On July 29, nearly 100 people joined the Boston Democratic Socialists of America for our first ever Radical History of Boston Walking Tour. This tour involved the collaborative efforts of many comrades the day of and in the weeks prior.
Everywhere you go, there is a people’s history waiting to be unearthed. This history is often hidden or otherwise repressed, but it represents the real living experiences of generations of working-class people.
We hope to see other DSA chapters experiment with this format of free and accessible walking tours to help root themselves in the radical history of their communities. Boston DSA intends to put on further radical history tours, both of this route and covering other neighborhoods. If you are interested in participating, volunteering, or organizing your own, please message us at email@example.com.
A. Philip Randolph Statue – Back Bay Station
A. Philip Randolph was a leading union activist, civil rights leader, and socialist during the 20th century. He was a member of the Socialist Party and helped found the magazine The Messenger in 1917 to promote socialist ideas in the African-American community and give a progressive voice to the Harlem Renaissance. The Department of Justice called The Messenger “the most able and the most dangerous of all the Negro publications,” which is clearly a good sign. In its initial mission statement, Randolph said, “Our aim is to appeal to reason, to lift our pens above the cringing demagogy of the times, and above the cheap peanut politics of the old reactionary Negro leaders. Patriotism has no appeal to us; justice has. Party has no weight with us; principle has. Loyalty is meaningless; it depends on what one is loyal to.”
Some of Randolph’s greatest successes came as a union organizer. He was elected in 1925 to president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, which under his direction achieved a 51% unionization rate among the nearly entirely Black workforce of sleeping car porters within a year. Hence the statue of him in a train station.
He always saw a connection between racism and sexism, and saw racial issues as class issues and class issues as race issues. He said, “Look for the enemies of Medicare, of higher minimum wages, of Social Security, of federal aid to education and there you will find the enemy of the Negro, the coalition of Dixiecrats and reactionary Republicans that seek to dominate the Congress.”
During WW2 he fought hard against continued discrimination in the war industries and the military under FDR’s control. It was only after he threatened to call a mass march on Washington D.C. against discrimination that FDR relented in ending discrimination in the war industries, but not the military. The march on Washington was called off for the time being, but when Martin Luther King Jr began to plan his own over 20 years later, the now-elderly Randolph was brought in as a principal organizer for the famous march. This was actually a big deal, because Cold War Red Scares had pushed Randolph out of the mainstream Civil Rights Movement, but MLK, to his great credit, didn’t care.
Tent City Apartments – 130 Dartmouth St.
This is the site of one of the most successful protests against “Urban Renewal” in Boston. This is a theme we will be coming back to multiple times during this tour. With the backing of significant federal subsidies, Boston city leaders launched a massive campaign of demolishing whole neighborhoods deemed “slums” to build high-income housing and highways during the ’50s and ’60s. Most famously, the West End neighborhood, roughly around where TD Garden is now, was completely wiped out and its working-class residents were displaced.
It was here on April 27, 1968, that hundreds of local residents occupied what was then an empty parking lot where once was housing to protest the continued destruction of their communities in the name of this “Urban Renewal.” Hundreds camped out here for four days, demanding better affordable housing and an end to displacement. It would take 20 years of continued pressure, but eventually that mixed-income apartment block was built and named Tent City in honor of the protesters.
Metro Boston Citizens Coalition on Cleaner Air – 131 Clarendon St.
The building we are talking about here no longer exists. But roughly where this bank is was a smaller office building where the Metro Boston Citizens Coalition on Cleaner Air (big name) had its headquarters.
Air quality in Boston, like all US cities, is a class issue. The placement of highways, trash incinerators, factories, and other major causes of poor air quality have always been disproportionately put near the poor, people of color, and the otherwise marginalized. The powerful get to breathe easily under capitalism in more ways than one. Asthma rates in Boston today are nearly four times higher for Latinos than whites, and over five times higher for Blacks than whites.
