Ben Shahn, The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti, 1931–32, from Sacco-Vanzetti series. Tempera on canvas, 84 1/2 × 48 in. (214.6 × 121.9 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of Edith and Milton Lowenthal in memory of Juliana Force 49.22
ADAMWEINBERG: Alan Dershowitz is the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard Law School:
ALANDERSHOWITZ: Felix Frankfurter was the lawyer who in fact tried to save the lives of Sacco and Vanzetti after they had been falsely convicted, falsely in the sense that the evidence used against them was questionable.
The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti, by Ben Shahn, shows four villains, judges, very distinguished Massachusetts citizens, standing over the coffins of the recently executed victims of the injustice, Sacco and Vanzetti. The people standing over the coffin, in the center, A. Lawrence Lowell, the bigoted president of Harvard University, who was appointed by the governor of Massachusetts to be the chairman of the commission to review the Sacco-Vanzetti case. Lowell was an admitted racialist. He believed in racial quotas. He established them at Harvard. His two compatriots were the president of MIT and a retired judge named Grant.
Standing over them, almost hovering above them, is the Judge Webster Thayer who presided over the trial, and made a mockery of justice. He told people he was out to get these radical Italians, and he would not rest until they were in their graves.
The case itself was a simple armed robbery in Braintree, Massachusetts. A paymaster was shot and killed. Nobody will ever know whether Sacco and Vanzetti, or Sacco or Vanzetti, were responsible for the killings. That’s become lost in the evidence that was distorted and destroyed by the state.
They were sentenced to death, and the execution was carried out after many protests and much turmoil. And the legacy of Sacco and Vanzetti will live on. And we will long understand the real villains of the case were the judges and the university presidents who lent the legitimacy and the legitimacy of their institutions to a case of racism and injustice.