In 1970, New York Mafia boss Joseph Columbo declared war on the FBI.
The Bureau had arrested his son, Joseph Columbo, Jr., for melting silver coins down into silver ingots. So Columbo, Sr., created the Italian-American Civil Rights League to “combat prejudice against Italian-Americans.”
Columbo appeared at fundraisers and speaking engagements for the League, and gave interviews on talk-shows–such as the one hosted by Dick Cavett.
His message: There was no Mafia–only an FBI slander against decent, hard-working Italian-Americans.
And he sent hundreds of members of the League to picket the East Side offices of the FBI.
His actions generated a massive response from many law-abiding Italian-Americans who felt themselves the victims of prejudice.
During the 1950s and early 1960s Congress had held hearings on the Mafia, making Italian and Sicilian criminals like Vito Genovese and Albert Anastasia household words.
Even more enraging had been the depiction of Italians as the villains on the popular ABC TV series, “The Untouchables.” Each week, Eliot Ness and his squad of Treasury agents wiped out a new batch of Prohibition gangsters–who had Italian names like Al Capone and Frank Nitti.
On June 29, 1970, 150,000 people attended an Italian-American Unity Day rally in Columbus Circle in New York City. Several prominent entertainers and five members of the House of Representatives attended.
Under Colombo’s guidance, the League grew quickly and achieved national attention, establishing chapters in 17 states with over 50,000 members.
Shortly after the Columbus Circle rally, then-U.S. Attorney General John N. Mitchell banned the words “Mafia” and “Cosa Nostra” (“Our Thing”) from FBI and Justice Department press releases.
“There is nothing to be gained by using these terms,” said Mitchell, “except to give gratuitous offense to many good Americans of Italian-American descent.”
Seal of the Justice Department
In Albany, New York, then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller instructed the state police to likewise ban such terms.
And the Ford Motor Company, which sponsored the popular ABC-TV series, “The FBI,” also fell into line. While the Bureau’s real-life agents fought the Mafia, its fictionalized agents couldn’t say “Mafia” on TV.
In the spring of 1971, Paramount Pictures began started filming The Godfather, which was to become the most influential movie ever made about the Mafia.
Facing the threat of strikes and violence from the League, the film’s producer, Albert Ruddy, met with Columbo. Ruddy promised that “Mafia” and “Cosa Nostra” would not appear in a film in which almost every major character was a member of the Mafia.
TV’s “Mission: Impossible”–having moved from deposing overseas despots to stateside criminals–similarly referred to organized criminals as “The Syndicate.”
But Columbo was now facing increasing pressure from two sets of enemies.
The first was the FBI–whose agents seethed as they strode through League picket lines near their headquarters at Third Avenue and 69th Street. They were waging war on gangsters, and they resented being called liars and racists.
The second was the Mafia itself. Its older leaders knew there was an all-out Federal drive to destroy the organization. And they feared that Columbo’s in-your-face tactics were goading the FBI and other law enforcement agencies into greater efforts against them.
Of those older leaders, Carlo Gambino, boss of the largest and most powerful Mafia family in New York and the country, was the most important.
Gambino had set Columbo up in his own family in 1964. This after Columbo had raced to Gambino with the news that his own boss, Joseph Bonanno, planned to “whack” Don Carlo and the other four New York Mafia bosses and become the “boss of all bosses” himself.
Bonnano was thus deposed and sent into exile in Arizona, and Columbo found himself a new boss.
Gambino had always lived in the shadows. As Columbo built up the League, Gambino feared that the publicity and attacks on the FBI would rebound against himself and his brethren.
As the date–June 28, 1971–for the second Italian-American Unity Day rally approached, Gambino quietly put out the word: Stay away.
On that morning Columbo posed for photographers at the rally. Suddenly one of them–a black man–exchanged his camera for an automatic pistol and shot Columbo three times in the head and neck.
Joseph Columbo, after being shot
Seconds later, the shooter was covered by an avalanche of men–one of whom pumped three bullets into him.
The shooter was Jerome Johnson, an ex-con who was linked to mobster Joseph “Crazy Joe” Gallo. The NYPD and FBI believed that Gambino had given Gallo permission to whack Columbo. And that Gallo had used a black man as the ultimate insult to a man he had long hated.
Columbo remained in a vegetative state until May 22, 1978, when he died of cardiac arrest.
There was no third Italian-American Unity Day rally. And the Italian-American Civil Rights League died with Columbo.
Eventually, the Justice Department and FBI went back to using “Mafia” and “La Cosa Nostra.”
And when Francis Ford Coppola made The Godfather, Part II, in 1974, he inserted both words into a scene where Mafia boss Michael Corleone is interrogated by a Senate committee.
For the Mafia, at least, the era of Political Correctness was over.