Anthony Bimba was born January 22, 1894 in Lithuania. He was a socialist turned communist, a writer, a journalist, and a lecturer. In the cold winter of 1926 controversy would soon spread throughout the shoe factories and shops of the Lithuanian neighborhoods of northern Brockton. A coming speech by the radical Bimba in the Baltic section of Brockton known as the ‘village’ would ignite a drama worthy of national attention.
The epicenter of the ‘village’ Saint Rocco Church, now named Saint Casimir shared the neighborhood with the Lithuanian National Hall known by some opponents as ‘little Moscow’. This is where on January 26, 1926 Anthony Bimba would speak freely to an audience of about 150 listeners. He spoke with criticism of the current regime in his homeland, of his opposition to Roman Catholicism, and with pro-Bolshevik, anti-capitalist pleadings. What was different about this night for Bimba and his typical speech was that there were opponents in the audience who listened, and noted his ridicule. One Anthony Eudaco would bring a charge of sedition, while Joseph Treinavich one of blasphemy. The clerk of Court, Charles F. King, processed their complaints. #’D 78314 The Commonwealth of Massachusetts against Anthony Bimba for violating state laws on 2 counts, chapter 264 #11 (sedition) and chapter 272 #36 (blasphemy). Anthony Bimba would be the first tried under the new sedition law of 1919 and only the second on the blasphemy issue, first in the 20th century.
To get an understanding of the charges one must look into the wording of the text. The blasphemy law originated in 1641 as a Massachusetts Bay Colony law based on the Old Testament book of Leviticus 24:15:16, with violators sentenced to death! The law was renewed in 1658 with the same available penalty, by 1697 a fine and imprisonment was deemed more suitable! The revised version of the law stated:
“Whoever willfully blasphemes the holy name of God by denying, cursing or contumeliously reproaching God, his creation, government or final judgment of the world, or by cursing or contumeliously reproaching Jesus Christ or the Holy Ghost, or by cursing or contumeliously reproaching or exposing to contempt and ridicule, the holy word of God contained in the holy scriptures shall be punished by imprisonment in jail for not more than one year or by a fine of not more than $300, and may also be bound to good behavior!”
The other charge was for violators of the newly drafted 1919 sedition law. Commonly known as the “Red Scare”, after the world war the country was weary of contamination with any foreign intervention with anti-American intentions. The Massachusetts law was born and stated:
“Whoever by speech or by exhibition, distribution or promulgation or any written or printed document, paper or pictorial representation advocates, advises, counsels or incites assault upon any public official, or the killing of any person, or the unlawful destruction of real or personal property, or the overthrow of the commonwealth or of the United States, shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for not more than three years, or in jail for not more than two and a half years, or by a fine of not more than $1000: provided, that this section shall not be construed as reducing the penalty now imposed for the violation of any law. It shall be unlawful for any person who shall have been convicted of a violation of this section, whether or not any sentence shall have been imposed, to perform the duties of a teacher or of an officer of administration in any public or private educational institution, and the superior court, in a suit by the commonwealth, shall have jurisdiction in equity to restrain and enjoin any such person from performing such duties thereafter; provided, that any such restraining order or injunction shall be forthwith vacated if such conviction shall be set aside”.
Thus, one can see with laws so written freedom of speech in this era meant something else. Religion was not to be tread on either. Compared to today’s society with TV, movies, and music far more latitude is afforded, censorship albeit alive is more in the form of parental guidance stickers and NC-17 ratings, rather than the rigid and uniform moral standards of Bimba’s time. When John Lennon of the Beatles said once, ‘I think the Beatles are more popular than Jesus Christ’ there were bonfires with Beatles records for fuel but John didn’t face a lynch mob!
Bimba was swiftly arrested at the Lithuanian Hall in Worcester before giving another speech. He was given over to Brockton Police and when searched he was in possession of $13.79. He was wearing a World War Army coat; he remained basically silent under questioning and refused bail. Soon however Bimba was released on $1500 surety from a sympathizer, a lot of money in this day. Soon the press was all over the story. National unwanted attention was on the ‘Shoe City’ with most of the focus not on the sedition charge but the blasphemy one. Atheist barked at the ancient charge saying one can’t be forced to believe in a higher power. Bimba found support with many of these groups while many Catholic Lithuanian immigrants voiced their opposition to his stand. On one occasion 400+ Bimba protesters rallied at the neighborhood church collecting donations to fight him and his cause.
The trial would be held in Brockton’s Superior Court on Belmont St., which is still in use today, however due to a heavy snowfall the trial was delayed. Defense attorneys traveling from Boston and witnesses from the ‘village’ would have trouble traveling in the inclement weather forcing the postponement. Meanwhile sides were taken, Bimba had his sympathizers and the prosecution theirs, including; Douglas Shoes, Atherton Furniture, B.P.M., Geo.E. Keith Co., even the Mayor Harold D. Bent. Tension was felt throughout the city with the delay not helping the matter. When the trial finally began state and local police were in force to keep order. Each side presented their case. And for 6 days the trial went on with each side pressing their position. Finally on March 1, 1926 a verdict was reached. Guilty of sedition, not guilty of blasphemy! Both the prosecution and the defense saw this as a win. Bimba quickly departed back to his home in Brooklyn. Despite his assertion that his public speaking days were over and that he’d write instead he did appear to speak again. The Judge in the case King revealed his findings to justify his position.
“The epithets and characterizations which ran through this case are the same as have run through others I have handled. One side will contend that all of the other side are communists, socialists, and atheists, and the other side will contend that there is unfair discrimination and too strict religious belief… It is not certain that he said more. It seems apparent to most of us that there was no sense in his bringing this statement into a protest against the Lithuanian Government, but apparently it resulted from the fact as alleged in testimony that the Lithuanian Government is clerical. I want to say a bit about the situation among our Lithuanian friends in Brockton. They resort too much to court for religious and factional disputes… I think that it is a rather overzealousness rather than intent to use the court eternally as a weapon that brings these cases here.”
Over a year would pass for an appeal on the Sedition charge. After an investigation in the case a ‘nolle prosequi’ finding was made, essentially the case was dropped. Soon after, the trial and all that surrounded it were seemingly lost in obscurity. Many didn’t know what to think of the court’s decision and it’s reluctance to declare if it was free speech or something more. As immense a story worthy of our Nation’s attention the issue just died.