Columbus Circle from the air
On June 28, 1971, tens of thousands of people converged on Manhattans Columbus Circle for the second annual Italian-American Civil Rights League rally. Police barricades rerouted traffic away from the event. On an outdoor stage festooned with red, white, and blue fringed streamers, prominent politicians and local celebrities gathered to lend their support. Red, white, and green flags of Italy were unfurled beside the Stars and Stripes. Television cameramen and newspaper photographers shouldered their way through the crowd to get as close to the podium as possible. Proud Italian-Americans from all over the New York metropolitan area gathered to voice their opposition to what they considered government prejudice against their people. They had a particular beef with the FBI. They felt that all Italian-Americans were being tarred with the Mafia brush. Just because a few Italians had established La Cosa Nostra, they certainly werent all criminals, but the FBI, they claimed, treated them that way.
The crowd cheered when they spotted Joseph Colombo, the founder of the Italian-American Civil Rights League, emerging from his car and making his way through the throng on foot. Oddly enough, Joe Colombo was the reigning boss of the New York crime family that bore his name. For some inexplicable reason, the leagues supporters didnt see the irony.
had started the league the year before to retaliate against what he considered unfair harassment from the FBI. On April 30, 1970, Colombos son Joseph Jr. had been arrested for melting down quarters, dimes, and nickels for their silver content, hoping to earn more than the face value of the coins. As mob expert Jerry Capeci points out, the arrest was a pressure tactic aimed at the young mans father, but Joe Colombo cried foul and impetuously struck back by sending a gang of his men to picket FBI headquarters in Manhattan
But picketing alone wasnt enough for Colombo
. He soon declared that he was forming the Italian-American Civil Rights League to address the issue of discrimination against his people. To the amazement of law-enforcement officials, thousands of law-abiding Italian-Americans took up the cry, sending in their ten-dollar membership fees to the organization in droves. Fearing reprisals from Italian-American voters, local politicians voiced their support. Within a matter of weeks, the league became a force of nature.
Fifty thousand people attended the first rally at Columbus Circle on June 29, 1970. The mob ordered the docks closed for the day so that union members could attend. Stores in Italian neighborhoods around the city also closed in honor of the occasion. The huge outpouring of popular support for the league had its effect. United States Attorney General John Mitchell and New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller declared that the term Mafia would no longer be used within their jurisdictions.
The league named Joe Colombo its Man of the Year in May of that year, even though in March he had been slapped with a two-and-a-half-year prison sentence for lying on his application for a real-estate brokers license. The sentence was delayed pending appeal, and Colombo stepped up his efforts to promote the League. He even appeared on the Dick Cavett Show, a popular late-night television talk show, to discuss anti-Italian-American discrimination. Some of the bosses of the other families were not pleased. This kind of deliberate self-exposure was unheard of for a Mafia chief. Not even the egomaniacal John Gotti would have considered this kind of publicity during his reign as boss of the Gambino Family in the late 80s and early 90s.
By the time the second annual rally rolled around, Joe Colombo, the self-appointed civil rights leader, was walking on thin ice. As he made his way through the crowd on that summer day in 1971, he undoubtedly realized that he had ruffled some feathers, but apparently he didnt know how badly hed ruffled them. The knives were already out.