On April 15, 1920, the paymaster of a shoe factory and the guard accompanying him were shot death for the payroll they were carrying. Nicola Sacco, a shoemaker, and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, a fish peddler, were arrested for the murders. On May 31, 1921, their controversial trial began before Judge Webster Thayer of the Massachusetts Superior Court.

The two Italians had immigrated to the United States in 1908. The biggest strike against them was that both men were radical anarchists. All the way through the trial they maintained their innocence. But after an appeal and much red tape — plus three days of protests by the Industrial Workers of the World, an international labor union — Sacco and Vanzetti were executed on August 23, 1927.

To this date, some people believe that justice was meted out to these anarchists. Others see them as victims of a prejudiced legal system and a bungled trial. Many historians who have studied the case contend that Sacco and Vanzetti should have been granted a second trial. The novelist John Dos Passos, who was active in efforts to save them from the electric chair, saw this legal battle as a sign that the United States had become two nations — one of the rich and privileged and one of the poor and powerless.

On the 50th anniversary of their execution, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis claimed August 23, 1977 as a memorial day, noting that the 1921 trial had been permeated by prejudice.

To Name This Day ...

Spiritual Practice

Jamal Rahman, a Muslim Sufi interfaith minister, offers this practice for becoming aware of our prejudices and growing beyond them:

"A time-honored way to overcome our prejudices and tame our ego is to become aware of both our ego traits and our divine qualities, and strive to diminish the former while expanding the latter. Keep a small notebook in your pocket and record the ego qualities that you see yourself manifesting in the course of the day, especially your biases, prejudices, and stereotyping. Review them each evening and express gratitude to God for your growing awareness of these traits that need to be diminished. The practice of regular awareness is like a sacred sun that gradually diminishes our shadows.

"Create a ritual of purification and release of your ego traits. For example, at the end of the week you could write down the traits you have observed, put the list in a fireproof bowl, and burn it with a prayer for divine assistance in the coming week.

"In the same notebook, also record the divine qualities that you have observed each day. Perhaps you chose to speak the truth, even though it was inconvenient. Express gratitude to the Source for the specific divine qualities flowing through you, and pray for them to grow and flourish in your heart. ...

"By becoming aware of your ego traits and divine qualities, you will be able to make choices that enable you to grow spiritually. You will, by grace of Spirit, experience authentic power and joy.


Folksinger and activist Joan Baez put to music words taken from letters by Bartolomeo Vanzetti. As you listen, allow yourself to feel what it is to be a human being who cares deeply about other human beings.

The pictures and drawings (by Ben Shahn and William Groper) are taken from publications at the time of the case.