This was even worse in the 1970s when the Metro Boston Citizens Coalition on Cleaner Air was campaigning for enforcement of the Clean Air Act. While it was a small group, it did important work to demand city officials to act to improve air quality, mostly around vehicle traffic and fuel standards.
Daughters of Bilitis / Gender Identity Services – 419 Boylston St.
This building is awesome, or at least it used to be. This building contained a super high concentration of leading feminist, gay, lesbian, and trans rights organizations during the 1970s, all apparently on the same floor. So let’s list them:
There was the Gender Identity Service, which provided medical counseling and help for trans people looking for gender affirmation medical procedures.
There was the Boston office for the Daughters of Bilitis. Founded in 1955, it was one of the nation’s first open lesbian organizations. Later lesbian organizers would rebel against its more conservative approach of integration of lesbians into mainstream heteronormative US society through lobbying efforts for equal rights legislation, but it was the first and it remained active till 2000.
Focus: A Journal for Lesbians, the journal for the Daughters of Bilitis, had its office here. This journal ran from 1970 through 1983. Focus’ focus (haha) was geared around the promotion of lesbian rights and lesbian visibility in the US. One writer stated that Focus allowed its lesbian readership “to unite and to feel more confident about their own self-worth” and that it was “one of the most supportive lesbian publications in the early gay rights movement.”
The Homophile Community Health Services provided supportive therapy services for LGBTQIA people during the 1970s at a time when most of the psychology and therapy professions still considered any form of queerness a mental disorder.
The Gay Speakers Bureau, now renamed to SpeakOUT, had their first office here. They provided speakers to schools, churches, and community centers to raise the visibility of LGBTQIA people and answer questions. This was very important and dangerous work at the time.
And last but certainly not least, the Boston Women’s Abortion Action Coalition had its offices here. Formed in 1977 originally to oppose the Doyle-Flynn anti-abortion amendment, which proposed cutting state funding for abortions, the Coalition organized community activities and held discussion forums and educational meetings. The Coalition also worked with local unions and community groups to create a wider action network around abortion rights.
Freedom Center – 355 Boylston St.
Not as high a concentration of good groups as the last building, this one still had some great organizations. So there was the Freedom Center, which provided free counseling for people who wanted to avoid the Vietnam draft or had already been drafted and wanted out. There was the Reservists Committee to Stop the War, which, as the name states, was for military reservists who were also against the Vietnam War and didn’t want to serve. And lastly there was the Taxes for Life Center which provided what it called “free information on how to legally divest your funds from the war machine.” We will talk more about Boston and the anti-Vietnam war movement later in the tour.
Occupy Boston – Dewey Square (Not a stop, just pointed out)
About a half a mile down that way on the Greenway, right in front of the Federal Reserve Bank, Occupy Boston had its encampment. Occupy Wall Street was a mass movement, arguably the first great mass movement post the Great Recession, that quickly spread across the whole US in the fall of 2011. Inspired by revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa and slogans calling out the gross inequality and injustice in America, tens of thousands of people set up protest encampments not just at Wall Street, but in every major US city. These encampments would eventually be crushed by coordinated police raids organized by the Obama administration and largely Democratic mayors, but for a time this mass movement gave expression to a deep feeling of class anger and hope for a better sort of society.
While we walk I am going to briefly read some of the words Noam Chomsky said when he spoke at Occupy Boston: “Well, now the world is indeed splitting into a plutonomy and a precariat, again in the imagery of the Occupy movement, the 1 percent and the 99 percent. The plutonomy is where the action is. It could continue like this, and if it does, then this historic reversal that began in the 1970s [with Neoliberalism] could become irreversible. That’s where we’re heading. The Occupy movements are the first major popular reaction which could avert this. It’s going to be necessary to face the fact that it’s a long hard struggle. You don’t win victories tomorrow. You have to go on and form structures that will be sustained through hard times and can win major victories.”
First Corp of Cadets Armory – 130 Columbus Ave.
