Many people in Puerto Rico consider Harvard-educated Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos the father of the Puerto Rican Independence Movement. Following the conclusion of the Spanish American War (1898) Puerto Rico became a territory of the United States. Albizu Campos spent most of his life, from 1924 to his death in 1965, fighting to make Puerto Rico an independent nation. For his activities he spent much of this life in prison, both in the United State and Puerto Rico.
Pedro Albizu Campos was born in Ponce, Puerto Rico on September 12, 1891 (an alternate date often given for his birth is June 29, 1893) to Alejandro Albizu and Juana Campos. In the Latin American tradition he adopted the surname of his father and mother, thus Albizu Campos.
When he was nineteen years he won a scholarship to study Engineering at the University of Vermont. A year later, in 1913, he applied and was accepted to Harvard University.
When World War I broke out Albizu Campos enlisted in the U.S. Army where he served from 1914 to 1919 where he rose to the rank of Second Lieutenant. He was stationed for a time in Ponce, Puerto Rico, and then assigned to the all-Black 375th Regiment as were many Puerto Ricans who, like Albizu Campos, were of African descent. Following the war, Albizu Campos returned to Harvard from which he graduated in 1921, although it was not until 1922 that he received his law degree. Also in 1922, he married Dr. Laura Meneses whom he had met while at Harvard.
In 1924 be began practicing labor law in his home town of Ponce, Puerto Rico. He soon became actively involved in the movement for Puerto Rican independence. At the time Puerto Rico was a territory of the United States, an outcome of the Spanish American War, and the Independence Movement called for the creation of a free and sovereign Puerto Rican nation. In 1924, Albizu Campos was elected Vice-President of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party which had been created in 1922 and whose President was Jose Coll y Chuchí. During the period of 1924 through 1930, Albizu Campos dedicated himself to raising solidarity and funds for the cause of Puerto Rican Independence, traveling to such countries as Haiti, Cuba, Mexico, Panama, Peru and Venezuela.
In 1930 a split in the Nationalist Party occurred. Jose Coll y Chuchí left the organization and Albizu Campos was elected to the presidency. Under his leadership the organization took a decidedly more militant stance, preparing for the 1932 national elections under the slogan of “La Patria Es Valor y Sacrificio” (The Fatherland is Valor and Sacrifice.) The Nationalist Party’s failure to win wide support in the 1932 elections led to more confrontational actions, including a strike against the Puerto Rico Railway and Light and Power Company.
In 1935, the police killed of four Nationalists at the University of Puerto Ricon at Rio Piedras. This provoked other nationalists, Elias Beauchamp and Hiram Rosado, to assassinate the police commander who had been in charge of the student killings.
The assassination sent shock waves throughout Puerto Rico and the United States and within a short time Albizu Campos and other nationalist leaders were arrested and charged with sedition against the United States government on the island. After a controversial trial in which Albizu Campos was at first acquitted and then, when a second trial was imposed, finally convicted of sedition, he was sentenced to the Federal Prison at Atlanta, Georgia.
Albizu Campos spent ten years in prison, the first seven in Atlanta, Georgia where he became dangerously ill and was then moved to a hospital in New York where he remained until the end of his sentence. In 1947, on release from prison, Albizu Campos returned to Puerto Rico and resumed his actions with the Nationalist Party. In an effort to suppress the Nationalist Movement, the government passed Law 53, “La Ley de la Mordaza” (The Gag Law). This law laid our the following prohibitions: the display of the Puerto Rican flag, the singing of patriotic songs and any discussion of Puerto Rican Independence.
Pushed to the brink, from 1949 to 1950 the party actively planned for an armed revolt against the U.S. occupation of the island. By staging an armed revolt, the nationalists hoped the United Nations would recognize the Nationalist Party as a valid national liberation movement from a colonial power (the United States).
In October of 1950, uprisings promoted by the Nationalist Party erupted in cities and towns throughout the island. The most successful of these uprisings took place in the towns of Jayuya (led by 24-year-old Blanca Canales) and Utuado and an attack on the governor’s mansion in San Juan.
At Utuado, nine nationalists who had surrendered to police were taken behind the police headquarters and summarily machine-gunned without a trial, an event that became known as the “Utuado Massacre.”
Following the October uprisings, the government declared Martial Law and Albizu Campos and other nationalist leaders were arrested. The sedition case against Albizu Campos was based on speeches he had delivered espousing Puerto Rican Independence. Using Law 53 as a basis, the government sentenced Albizu Campos to eighty years in prison. In 1953, Luis Munoz Marin, the governor of Puerto Rico, pardoned Albizu Campos but his freedom was short-lived. In 1954, a group of four armed Puerto Rican nationalists, led by Lolita Lebrón, attacked in the gallery of the Capital Building in Washington D.C. wounding five Congressional Representatives. Albizu Campos was presumed to have been involved in the planning and his pardon was rescinded.
Albizu Campos returned to prison. In 1956 he suffered a stroke. He was transferred to San Juan’s Presbyterian Hospital where he later complained that he was being illegally irradiated with x-rays by doctors there. Though hospital authorities denied the claim, subsequent examination by the President of the Cuban Cancer Association confirmed that Albizu Campos had indeed suffered from intensive doses of radiation. Governor Luis Munoz Marin pardoned Albizu Campos again in November of 1964 and he was allowed to return home. He died on April 21, 1965.
Since his death schools, streets and civic buildings have been named in his honor in Puerto Rico, New York, Chicago and other cities. He is buried in the Old San Juan cemetery.