LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Volume 20, No.3 - Fall 1976
Editors of this issue: Antanas Klimas
Copyright © 1976 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
William Wolkovich, "Bay State, Blue Laws and Bimba: A Documentary Story of the Anthony Bimba Trial for Blasphemy and Sedition in Brockton, Massachusetts, 1926. Brockton, Forum Press, 1973, 141 p. $5.95.
The famous "Red Scare" of the 1920's in the United States reflected a fear among native Americans of not only the immense changes taking place in the world outside the nation's boundaries but also of those persons who acted or thought differently from the majority within the country. The "Palmer Raids" initiated in the late years of the Wilson administration by his Attorney General were designed to apprehend and rid the country of left-wing radicals, many of them foreign born and highly sympathetic to the recent Russian Revolution. To be radical and foreign born was, in the America of the 1920's, to be literally in a position where one took one's life in his hands, as witness the arrest and eventual execution of the anarchist Italians, Nicola Sacco and Barthelomeo Vanzetti. Father William Wolkovich's short book discusses the case of another foreign born radical running afoul of American law, although in this instance faring much better than the ill-starred Sacco and Vanzetti.
The case of Anthony Bimba had its background in both national and international affairs of the period following World War I, with very definite local emphases amid the Lithuanian -American communities of industrial Massachusetts. Bimba, born in Lithuania in 1894, emigrated to the United States in 1913. In 1916 he appeared on the campus of Valparaiso College in Indiana which during that period had a small but significant enrollment of Lithuanians. Bimba's involvement in Socialist Party activities started in earnest while he was at Valparaiso and later, along with many of his radically-minded countrymen, he made the transition to the newly emergent Communist Party of America. Despite his somewhat maverick nature which got him into trouble at times with the party bosses, Bimba has remained a loyal Communist until his death. He wrote a number of books and pamphlets adhering to the party line over the years, with his most significant work being a study of the Irish - American "Molly Maguires" of the Pennsylvania coal fields of the 1870's; a group of Irish nationalists converted into pioneering working class proponents of revolution by the imaginative author.
Bimba's difficulties with the laws of Massachusetts resulted from his being invited to speak on the evening of January 26, 1926 at the Lithuanian National Hall in Brockton, Massachusetts. Brockton, self-proclaimed "shoe capital of the world," attracted a considerable number of Lithuanians who labored in the shoe factories and settled in the northern part of the city known as Montello but often referred to as "Lithuanian Village." The Lithuanians residing in the city formed clubs and associations in a manner similar to other ethnic groups seeking fellowship amid a scene of common language and affections and, again like many other groups, discovered that fellowship often also generated dispute as strong-minded individuals formed factions against one another. Added to personality conflicts on the Lithuanian scene in Brockton was of course the serious political division engendered by the image of the Russian Revolution.
By the time Bimba came onto the Brockton scene, the Lithuanians involved in fraternal activities in that city had been fighting among each other for several years. The local courts had seen suits and counter suits filed by different factions of the Lithuanian National Hall Association as personality, politics, and religious differences came to the surface. Therefore when one faction of the Association invited Bimba to speak as part of a "free speech forum", the other faction was lying in wait to use this opportunity to advance their cause. Bimba's speech provided the dissidents with plenty of ammunition.
The subjects covered by the radical speaker in his Brockton speech included attacks on the conservative regime in Lithuania, praise of Bolshevism and denunciations of capitalism, ridicule of religion, especially the Catholic Church, and the like. The material which he presented was routine Bimba Bombast and he had articulated it in many Lithuanian communities in the United States. What proved not to be routine, however, was the effect of his speech. Almost before he could gather his wits about him, Bimba discovered that charges had been sworn out claiming that he had expressed sedition and blasphemy in his address. His speech, according to the auditors who pressed the charges, had violated Massachusetts laws prohibiting attacks on the belief in God and religion and advocacy of anarchism.
The Bimba case attracted regional and national attention as commentators pointed up real or alleged parallels with the plight of Sacco and Vanzetti in the same state or used the new case as ammunition against Massachusetts' puritanical attitudes toward free speech. The trial itself was something of a farce as one Lithuanian testified against another with inadequate translation, and a patronizing, condescending judge presided over all that took place. The Communist orator was acquitted of the blasphemy charge but fined a nominal $100 on the charge of sedition. Even this fine was overturned upon appeal.
The real significance of the Bimba case in retrospect does not lie in its indication of Massachusetts narrow mindedness and intolerance of free speech although this was the aspect of the case most strongly emphasized in the contemporary press. Instead the case's importance is as a reflection of the disunity and divisiveness existing within the Lithuanian - American community of the post-World War I era; a state of mind in which Catholic raged against atheist; conservative against radical and Lithuanian nationalist against the advocate of world revolution. Seen in this light the Bimba case occupies a small but highly interesting place in the history of ethnic groups in the United States.
Camden County College