THERE WAS A DAY in the summer of 1927 when together with a silent crowd of other students I stood at the flagpole on the City College campus waiting for the grim news from Boston. And as we waited, the air tense, threatening, somebody in the crowd said, “They killed them. . . they killed Sacco and Vanzetti . . . Jesus, they killed Sacco and Vanzetti . . .” And he kept repeating it over and over, like a prayer, “Jesus . . .” And as we walked home from the meeting, all we could think of to say was, “What’s the idea, what did they do it for, what’s the idea?”
There was something of the same thing in the air when the news came that Morris U. Schappes was in the Tombs, indicted on a perjury charge and facing a twenty-year sentence. Students stood around the flagpole, unbelieving, incredulous, hoping it couldn’t be true in America. Word kept buzzing around the campus, angry buzzing. “What’s the idea? What’s the big idea?”
It’s a long time since that summer day in 1927. This time the students didn’t ask, “What did they do it for?” They knew what they did it for.
They knew why Morris Schappes was in jail, why he had been arrested by five detectives, why he had been indicted for perjury with a penalty of 20 years in jail and $20,000 fine hung over his head, why he had been locked in the Tombs.
Morris U. Schappes had preached “subversive doctrines”. Like Sacco and Vanzetti, like Tom Mooney, like Joe Hill, like a thousand others whose names the workers of America reverence, he had fought for the people’s needs, he had spoken out for democracy. He had said: “I believe in political, racial and social equality for Jews, immigrants, Catholics and for that specially oppressed people, the Negro people. I wish to help liberate the cultural energies and productive capacities of the common people from the crippling restrictions placed upon them by big business. I desire to see my students freed from the economic handicaps and the insecurity that is making them aimless in their studies and uncertain of the future that their education cannot help them chart or plan. 1 want for the American people and for myself, peace, security, culture and happiness.”
That’s the credo of a man, Mr. Jones, an American.
But Americans have been imprisoned for less, for reading the Constitution of the United States at a strike meeting.