This is the email that Basil M. Russo, President of the Order of Italian Sons and Daughters of America, wrote on April 7 to the Editorial Board at The New York Times.
On March 14, 1891 a mob estimated to range from eight thousand to twenty thousand people hung, shot, and clubbed to death eleven Italian immigrants outside the parish prison in New Orleans. This was the largest recorded mass lynching in American history. Nine of the immigrants had been charged with the murder of the city’s police chief. A lawful trial had been held and the jury found none of them guilty.
These lynchings were then orchestrated by the city”s political and business leaders, who chose to show their disdain for our country’s legal system of justice by committing eleven murders of their own. As repulsive and shocking as the mob’s actions were, the response of several newspapers, as well as some of our country’s political leaders including future president Theodore Roosevelt, were even more offensive. Not only did they fail to condemn the lynchings and demand that those who participated be prosecuted, but rather they sought to justify and even applaud the lynchings.
The most tragic example was that of the New York Times Editorial Board which wrote in response to the lynchings:
“These sneaking and cowardly Sicilians, the descendants of bandits and assassins, who have transported to this country the lawless passions, the cut-throat practices, and the oath-bound societies of their native country, are to us a pest without mitigations… These men of the Mafia killed chief Hennessy in circumstances of peculiar atrocity… Lynch law was the only course open to the people of New Orleans to stay the issue of a new license to the Mafia to continue its bloody practices.”
It is unimaginable that such words would appear on the editorial page of the world’s most influential and respected journalistic institution.
In keeping with its longstanding reputation of exposing and condemning prejudice in America, The Times should set an example by publishing an apology.
On April 12th, the Mayor of New Orleans will offer a proclamation of apology to the Italian American community for the city’s sordid role in the lynchings.
It would be a fitting day for The Times to publish an apology to the Italian American community as well, for the ugly stereotypes and the unconscionable anti Italian immigrant rhetoric it expressed in its editorial.