Today you can spend $11,500, plus a $2,000 deposit, to have a really fancy wedding reception in this building. 100 years ago this was a display of pure class power and repression. This was the Armory of the First Corps of Cadets, built in 1891 as a direct response to the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 and symbol of “order” versus “the mob.”
The unmitigated plunder of the working class and rise of the robber barons after the Civil War created a deep pool of resentment and class anger. This combined with what was then called the Great Depression, that began with a financial crisis in 1873 which saw 65 continuous months of economic recession, the longest in US history, a 14% unemployment rate by 1876, and overall wages dropping to 45% of their previous level.
The strike was triggered on July 14 in Martinsburg, West Virginia, in response to the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad company cutting the wages of workers for the third time in a year. Strikers refused to let any trains move, and the strike quickly spread to Maryland, New York, Illinois, Missouri, and Pennsylvania, where it reached near-insurrectionary levels. In Pittsburgh, hundreds of trains and train cars were destroyed and whole city blocks were burned. Socialists, largely German and Jewish immigrants at this point, made their first organized intervention into this mass strike, especially in Chicago, where they provided speakers and support. The response from the forces of capital was intense. The robber baron of the Pennsylvania Railroad company commented that the strikers should be given “a rifle diet for a few days and see how they like that kind of bread.”
While the strike wave never had a big impact on Boston, the fear of the strike did for the city’s rulers. In Boston and across the country, local state militias and the federal army built up new fortifications and armories in preparation of the “Paris Commune come to America.” And this building is one such example.
National Women’s Trade Union League headquarters – 7 Warrenton St. (Not a stop, just pointed out)
About a third of a mile down that was is a small, nondescript, residential building that I am pretty sure is being used now as a bed and breakfast. A hundred years ago it was the headquarters of the National Women’s Trade Union League. Founded in 1903 with very token support from the male-dominated American Federation of Labor, it became the first nation-wide association dedicated specifically to organizing women workers. While open to middle-class woman reformers, the League’s primary goal was to “assist in the organization of women wage workers into trade unions and thereby to help them secure conditions necessary for healthful and efficient work and to obtain a just reward for such work.”
The League’s first president was the Boston-based reformer Mary Morton Kehew, who had previously worked on a number of more charity-based working women’s educational campaigns before moving to labor unionization. The League would see its greatest successes in supporting the Uprising of the 20,000, the great New York City and Philadelphia shirtwaist workers’ strike, and the Bread and Roses strike.
The League, in New York and Boston, was also instrumental in pushing for work safety laws after the devastating Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911 which killed 146 workers, mostly Jewish women immigrants. League member and socialist Rose Schneiderman said, “Every year thousands of us are maimed. The life of men and women is so cheap and property is so sacred. There are so many of us for one job it matters little if 146 of us are burned to death…. Too much blood has been spilled. I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves. The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement.”
This same Rose Schneiderman would also coin the phrase “Bread and Roses” during the 1912 textile strike in Lawrence Massachusetts, when she said, “What the woman who labors wants is the right to live, not simply exist — the right to life as the rich woman has the right to life, and the sun and music and art. You have nothing that the humblest worker has not a right to have also. The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.”
Boylston Street Fishweir – Boylston Train Station
We are standing on stolen land. It’s easy to forget it, as we go about our days or even look at the history of this city from a white working-class view, but we shouldn’t. This is stolen land. The Moswetuset, whose name as well as whose land was stolen for this state, were and are a Eastern Algonquin nation that lived on the islands and waterways around here for centuries. In the summer they would live on islands around this bay and fish, and during the winter they would go further inland to the hills to the south. Moswetuset means “people of the hills.”
What became Boston was known to the Moswetuset as Shawmut, a peninsula with a thin connection to the mainland and a large tidal bay to it’s back. It is here, right around here, they built truly massive fishing weirs, essentially giant fishing traps. We know this because when they were digging the T tunnel for Boylston Station in the early 1900s, they discovered dozens of trees trunks used as this fishing weir across an acre of land.
