Vito Anthony Marcantonio (December 10, 1902–August 9, 1954) was the most successful U.S. radical politician of the twentieth century. The eldest child of a first-generation immigrant working-class family, Marcantonio was elected to Congress from New York's ethnically Italian and Puerto Rican East Harlem district; he held office longer than any other third party radical, serving seven terms from 1934 to 1950. Colorful and controversial, Marcantonio captured national prominence as a powerful orator and brilliant parliamentarian. Often allied with the U.S. Communist Party, he was an advocate of civil rights, civil liberties, labor unions, and Puerto Rican independence. He supported social security and unemployment legislation, calling for what later was called a living wage standard. And he annually introduced anti-lynching and anti-poll tax legislation a decade before it became respectable. Marcantonio also opposed the House Un-American Activities Committee, red baiting, and anti-Semitism, and he fought for the rights of the foreign-born Americans.
Marcantonio was a shrewd tactician in the labyrinth of New York politics, managing the mayoral election in 1933 of Fiorello La Guardia, organizing political coalitions, and ultimately becoming Manhattan's preeminent political power broker as leader of the American Labor Party (ALP). Like his mentor La Guardia, Marcantonio first ran for office in 1934 as a Republican, in opposition to the corrupt Democratic Tammany machine. Marcantonio was defeated for reelection in 1936 in the Roosevelt New Deal landslide (an irony, in that Marcantonio was among the most fervent supporters of New Deal legislation). Out of office and growing more radical, he served two years as president of International Labor Defense, the Communist-aligned civil rights and trade union support organization known for its defense of the eight "Scottsboro Boys." In 1938 he returned to Congress, running as both the Republican and ALP candidate, and he became an enrolled member of the ALP. Although Marcantonio developed a system of service for his impoverished constituents that was nationally acclaimed, his focus remained local. He never abandoned his neighborhood or his friends—even some who were organized crime figures. Marcantonio's career was finally destroyed by the anti-Communism of the Cold War 1950s.
In many ways Marcantonio was an exemplar of the insurgent New Yorker when the city itself was a metaphor for national aspirations. In the post-Depression, postwar years, those visions were lost—transfigured as much by middle-class affluence and suburbanization as by anti-unionism (Marcantonio was one of the House floor managers in the failed fight against the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act) and anti-Communism. Marcantonio continued to plump for political empowerment and equal opportunity. He demanded practical improvements in the quality of life: affordable housing, quality education, health care, and the right to a job. Despite a fervid campaign for the mayoralty of New York in 1949, Marcantonio lost. In 1950 he was defeated for reelection to Congress, but only when Democrats and Republicans united behind another candidate. Out of office, Marcantonio served as defense counsel for leftist union officials, Puerto Rican nationalists, and, most notably, for W. E. B. Du Bois. Planning a comeback, Marcantonio died of a heart attack in 1954 at the age of fifty-one.
Marcantonio, Vito. I Vote My Conscience: Debates, Speeches, and Writings of Vito Marcantonio, 1935–1950, edited by Annette T. Rubinstein and associates. 1956.
Meyer, Gerald. Vito Marcantonio: Radical Politician, 1902–1954. 1989.
John J. Simon