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Steve Nelson

Biography

Steve Nelson and Harry Belafonte


Nelson, Steve. (Mesaros, Stevan; Fleischinger, Joseph), b. December 26, 1903, Subocka, Croatia (then part of Austria Hungary) To US mid July 1920; Croatian American; Education through 5th grade; Married; Party organizer, carpenter and auto worker; CP 1923 (1925), Attended Lenin Institute; Undertook missions to China and India for the Comintern; received passport# 132635 on August 14, 1931 which listed his address as 854 Spring Garden Street, Pittsburg, Pennsylvania; Sailed March 10, 1937 aboard the Queen Mary; Arrested aboard a fishing trawler by French non-intervention forces, jailed with Dallet’s group; Served with the XV BDE, Lincoln Battalion, BN Commissar; Lincoln-Washington BN, BN Commissar, Jarama, Brunete, briefly commanded the BN at Brunete after the death of Law; Promoted to BDE Commissar, served at Quinto, WIA in Belchite, Dave Doran took over as BDE Commissar; Returned to the US on November 9, 1937 aboard the Aquitania; WWII civilian; d. November 1993.

Source: Sail, SACB, ALBA 08 Steve Nelson Papers; South Slav, Good Fight B, C, H, K, and Z; Harriman, Steve Nelson, The Volunteer, New York: Masses & Mainstream, 1953; Steve Nelson, James R. Barrett and Rob Ruck, American Radical., Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1981.; Steve Nelson, The 13th Juror: The Inside Story of My Trial, New York: Masses & Mainstream, 1955.

Photograph: Steve Nelson shortly after his return from Spain, ALBA/VALB.

 

Biography

Steve Nelson with Harry Belafonte  Steve Nelson was born Stjepan Mesaroš in the small farming village of Subocka, Croatia in 1903. By age eight Nelson had been trained by his grandfather to operate and repair the family-run mill. He received only five years of formal education. Following World War I, Nelson along with his mother and three sisters immigrated to the United States and joined an extended family of uncles, aunts, and cousins in an ethnically diverse, working-class neighborhood of Philadelphia.

His first job was in a local slaughterhouse and meat-packing plant. There followed a succession of blue-collar jobs -- laboring in machine shops, auto plants and metal works. In time Nelson found work as a carpenter, a trade that would sustain him throughout his life. Workers in the shops who introduced him to socialist ideology and writings initiated his political education. Impressed by the Communist Party's efforts to organize trade unions and improve the lot of workers, Nelson joined the Young Workers League (later called the Young Communist League) in 1923. He soon began working as a union organizer distributing shop newspapers and visiting the coal region of Pennsylvania to meet fellow Croatians who were laboring in the hazardous anthracite mines.

He moved to Pittsburgh in search of work and there met Margaret Yaeger, the woman who was to become his wife. Yaeger came from a family rooted in radical labor politics. As a young girl Yaeger took part in the 1916 Pittsburgh Westinghouse strike, distributing lemonade to the striking workers, and as a high school student she organized a Marxist study group. Nelson and Yaeger met in the office of the local Communist Party where she worked as a typist. Diffident and self-conscious of his accented English and limited verbal ability, Nelson developed his language skills with Yaeger's encouragement and at her prompting began to assume more leadership responsibilities within the Party.

The two married and moved to Detroit in 1925. Nelson found employment in the auto industry as an assembly line worker and union organizer. In 1928 the couple moved to New York City where Nelson studied Marxist theory and history at the New York Workers' School. With the onset of the Great Depression, the Nelsons were on the move again working full time for the Party. They organized the unemployed in Chicago and coal miners in Southern Illinois, before returning to the coalfields of Eastern Pennsylvania. These years were marked by rapid growth within the Communist Party and over the next two decades Nelson's career as party leader advanced with the Party's fortunes.

In 1931 the couple was sent to Moscow and Nelson spent two years at the Lenin School studying Party doctrine and serving as a courier for the Communist International (Comintern) delivering documents and funds to the Communist parties in Germany, Switzerland and China. In 1933 they returned to the United States, settling in Wilkes-Barre, and Nelson resumed activist work among the anthracite miners of Pennsylvania.

With the outbreak of civil war in Spain, the Comintern recruited thousands of international volunteers to fight against Franco's Fascist uprising and in 1937 Nelson joined these forces. He embarked from New York on the Queen Maryin March and traveled to Spain via France. Near the Spanish border, he and two-dozen fellow volunteers were detained and imprisoned in Perpignan by French authorities for violating their travel visas by attempting to cross the French border into Spain. France, like the United States and their European allies, had pledged neutrality in the Spanish Civil War and banned all travel to the riven nation. Released after serving a three-week sentence, Nelson and the other men made their way over the Pyrenees Mountains to join the International Brigades.