In 1616, when the English traders first made contact with the Moswetuset in this area, it was estimated that 3,000 people lived here. In 1619, when more permanent English settlers started to arrive, there were only 500 left alive after plagues had ravaged these islands. In a way this was the first case of something we have seen time and again in Boston, displacement by force.
We are here on Boston Common, which has been host to hundreds upon hundreds of mass rallies over the years. It was here where we held the Women’s March in 2017, and where thousands rallied on May Day 2006 on the “Day Without a Immigrant” for the rights of the undocumented. It was here in 1912 that over 100,000 people rallied in support of the International Association of CAR MEN’s attempt to unionize the L, the predecessor to today’s T. And it was here nearly 1 year ago that 40,000 Bostonians rallied to drive the Nazi scum huddled in that gazebo out of our city.
I am going to talk specifically about the October 15, 1969 rally that saw 100,000 people protesting against the Vietnam war. At that rally, Peter Camejo of the Socialist Workers’ Party said, “Watch out for the politicians who turn up now. They’ll never march with you in the streets. There are people sitting in jail today because they were against this war. Let some politicians say something about that. We’re tired of rhetoric about ending the war that is really designed to keep this war going. The National Liberation Front of Vietnam are the most beautiful people in this world. They’re giving their lives for all of us. Seventeen million Vietnamese are counting on you to end this war.”
Howard Zinn, then a B.U. professor, also spoke, saying “We have been fighting against a basically decent revolutionary movement in Vietnam. The people of Hanoi have fought a long war for independence from foreign control. Forty thousand American men have been killed because someone threw the word Communist at us.”
Manufactory House – 129 Tremont St.
So there are only going to be two references to the American Revolutionary War on this tour, because I find it boring with not-so-revolutionary politics in retrospect. But also its been overplayed enough here in Boston and if you want to learn more about it there are plenty of opportunities from other tours we can suggest.
For now I want to direct you to the Capital One Bank slash Peet’s Coffee over on Winter St. Where that is now was once the Manufactory House, which was essentially a poor workhouse in the 1700s where the Boston poor could work long hours at a mill for lower rent. The mill never really worked out, so it just became a place with cheap rent.
In the winter of 1768, the British troops that were stationed in Boston to put down rising troubles needed a place to sleep during the winter months. They had been camped here on the Common but obviously that wasn’t going to cut it through a Boston winter. Seeing a nearby tenement house of poor folk as easy pickings to get pushed out, the British called in the local Sheriff to evict the Manufactory House’s residents. To the surprise of the Sheriff, the Royal Governor, and the whole company of redcoats, the tenants told them no, they wouldn’t let them in and they weren’t leaving, and they barricaded the doors. The British attempted to surround the House and starve them out, but local Bostonians surrounded the surrounders and threw loaves of bread through the windows. The British even attempted to break in through the basement but became trapped down there. This lasted for two weeks before the Governor and Sheriff had to give up and let the tenants stay.
This was the first successful anti-British resistance action by colonists and a very great example of anti-eviction organizing.
54th Massachusetts Regiment Memorial
(This is a good rest area, be sure to encourage folks to sit down)
This is the memorial commemorating the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, which was the first African-American regiment organized in the northern states during the Civil War. It was an all-volunteer regiment that included two of the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass’s sons, and saw extensive combat action in the war to free their brothers and sisters from slavery. Despite their obvious dedication and skill, the Union wouldn’t allow Black soldiers to be commanded by Black officers, only white officers. The first being Robert Gould Shaw, son of a famous abolitionist, who died along with his men during the Battle of Fort Wagner in South Carolina, where the regiment bravely seized the fort under intense fire — a battle that also saw the earliest African-American to be awarded the Medal of Honor, William Harvey Carney, though he wouldn’t get it till 1900.
On top of their often honored bravery and heroism, the 54th Massachusetts were also principled in their resistance to the racism they saw within in the Union Army. While white soldiers in the Union Army were paid $13 a month, the black soldiers of the 54th regiment were paid $7. The State of Massachusetts offered to make up the difference, but the Regiment refused to accept a cent of pay. Refusing their reduced pay became a point of honor for Regiment. At the Battle of Olustee, when ordered forward, the men did so while shouting, “Massachusetts and Seven Dollars a Month!” Eventually, Congress had to step in to raise their pay through a series of acts, but that didn’t happen until well into the war in 1864.
