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The group began as the Italian American Anti-Defamation League on April 30, 1970, when approximately 30 Italian-Americans, led by mobster Joseph Colombo, picketed the Manhattan headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. They were there to protest the recent arrest of Colombo's son, Joseph Colombo Jr., on a charge of conspiracy to melt down old U.S. silver coins (the mintage of which had ceased five years earlier) into ingots. (The charge was later dismissed when the chief witness against the junior Colombo admitted to having committed perjury). Prior to this, the senior Colombo had complained of unfair harassment of him and his family by various federal law-enforcement authorities, who alleged that Colombo was the boss of one of New York City's five Mafia families — a charge he repeatedly denied.
The 30 demonstrators who appeared at the FBI building were joined by others in successive days, and ultimately their number grew to more than 5,000. The group then adopted the name "Italian-American Civil Rights League" after Colombo's attorney, Barry Slotnick, had suggested it. A logo, consisting of the numeral "1" superimposed upon a map of the United States, with the organization's name encircling it, was then devised. The logo invoked Christopher Columbus, the famous Italian explorer who opened the Americas up to European colonization.
Within two months, the organization claimed 45,000 dues-paying members, and held a large rally in Columbus Circle on June 28, 1970. The league gained further momentum when Frank Sinatra held a benefit concert in its honor at Madison Square Garden in November of that year.
The group then turned its attention to what it perceived as cultural slights against Italian-Americans, using boycott threats to force Alka-Seltzer and The Ford Motor Company to withdraw television commercials the league objected to, and also got United States Attorney General John Mitchell to order the United States Justice Department to stop using the word "Mafia" in official documents and press releases. The league also secured an agreement from Al Ruddy, the producer of The Godfather, to omit the terms "Mafia" and "Cosa Nostra" from the film's dialogue, and succeeded in having Macy's stop selling a board game called The Godfather Game.
In the spring of 1971, the IACRL announced that it had purchased land for use as a summer camp, known as Camp Unity, in upstate Rosendale, New York. The camp covered 250 acres (1.0 km2) and was open to all underprivileged New York City youth, regardless of ethnic background.
On June 28, 1971, the league held another rally in Columbus Circle. At the rally, Colombo was shot three times in the head by an African-American named Jerome Johnson (who was then immediately shot and killed himself); the blast left Colombo in a coma from which he would never recover (he died on May 22, 1978). Theories abounded as to the motive for the shooting; the most commonly-held belief was that other Mafia bosses in New York ordered the hit because they did not like the media attention Colombo and the group were receiving. The organization, at that time believed to number more than 100,000, had effectively disappeared within a year after the shooting.
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The IACRL boycotted the Ford Motor Company because of its sponsorship of the television show The F.B.I. and its negative references to Italian-Americans as gangsters. Alka Seltzer was boycotted for its "Dat's a Spicy Meatball" ad campaign.
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