Thursday, August 25, 2016

Vito Marcantonio Forum: From Within and Without

Design by Gabrielle Napolitano
The letter begins: "Hello Vito Marcantonio Forum. I just happened upon your website today."

It is signed by one Fred Hirsch who worked on the radical congressman's campaigns in 1948 and 1950.

Hirsch's missive recalls a time of great interest and provides the kind of details about which the rest of us can only make educated guesses.

"We'd arrive at Marc's storefront headquarters in East Harlem after school on Saturdays. Marc would sometimes be there to give us all a talk about the importance of the issues represented in his printed election material. He always pointed out that the handouts were printed in union shops - and that he would not let it be done otherwise.

"We'd be assigned in pairs to streets and addresses of voters in old tenement walk-ups and the few bigger apartment houses with elevators in his East Harlem neighborhoods and be dispatched to our mission of knocking on doors and talking to the voters.

"On our return we'd gather in a circle, sometimes two or three rows deep, and Marc would ask people to tell about their most unusual encounter with a voter that day. It seemed he knew where every voter in the district lived.

"He would sometimes interrupt a canvasser to ask about Mrs. So-and-So, describing something like 'on the third floor in the back.' If Mrs. So-and-So hadn't been spoken to, he'd write it on a chalkboard and someone would have to go back and knock on the door again.

"Knocking on those doors and meeting those voters was a beautiful experience. The people loved and revered their Congressman as if he was a member of the family, always referring to him as 'Marc'."

The Vito Marcantonio Forum (VMF) continues its unique efforts at outreach on behalf of Marcantonio's legacy, sponsoring events about the congressman and those who formed the rich, progressive milieu in which he moved during the 1930s and 1940s.

On May 18, the VMF sponsored a talk by author Marcella Bencivenni on her study, "Italian Radical Culture, 1890-1940." The event was a joint effort with the Italian-American Writers Association.

Just three days later, a VMF team participated in a Left Forum symposium on educator and Marcantonio mentor Leonard Covello that featured readings from his book "The Heart is a Teacher, by actor Roberto Ragone, a talk by VMF co-chair Gerald Meyer on "Cultural Pluralism versus Americanization," and Simone Cinotto who spoke on "Italian Americans and Public Housing in New York City.

On July 17, the group gathered in celebration of its fifth anniversary for a fundraiser at Gaetana's Cucina Italiana on Christopher Street.

It wasn't just a food-and-drinks affair, because the VMF does not allow a chance to impart the Word of Marc to pass unexploited.

Poetry, dramatizations and scholarly discourse were all on the menu from Meyer and Ragone, as well as co-founders Gil Fagiani and LuLu LoLo Pascale, Robert Viscusi, Maria Lisella and Adam Milat-Meyer. Bernard Johnson brought singer and activist Paul Robeson to life, reading his eulogy for Marcantonio.

Next up is the VMF's annual commemoration of Marcantonio's death. This year the focus shifts to the locale of Marc's death, on Broadway just south of City Hall across from the Woolworth Building.

There will be a reading of "The People's Proclamation for Vito Marcantonio," a eulogy by Meyer and dramatizations from Ragone and Pascale. Luminaries from the political universe have been invited.

Fred Hirsch's letter signifies an expansion of the VMF's mission beyond instruction and discussion to that of a depository for information not uncovered in its own work; a clearing house for all things Marcantonio that did not exist before.

Restoring Marcantonio's voice has restored that of his still-living constituency.

"Thanks for keeping alive the memory the man who must have been the bravest, clearest and dearest member of Congress during the 20th century," Hirsch concluded. "He stood, sometimes alone, in the halls of Congress against the winds and windbags of McCarthyism and for the working men and women and their children in his congressional district and worldwide."

The VMF has launched a Go Fund Me drive to help finance the continuation of these efforts.

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