One hundred years ago, the nation grappled with a crisis, caused not by a living virus but by racial and ethnic injustices that infected the American legal system. In a miscarriage of justice, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, Italian immigrants and anarchists, were convicted of murder and executed by the state of Massachusetts. The case, which attracted global attention, revealed the shortcomings of the United States, which had emerged from World War I pledging to lead the world to self-government based on the rule of law. The anniversary of this case provides an important reminder of how vulnerable our legal system is to the pathogens of prejudice and partiality.

Italian immigration to the United States spiked in the decades after 1880. By 1920, approximately 4 million Italians comprised more than 10 percent of the nation’s foreign-born population. These Catholic and often unskilled and illiterate immigrants faced intense prejudice from native-born Americans. This discriminatory atmosphere, combined with dire working conditions and the perception that World War I was a “capitalist war,” led some Italian immigrants to embrace anarchist, socialist or communist ideologies, which were then widespread in the radical international labor movement.

Italian immigrants faced broad discrimination and suspicion due to their national origin, but their perceived association with a violent strain of anarchism drove state efforts to target, remove and exclude Italians from the United States. Some Italian immigrants were followers of Luigi Galleani, a charismatic anarchist leader. Born in Italy, he had immigrated to the United States in 1901 and gained attention when he spoke in support of striking silk workers. Two years after his arrival, he founded the Cronaca Sovversiva (Subversive Chronicle) newspaper, which advocated the violent overthrow of capitalistic societies and their governments. The paper was published in Vermont until 1912, when Galleani relocated to Lynn, Mass.

In 1919, the year after World War I ended, followers of Galleani mailed dynamite-filled bombs to prominent Americans, among them U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. The Galleanists targeted those who had enforced or endorsed anti-sedition laws that expanded the use of deportation against immigrants suspected of disloyalty or fomenting labor unrest in the context of WWI. In response, Palmer organized a series of retaliatory raids that targeted immigrant radicals. Thousands were arrested, and hundreds of resident aliens were deported.

Against this backdrop of intense anti-Italian sentiment and state-led crushing of ideological dissent, a robbery and murder unfolded at the Slater and Morrill shoe factory in South Braintree on April 15, 1920. Paymaster Frederick A. Parmenter left the company’s executive office carrying a cash payroll of nearly $16,000. He was accompanied by guard Alessandro Berardelli. As they walked to the nearby factory, two men robbed and fatally shot them both. Eyewitnesses described the perpetrators as looking Italian.

The police chief in the nearby city of Bridgewater suspected a local anarchist, Mario Buda, of involvement in the crime and set a trap. When Buda and three other men attempted to pick up a car that was being repaired, the garage owner called the police. Though Buda and one other man escaped, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were arrested on a streetcar later that evening. They were armed with guns, and Sacco carried a notice for an upcoming anarchist rally; along with their ethnicity, these details rendered them suspect in the eyes of the police.

Who were these two men? Sacco, who was born in southern Italy in 1891, had arrived in the United States in 1908. Married with one child, he worked as a skilled craftsman at a shoe factory. Vanzetti had emigrated from northern Italy in 1908. He worked at a series of menial jobs and was peddling fish at the time of his arrest. Sacco and Vanzetti had met in 1917, when they spent several months in Mexico with other Galleanists protesting a World War I-era conscription law.

They were put on trial for the murders in a Dedham, Mass., courthouse in May 1921. As was the custom of the time, the two defendants sat in a metal cage throughout the proceedings. Judge Webster Thayer, who presided over the trial, made no secret of his loathing for the two men he called “anarchist bastards.” Prosecutor Frederick Katzmann repeatedly appealed to the jury’s patriotism and underlined the defendants’ ethnicity and immigrant status. He cross-examined Sacco and Vanzetti extensively about their radical ideology and opposition to World War I, even though they were being tried for murder. Their political beliefs were wholly irrelevant to the charges against them. Despite only weak, circumstantial evidence linking either man to the crime scene, the jury convicted them both.

Years of appeals followed, while Sacco and Vanzetti languished in prison. In 1924, nativists succeeded in severely restricting immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe and all of Asia, dramatically cutting Italian immigration to help preserve white ethnic homogeneity in America. Public attention to the Sacco and Vanzetti case soared when Thayer denied a motion for a new trial in 1926, even after Celestino Medeiros, a convicted murderer, confessed that he had been involved in the crime and that Sacco and Vanzetti had not. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court affirmed Thayer’s decision.

Harvard Law School professor (and future Supreme Court justice) Felix Frankfurter published a lengthy article in the March 1927 Atlantic Monthly magazine calling Thayer’s opinion “a farrago of misquotations, misrepresentations, suppressions, and mutilations.” Frankfurter exposed the fact that Katzmann had been in contact with the Department of Justice before the trial, and that the case “was part of a collusive effort between the District Attorney and agents of the Department of Justice to rid the country of these Italians because of their Red activities.” After a careful review of the evidence, Frankfurter concluded that the likely perpetrators were a gang of robbers associated with Medeiros, and that Sacco and Vanzetti had been targeted for ideological reasons.

Massachusetts Gov. Alvan T. Fuller appointed a three-member “blue ribbon” commission to review the trial proceedings. The Lowell Commission found the trial fair; the commission was chaired by Harvard President A. Lawrence Lowell, who had banned black students from dormitories, instituted quotas for Jewish students and purged homosexual students. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts electrocuted Sacco and Vanzetti on Aug. 23, 1927. Workers, radicals, intellectuals, Italian emigres and other sympathizers protested in cities around the globe.

The executions of Sacco and Vanzetti did not extinguish interest in their case, which continued to raise questions about how class, ethnic and ideological tensions shaped the United States in the 1920s.

But the lessons of this case transcend that decade. The presidency of Donald Trump is based on the exploitation of Americans’ susceptibility to prejudice and willingness to ignore the rights of disfavored groups. In the 1920s, Italians were among the disfavored. Today, Trump whips up ethnic prejudice by calling Mexicans “rapists,” Muslims “terrorists” and covid-19 the “Chinese virus.” His belief that he is above the law, his personal attacks on judges who apply the law and his granting of pardons to his cronies are frontal assaults on the principle of impartial justice, the core of our legal system.

Historic anniversaries present teachable moments. We may best honor the centennial of the Sacco and Vanzetti trial by pledging to resist and defeat the forces of xenophobia and prejudice that continue to reproduce at alarming rates and manifest in new and dangerous ways. Covid-19 is not the only viral force on the loose in our nation.