Massachusetts Civil Liberties Committee – 55 Mount Vernon St.
Over there is the Nichols House Museum, which is the founding location of the Massachusetts Civil Liberties Committee in 1920, later to become the Massachusetts chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. It was founded in the home of Margaret Nichols Shurcliff and her husband of less importance, which became the organizing hub for the early Mass ACLU. Random side note, Margaret Nicholas is also responsible for the popularization of caroling handbells in Boston during the 1920s, so that’s something.
Regardless, the Mass ACLU was formed and its early work was directed against the Red Scare of the late 19-teens and 1920s. This was a time after the Russian Revolution and the US entry into the human meat grinder of World War 1, when anti-war activists were being jailed, socialist and labor organizers were being forcibly deported, and the reactionary fearmongering techniques that would be utilized during the McCarthyist Red Scare 30 years later were being perfected.
The Mass ACLU helped to put together defense committees for victims of the Red Scare and put up a legal fight against Mayor James Curley’s censorship of birth-control pioneer Margaret Sanger’s right to speak on the Boston Common. This particular early case points to the often contradictory and problematic role that the ACLU has played ever since. While Margaret Sanger was a pioneer for birth control and abortion rights, she was also a flagrant proponent of eugenics, going so far as to speak before the KKK in order to “reach more people with her message.”
George Middleton House – 5–7 Pinckney Street
This is the second and last time I am going to mention the American Revolutionary War, but also the first time I am going to mention the African Heritage Trail, which is something you should all check out and this is a stop of. This is the home of George Middleton, who was one of only about 5,000 Blacks who served on the American side during the Revolutionary War, and who was a Colonel in an all-Black Massachusetts militia regiment.
Not much information remains from his time in the Massachusetts militia, but his time after the war as an advocate for the rights of Blacks in Boston is well documented. He helped found the African Benevolent Society, which provided job placement and financial relief for widows and orphans in the Black community. He penned a denouncement of slavery for his Masonic Lodge in which he said that, “Freedom is desirable, if not, would men sacrifice their time, their property and finally their lives in the pursuit of this?”
On one occasion later in life he helped turn back a racist white mob. It was the anniversary of the end of the legal slave trade in the early 1800s, and the Black community of Boston was having a small festival on the Common. A gang of white youth showed up and started pelting them with rock and sticks, leading the families to flee up Joy Street and past George’s house. As the white mob crested that hill, a very elderly George Middleton exited his home, stood in the middle of the street there, and aimed his blunderbuss at the mob while shouting, and they immediately turned tail and ran away.
Museum of African American History – 46 Joy St.
This is the African Meeting House, built in 1806. This was the center of the Black community of Boston for the whole 19th century. Today it is the Museum of African American History, which you should all visit when you have time. It’s also the ending stop for the Black Heritage Trail, a very excellent history walk you should all check out.
This building is the oldest still standing Black church or meeting hall in the US. Built with predominantly Black labor and community-raised money, this building became a symbol for the community for over a century, hosting many important historical meetings and occasions. In 1832, William Lloyd Garrison founded the New England Anti-Slavery Society here. The 54th Massachusetts regiment, which we mentioned earlier, was recruited here.
And it was here that the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass delivered a speech after he and his supporters were forced out of another venue by a racist mob of “Boston gentlemen.” The speech was in support of John Brown, then recently executed for fomenting rebellion in Virginia. It included, “I say, sir, that I want the slaveholders to be made uncomfortable. Every slave that escapes helps to add to their discomfort. I rejoice in every uprising at the South. Although the men may be shot down, they may be butchered upon the spot, the blow tells, notwithstanding, and cannot but tell slaveholders sleep more uneasily than they used to. They are more careful to know that the doors are locked than they formerly were… This element will play its part in the abolition of Slavery… We only need the fact to be known in the Southern States generally, that there is liberty in yonder mountains, planted by John Brown.” A great statement against “civility politics.”