Nelson served as a political commissar in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, mustering morale and politically educating recruits. Oliver Law - considered the first African-American to command an integrated military unit and Nelson's former activist colleague from Chicago -- served as the unit's commander. At the end of July, during the Brunete offensive, the Lincolns came under heavy attack and Law was mortally wounded, leaving Nelson in command of the Battalion. On the basis of his performance at Brunete, Nelson was promoted to Political Commissar of the Fifteenth Brigade. In this capacity he was present at the battles of Quinto and Belchite. In the latter conflict he was wounded and, after a period of convalescence, was recalled to the United States by U.S. Communist Party leader Earl Browder to report on Spain at the Party's National Committee meeting held in New York City in November 1937. From there he spent the next months on a national speaking tour raising funds on behalf of the Loyalists.

During the 1940s, Nelson rose to the top ranks of the Communist Party. He was assigned to the West Coast as a party organizer and later served as the chairman of the San Francisco branch. It was during these years that the Nelsons' children, Josephine and Robert, were born. With his election to the Party's National Board the family returned east, and, within a few years, settled in Pittsburgh when Nelson was appointed District Secretary of Western Pennsylvania.

With the advent of the McCarthy era Nelson's prominence within the Party made him a target of rising anti-communist reaction. In August 1950, following a raid on the Pittsburgh Party Headquarters, Nelson and two local party leaders were arrested and charged under the 1919 Pennsylvania Sedition Act for attempting to overthrow the state and federal government. Fearful of being tainted by charges of communism, no local attorney would accept the case, and Nelson was forced to serve as his own counsel. With professional FBI informant Matt Cvetic serving as witness for the prosecution, the case drew widespread media attention. Nelson was convicted, fined $10,000 and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

After serving seven months in the Allegheny County Prison, he was released on $20,000 bail pending his appeal. Concurrent with the Pennsylvania Sedition case, Nelson and five co-defendants were indicted in 1953 under the Federal Smith Act. All six men were found guilty and each sentenced to 5 years and fined $10,000. Nelson and the others were granted bail pending their appeals. In the intervening period Nelson wrote about his experiences in Spain (The Volunteers) and his Pennsylvania sedition trial and imprisonment (The Thirteenth Juror). The modest proceeds from both books and contributions from friends and organizations helped sustain him and his family during these years.

In 1956 in Pennsylvania v. Nelson, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Pennsylvania Sedition Act. The court ruled that the enactment of the Federal Smith Act superseded the enforceability of the Pennsylvania Sedition Act and all similar state laws. In the same year the Supreme Court granted Nelson and the other five defendants in the Smith Act case a new trial on the grounds that testimony had been perjured in the earlier case. By the beginning of 1957 the Government decided to drop all charges, bringing six years of legal battles to an end.

In 1957 Nelson left the Communist Party following Khrushchev's revelations of the atrocities that occurred under Stalin's regime. His withdrawal from the Party cost him friendships that had been forged over long years. Disenfranchised from the organization that had formed the nucleus of his professional and personal life and made notorious by the protracted sedition trials, Nelson was unable to secure steady employment. With his family he left Pittsburgh and moved to New York where he spent the next years trying to eke out a living as a carpenter and a cabinetmaker.

In 1963 Nelson became the National Commander of the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (VALB), an organization established during the Spanish Civil War to aid returning veterans and promote the ongoing fight against fascism. For the next forty years he guided the organization through an era of activism. Among the achievements of these years was the removal of VALB from the Attorney General's list of subversive organizations and the advancement of aid to political prisoners in Spain. VALB also took part in protests against the Vietnam War and provided aid to the Sandinistas in Nicaragua in the form of ambulances and medical assistance. In 1975 VALB helped to establish the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives (ALBA) in order to preserve and advance the history of American participation in the Spanish Civil War. In 1978, two years after Franco's death, Nelson in the company of his fellow veterans, returned to Spain for the first time in 40 years.

With his wife, he retired to a home that he had built in Truro, Cape Cod in 1975 and in 1981 he published his autobiography, Steve Nelson: American Radical. In the final decade of his life he remained committed to VALB, participating in educational programs that took him to high schools and universities to lecture on the contributions of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and their fight against fascism. On December 11, 1993, Steve Nelson died. He was 90 years old.

- Biography courtesty of Tamiment Library, NYU.  

 

 

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Last Name Nelson
First/Middle Name Steve
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