Last month’s action by the Randolph Board of Education to replace Columbus Day — a federal holiday since 1934 observed on the second Monday in October — with Indigenous People’s Day upset Italians and others in the town and across the state.

That prompted the Italian American ONE VOICE Coalition to get involved. The group, based in the Bloomfield hometown of its New Jersey founder, has been taking an active role in the continuing controversy over the 15th century explorer’s legacy.

The coalition held a news conference and used its social media presence to drum up support for the effort to return Columbus Day to the school district’s calendar. Its spokesman did media interviews in New Jersey, New York and even Iowa, as well as on syndicated radio.

The coalition is in the midst of a number of battles over the legacy and teaching of Christopher Columbus, who schoolchildren famously learn sailed the ocean blue in 1492.

The group is in federal court in Newark seeking to force West Orange to restore a Columbus monument that was removed last year. Members also were involved in the unsuccessful fight to stop New York City public schools from replacing Columbus Day with Italian Heritage Day/Indigenous People’s Day. And they mobilized against the National Education Association’s 2019 action calling for Columbus Day to be replaced with Indigenous People’s Day, as well as Vermont’s decision to do the same.

Ties to Italian American service organization

Its website describes the coalition as “a nationwide army of anti-bias activists that fight discrimination and defend Italian American heritage.”

While most of the coalition’s members are New Jersey-based, such as the Amici Club of Wanaque and the Ocean County Columbus Parade Committee, it also lists members from Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Illinois and UNICO National.

The coalition has strong ties to the Italian American service organization: The founder and president of Italian American ONE VOICE is a past chairman of UNICO’s Anti-Bias Committee and its spokesman is a past president of UNICO.

Retired chiropractor Manny Alfano founded and is president of the Italian American ONE VOICE Coalition, which has been a 501(c)3 tax-exempt charity under the U.S. tax code since October 2011. Members pay dues and the group solicits and accepts donations, but apparently operates on a modest budget, reporting to the IRS that its gross receipts have totaled less than $50,000 for every year between 2010 and 2019. As a result, it need not report any details about its income or spending.

The group got a “significant grant” of an unspecified amount from the UNICO Anti-Bias Committee to help cover the costs of the federal lawsuit, according to a post on the website We the Italians.

Targeting television shows

Alfano said his work to fight anti-Italian bias dates back almost three decades to when he was anti-bias chair of UNICO National. The Italian American Police Society of New Jersey approached UNICO with complaints about the television series “The Untouchables,” which was airing on Secaucus-based WWOR-TV. Alfano said the group believed the series “started to discriminate or to put police officers and also Italian Americans in a bad light.” They put together a coalition of organizations and picketed the station, which eventually stopped airing the show.

“That’s how we got started and then, you know, other things have come up,” Alfano said, adding that the group has launched actions against television shows including “The Sopranos,” “Jersey Shore” and “Saturday Night Live” over their portrayal of Italian Americans.

Then the controversy over Columbus began, with historians and organizations saying that the Italian explorer and his men enslaved indigenous people and either deliberately killed those who revolted or unintentionally by introducing new diseases. They point out Columbus wasn’t the first to discover the Americas and never set foot in what is today the United States. Alfano said such organizations as the American Indian Movement sought to make Columbus “their poster boy.”

Many people started to believe that narrative, but other authors have defended Columbus and now “people are starting to wake up” against the current “woke culture,” Alfano said.

“We are judging a 15th century explorer by 21st century standards,” Alfano said. Italians have been victims as well, he said, telling the story of 11 Italians lynched in New Orleans in 1891 over the death of the city’s police chief, despite acquittals or mistrials for nine of 19 men indicted. President Benjamin Harrison declared the first nationwide celebration of Columbus Day a year later to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the explorer’s landing and agreed to pay $25,000 to the families of those who were lynched.

“Now, everybody just forgets about it,” Alfano said.

Most common ancestry among NJ residents

Alfano also has friends within the New Jersey political community. His Twitter page features a picture of him speaking on the floor of the state Senate and its top tweet includes a picture of the joint resolution that designated October 2020 as Italian American Heritage Month. The group’s Facebook page has nearly 10,000 followers. Among Alfano’s 2,200 Facebook friends are former U.S. Rep. Robert Torricelli and high-powered lawyer Donald Scarinci.

That’s not surprising, given the size of New Jersey’s Italian population. In the 2019 U.S. Census American Community Survey, some 1.33 million New Jerseyans, about 15% of all, called themselves Italian. Italians are the largest ancestry group in New Jersey. Only three other states, all larger than New Jersey, have bigger Italian populations.

The coalition is proud of its victories, including the Randolph school board’s decision to keep Columbus Day on the calendar.

Alfano said he is hopeful it will succeed in its case against West Orange. That suit contends the township’s decision to remove the Columbus memorial violates the 14th Amendment. It states that the township’s action was “based on race, ethnic origin, and, or national background” and that the memorial’s removal “denies Italian-Americans of their Constitutional right to equal protection of the laws by treating Italian Americans differently than other similarly situated individuals or groups, and there is no justification for the difference in treatment.”

We’re in this together
For a better-informed future. Support our nonprofit newsroom.
Donate to NJ Spotlight