Gay Community News – 22 Bromfield St. (Not a stop, just pointed out)
Also down that block, above what’s now a nail salon, was the headquarters for the Gay Community News, the earliest and longest-lasting weekly newspaper for the LGBT community in Boston. Beginning as just a newsletter in 1973, over the rise of the Gay Liberation movement and the ActUp Fight AIDS movement, it became a paper with national and international scope.
In its first issue, the newsletter stated its purpose as, “There has been a long-standing need in the Boston gay community for improved communication between the various gay organizations and gay individuals. The lack of coverage in the ‘straight’ press has added to this problem of getting necessary information to our community. Gay groups have attempted to overcome this problem by newsletters to their members, but this has led to duplicated efforts, with vast portions of the community left uninformed of events until after they have passed. The Gay Community Newsletter is meant to solve this problem.”
One of its earliest campaigns was the Prisoner Project, in which the Gay Community News raised money to send books and newspapers to Massachusetts prisoners, pre-figuring current work by groups like Black and Pink here in Boston. Part of this campaign was a successful 1980 lawsuit against the federal prison system for prisoners to gain access to gay literature.
Omni Parker House – 60 School St.
This is the Omni Parker House. Nothing too special about it on its own, though it is unionized by UNITE HERE Local 26. The really cool thing about it is that by happenstance both Malcolm X, the Black revolutionary, and Ho Chi Minh, the Vietnamese revolutionary, worked here. Ho Chi Minh as a baker in the 1910s, Malcolm X as a busboy in the 1940s. So that seems like a good excuse to read off some quotes from the two; how about it?
This is Ho Chi Minh in 1930: “The French imperialists’ barbarous oppression and ruthless exploitation have awakened our compatriots, who have all realized that revolution is the only road to survival and that without it they will die a slow death. This is why the revolutionary movement has grown stronger with each passing day: the workers refuse to work, the peasants demand land, the students go on strike, the traders stop doing business. Everywhere the masses have risen to oppose the French imperialists.”
And Malcolm X, in his famous “The Ballot or the Bullet” speech of 1964: “The same government that you go abroad to fight for and die for is the government that is in a conspiracy to deprive you of your voting rights, deprive you of your economic opportunities, deprive you of decent housing, deprive you of decent education. You don’t need to go to the employer alone; it is the government itself, the government of America, that is responsible for the oppression and exploitation and degradation of black people in this country. And you should drop it in their lap. This government has failed the Negro. This so-called democracy has failed the Negro. And all these white liberals have definitely failed the Negro.”
King’s Chapel Burying Ground – 58 Tremont St.
The main thing to note as we walk by this cemetery is that this is where Elizabeth Pain is buried. She was a poor woman in Boston who had a child out of wedlock, which died. She was charged with murder of the child in 1692, but that crime was reduced to just negligence. Her ill-treatment by the patriarchal Puritan state and her gravestone here is considered an inspiration for the novel A Scarlet Letter.
Old State House – 206 Washington St.
This street here is State Street, which used to be called King Street, and for centuries it was the main artery of Boston, for it connects to Long Wharf, the primary shipping pier for the city then. Many great historical events happened here, including the march off to the Civil War by the 54th Massachusetts Regiment while singing “John Brown’s Body.” One case to highlight is the story of Anthony Burns, who escaped slavery in 1853 but was captured and tried here in Boston under the Fugitive Slave Act. His forcible deportation back to slavery infuriated the whole city, turning many Bostonians who were lukewarm on slavery into fierce abolitionists. When he was marched down this street to the awaiting ship, the whole street was lined with silent angry protesters and every building was draped in black mourning banners and upside down American flags.
