously, Meyer noted, it was extremely anti-communist, which very often turned into anti-antisemitism.

“This has repercussions,” Meyer said, “because the other groups that are left out become resentful.”

“And this meant the Democratic Party was not viable in relation to what was happening with the New Deal, because the program was moving further left and appeared to be, and I believe was, highly socialistic. And that was not convenient for anyone in the New Deal to say, nor anybody on the left to say.”

The ALP exploited this breach, and leveraged the power it drew from it “brilliantly,” according to Meyer. The party saw who the underrepresented groups were: African-Americans; Puerto Ricans, Italian Americans and then fielded candidates to meet those constituencies where they lived.

All of this was done through the new city charter, Meyer observed, a document crucial to the American Labor Party in the boroughs because of its proportional representation provisions in city council elections.

A Lesson from History

“Proportional representation in New York City is something you need to know about and study and see why we have to integrate electoral reform into our own political work. Without it we are not going to go very far,” said Meyer.

Winner-take-all-elections put the electorate in an impossible quandary, he asserted, because in voting for the candidate a person likes best, one often contributes to getting the candidate they like least.

“People will do it once, they might do it twice, but that's it,” said Meyer. “And so the two major parties have hegemony indefinitely.”

With proportional representation, the representation in an elected body is based on the proportion of votes for a party so that a vote for the party of your choice therefore doesn't contribute or detract from the part you like next best.

In the first city council election the American Labor Party contested, it received approximately seven seats. With 30 percent of vote in Bronx, it got 30 percent of the council seats from there.

In the city council elections of 1943, one-in-four voters in New York City went either for the ALP or Communist Party, he said.

“The reason we don't have a left is that we are strangled by a system that makes a left impossible,” said Meyer. “We go around doing pageantry, but can't have any consequence.”

It was just how consequential the ALP was that garners Meyer's enthusiasm: “Getting La Guardia elected, allowing Marcantonio to get reelected and then to six more terms. Without the ALP it would not have been possible. We wouldn't have had a national spokesperson. We wouldn't have had a social-democratic metropolis.”

Going Forward

This kind of success within the context of a third party in American politics requires some seasoning, Meyer asserted.

“You don't roll out of bed and know this stuff. There has to be strategy and somebody with a wider view that coordinates matters, so things wind up. It's very hard to win anything, because the right controls the economy, and they control the media, and they're vicious on top of it.”

He recounted how Adam Clayton-Powell received the ALP's designation for a city council seat from Harlem. “This meant either the Democrats gave him the endorsement or there would have been an American Labor Party city councilperson,” Meyer noted.

The same thing happened when Clayton-Powell ran for Congress. “In both cases, the first African-American city councilperson in New York City and the first African-American congressman in New York State, are the doing of the ALP," said Meyer. 

“The American Labor Party did that by knowing the system. It's one of the reasons Marcantonio was so effective. He knew parliamentary procedure,” he noted. 

The American Labor Party was never repeated anywhere else, Meyer noted. Its history indicates that it is possible to resist the assault on all progressive gains that have been made.

“Based on what we know is actual reality we can create a vision where we can produce entities that would be repositories of power for the people,” Meyer concluded, “and be able to move things forward so that we can start winning very big.”


Thursday, May 21, 2015

Vito Marcantonio Forum Founders at the Cornelia Street Cafe



"Politics, Poetry and Unsung Heroes," at the Cornelia Street Café May 9 featured three founding members of the Vito Marcantonio Forum (VMF).

The event was convened by the Italian American Writers Association who were gracious in allowing their evening to become a piece of Marcantoniana. Cameraman Sam Moree recorded the proceedings reproduced here.

The performances corresponding to the snapshots at top are, from left to right, LuLu LoLo who was followed by Gil Fagiani, and finally, the scribe behind this blog, Stephen Siciliano reading from his manuscript novel of Marcantonio's life, "The Goodfather."

Earlier in May, Professor Gerald Meyer, co-chair of the VMF, gave a talk on the American Labor Party at the Mulberry Street Library. Roberto Ragone rendered Marc's eulogy of Fiorello La Guardia.  

The VMF will finish up a month of activity with a panel presentation at the New Left Forum entitled, "Vito Marcantonio: Champion For Civil Rights." The panel will feature Professor Meyer, Roberto Ragone and Gil Fagiani.

Saturday May 30, 12 p.m. - 01:50 p.m. at John Jay College, 524 W. 9th St.(10th Ave.), New York City, Room 1.105. Register at leftforum@leftforum.org