New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo doesn’t think the statue of Christopher Columbus in New York City’s Columbus Circle should be removed. Cuomo said that the statue “represents in some ways the Italian American legacy in the country, and the Italian American contribution in this country.”
So where are the statues in honor of Viola Liuzzo? She was a mother of four children in an Italian American family who was murdered in Alabama on March 25, 1965, by the Ku Klux Klan. Liuzzo was supporting the Montgomery to Selma human rights march that led to the Voting Rights Act.
Four Klan members were in the car from which the fatal shot was fired. Two of the Klansmen — Collie Leroy Wilkens and Eugene Thomas — said Gary T. Rowe was the shooter. Rowe was on the FBI payroll.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King went to Liuzzo’s funeral in Detroit. So did the leader of the United Auto Workers, Walter Reuther, and Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa Sr. Viola Liuzzo’s grieving husband, Anthony Liuzzo, was the business agent of Teamsters Local 247.
Viola Liuzzo believed Black rights matter and gave her life for it. Christopher Columbus was a slaver who spent a dozen years before 1492 raiding Africa in the Portuguese slave trade.
In 1495, Columbus kidnapped 1,500 Arawak women, men and children to be sold as slaves in Spain. In Haiti, Columbus ordered every person 14 years or older to collect gold or have their hands cut off. By 1550, all the Arawak people in Haiti had been exterminated.
The statues of Columbus are not just commemorating a war criminal. They are saluting the African Holocaust and genocide of Indigenous peoples throughout the Americas.
These two greatest crimes in human history created the capitalist world market. As Karl Marx wrote, “Capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.”
Alaska, Maine, New Mexico, Oregon and Vermont now celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead of “Columbus Day,” while South Dakota observes Native American Day. Governors in Iowa, Louisiana, Michigan, North Carolina and Wisconsin have also proclaimed Oct. 12 as Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
The Connecticut cities of Middletown and New London have removed statues of Columbus, while Hartford and New Haven are doing the same. The Columbus statue in California’s state Capitol is coming down as well. New York Gov. Cuomo should follow their example.
For and against Mussolini
Exposing the crimes of Columbus is no more anti-Italian than being against Mussolini. The fascist dictator came to power as a strikebreaker who had Italian trade unionists beaten and socialists thrown in jail. That’s why he was adored by the ruling class in both the United States and Britain.
In 1927, Winston Churchill said that he was “charmed” when he met Benito Mussolini in Rome. Churchill praised fascism, saying that “it proved the necessary antidote to the communist poison.”
Generoso Pope, the millionaire publisher of Il Progresso, the biggest Italian language daily newspaper in New York City, also thought Mussolini was a swell guy. Pope was a prime mover in making “Columbus Day” a federal holiday and was a longtime grand marshall of New York City’s “Columbus Day” parade.
In 1936, Pope attended a tribute to Mussolini at Madison Square Garden. At the time, Mussolini was invading Ethiopia, killing a million Africans with bullets, bombs and poison gas. Hundreds of thousands of Africans were also killed in Italian-occupied Libya.
Many Italian American workers hated Mussolini. On Aug. 3, 1935, the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell led over 25,000 people who marched in Harlem in solidarity with Ethiopia. Hundreds of Italian Americans joined the protest. (“Communists in Harlem during the Depression” by Mark Naison)
Mussolini was executed by Italian communist partisans on April 28, 1945. His naked body was hanged upside down in Milan. The statues of Columbus deserve the same fate.
Always remember Sacco and Vanzetti
Where are the statues to honor Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti? The two Italian American anarchist labor organizers were burned to death in the Massachusetts electric chair on Aug. 23, 1927. They were framed for allegedly killing two persons in a 1920 payroll robbery.
Two former FBI agents — Lawrence Letherman and Fred J. Weyand — wrote that evidence exonerating the two Italian American heroes was suppressed. (“Twentieth-century Cause Cèlébre: Sacco, Vanzetti, and the Press, 1920-1927” by By John F. Neville)
Sacco and Vanzetti were convicted during a period of intense anti-immigrant bigotry. It was a decade when workers on strike were often killed. There was a fascist-like parade of the Ku Klux Klan, including a march of 30,000 through Washington, supported by wealthy bosses and landlords, including Donald Trump’s father.
Trump is building a wall on land stolen from Mexico and refers to Haiti with racist language. The 1924 Immigration Act sought to keep Italians and other workers from Southern and Eastern Europe from coming to the United States. Big Business demanded these restrictions because these workers were on the front lines during the post World War I strike wave.
This bloody legislation was also deliberately crafted to keep Jewish people out of the U.S. It guaranteed more hundreds of thousands of people murdered in Hitler’s ovens.
It wasn’t a coincidence that this bigoted law was repealed in 1965, the same year that the Voting Rights Act was passed. Viola Liuzzo’s martyrdom was not in vain..
Neither were the deaths of Sacco and Vanzetti. The worldwide defense campaign wasn’t able to save their lives, but it helped inspire the successful effort to stop the execution of the Scottsboro defendants.
Nine African American teenagers were arrested in 1931 on phony rape charges in Scottsboro, Ala. All except 13-year-old Roy Wright were sentenced to death.
Black communist leader William L. Patterson — who had fought to save the lives of Sacco and Vanzetti — led the defense campaign that stopped the executions of Olen Montgomery, Clarence Norris, Haywood Patterson, Ozie Powell, Willie Roberson, Charlie Weems, Eugene Williams and Andy Wright.
The real legacy and contribution
Father Jim Groppi should be remembered, too. The Italian American priest fought against racism in super segregated Milwaukee.
He worked with Black community leaders Vel Phillips and Lloyd Barbee. As an advisor to the local NAACP Youth Council, Groppi led nightly marches in 1967 going to all-white neighborhoods demanding a fair housing law. Dick Gregory would sometimes come to march with him.
Frederick C. Pirone died doing the right thing. The Italian American Transit Workers Local 100 member rescued a 12-year-old Black girl being beaten up by a white gang of 20.
The assault occurred in the Glen Oaks section of Queens, New York, on Dec. 11, 1975. Some gang members thought they were insulting Pirone by saying that he liked Black people, using the “n” word, of course.
Pirone was later found by his family in a pool of blood in a nearby parking lot. He died of a heart attack with three of his ribs broken and his nose smashed. (Jet magazine, Jan. 15, 1976.)
New York City police covered up Pirone’s murder and denied it had anything to do with racism. There’s no statute of limitations on murder. The case of Frederick Pirone’s murder needs to be reopened.
Thousands of Italian Americans are joining demonstrations against racism. They’re chanting “Black lives matter!” Many want the statues of Columbus — like the statues of other racists — torn down.
The real legacy and contribution of Italian Americans are fighters for justice like Viola Liuzzo.