City Hall Plaza
Like many places we have visited, there was once a neighborhood here before it was all bulldozed during Urban Renewal in the ’60s to build the new City Hall and this plaza. The old City Hall, as an aside, is now an overpriced steakhouse. But since its construction, this plaza and City Hall itself has been the site of countless protests, sit-ins, demonstrations, and actual riots.
It’s the latter we are going to talk about because it was here that one of the most shameful incidents in Boston history occurred, which helped to cement this city’s reputation as one of the most racist and racially segregated cities in the country. I am talking, of course, about the Busing Riots. Between 1974 and 1988, the Boston Public School system was under court mandate to forcibly desegregate its heavily segregated schools. The method they chose was busing students between the racially segregated neighborhoods to different schools, though it has been often noted that more white working-class neighborhoods than white middle- and upper-class neighborhoods were impacted.
This class dimension aside, the reactionary opposition to busing took on a full-throated racist and pro-segregationist form, which quickly turned violent. It was here, literally right there that Ted Landsmark, black civil rights activists and lawyer and now member of the Boston Planning and Development Board, was violently attacked by white teenager Joseph Rakes wielding an American flag. This moment was captured by photographer Stanley Forman, who would win a Pulitzer for the photo. Rakes served two years for assault with a deadly weapon, i.e., the American flag, and is apparently now a hazardous waste worker.
Fort Hill Plaza (Not a stop, just pointed out)
While we walk to our last stop I wanted to mentioned one more place that’s not directly on our tour. Deep in the Financial District, at the corner of High St. and Oliver St., is Fort Hill Plaza. There used to be a community there of predominantly Irish working class. But in one of the first consciously planned acts of “urban renewal” and displacement, the predominantly anti-Catholic city leaders of the time had the whole neighborhood raised to the ground. The Irish resisted but to no avail. All across this city there are the buried bones of neighborhoods and communities that were destroyed, bulldozed, re-zoned, or just priced out. Where we are crossing now is one such example, as the I-93 highway that would eventually need to be buried during the Big Dig cut through the homes of thousands and separated the North End off from the rest of the city.
Sacco & Vanzetti Defense Committee – 256 Hanover St.
We end our tour with one of the great miscarriages of American justice, as well as one of the first great international solidarity defense campaigns. As this plaque states, this was where the Sacco & Vanzetti Defense Committee had its offices. Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were Italian-born anarchists who, despite another person confessing to the crime and a complete frame-up of a show trial, were falsely charged and executed for a murder during a robbery. Their frame-up and execution came within the larger context of the First Great Red Scare mentioned earlier, where political dissidents, especially of foreign birth, were being rounded up and deported, while radical organizations like the Communist Party, the Socialist Party, and the Industrial Workers of the World were faced with intense police repression.
While awaiting execution, Vanzetti defended his anarchist politics and his revolutionary organizing, saying, “If it had not been for these things, I might have lived out my life talking at street corners to scorning men. I might have died, unmarked, unknown, a failure. Now we are not a failure. This is our career and our triumph. Never in our full life could we hope to do such work for tolerance, for justice, for man’s understanding of man as now we do by accident. Our words — our lives — our pains — nothing! The taking of our lives — lives of a good shoemaker and a poor fish-peddler — all! That last moment belongs to us — that agony is our triumph.”
An international campaign formed to defend and demand clemency for Sacco and Vanzetti, all organized from this building. The campaign involved everyone from the Soviet Union, anarchists all over the world, American radicals of every stripe, and such more mainstream luminaries as Albert Einstein, George Bernard Shaw, and H. G. Wells. The day before their execution on August 21, 1927, over 20,000 people protested on the Boston Common. After their executions, there were massive and violent protests in Geneva, London, Paris, Amsterdam, Tokyo, Germany, and Johannesburg, and wildcat strikes in Sao Paulo, Buenos Aires, and Rio de Janeiro. Their funeral in Boston is estimated to have been attended by over 200,000 people, so many that Will H. Hays, head of the motion picture industry’s umbrella organization, ordered all film of the funeral procession destroyed, lest it become further political propaganda against American justice and capitalism.
A map of the walking tour in PDF form can be found here.