Steve Nelson Papers
Language of Materials
Steve Nelson (1903-1993) was a labor activist and organizer, former Communist Party official, Political Commissar in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, and National Commander of the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (VALB). In the 1950s Nelson was convicted and imprisoned under the Pennsylvania Sedition Act and the Federal Smith Act. In 1957 he left the Communist Party following Khrushchev's revelations of the atrocities that occurred under Stalin's regime. Nelson authored two memoirs and an autobiography. Nelson's papers reflect his political and personal activities including his participation in the Spanish Civil War, his six years of sedition trials and appeals, his writings, and his activities with VALB. His papers also include correspondence with friends and colleagues, which reflect the close interconnection between Nelson's political and personal lives.
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.
Steve Nelson, James R. Barrett and Rob Ruck, Steve Nelson, 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).Steve Nelson, The Volunteers(New York: Masses & Mainstream, 1953).
Series I is arranged alphabetically. Series II is arranged alphabetically by correspondent, with unidentified correspondence arranged chronologically at the end of the series. Series III is arranged alphabetically by subject. Series IV consists of two sections: the legal proceedings are arranged chronologically, followed by subject files, which are arranged alphabetically. Series V is arranged in two sections: materials related to Nelson's three books are arranged alphabetically by title followed by additional writings arranged alphabetically by genre (i.e. articles, essays, speeches). Series VI is arranged alphabetically by subject.
The files are grouped into 6 series:
- I. Spanish Civil War Materials
- II. General Correspondence
- III. Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade
- IV. Trials & Imprisonment
- V. Writings
- VI. Subject Files
Scope and Content Note
Series I, Spanish Civil War, 1937-1938. Included are incoming and outgoing correspondence and other materials that relate to Nelson's activities in France and Spain, and his national speaking tour shortly after his return to the United States. Among the correspondence is a letter received by Nelson in the hospital while he convalesced from his wounds signed by over 60 members of the MacKenzie-Papineau battalion; a letter from Joseph Dougher (an organizer in the anthracite mines of Pennsylvania who went to Spain with Nelson) written on a leaflet from the Socorro Rojo International (the International Red Aid); and a note from Canadian author Ted Allan jotted on the back of a Christmas greeting card from the Friends of the MacKenzie-Papineau battalion.
Twenty-five letters (photocopies) written by Nelson to his wife Margaret can also be found in this series. These letters document Nelson's views on the political scene in Paris; his imprisonment in Perpignan; reports on the devastation of cities and villages of Spain; and his great regard for the volunteer forces. Throughout he remains guarded on revealing details of military campaigns and minimizes the extent of his wounds. A small portion of these letters were written after his return to the United States and cover his movements during his speaking tour rallying support for Republican Spain. Other notable materials are Nelson's battle citations; annotated maps of battle campaigns; and background notes on the Spanish politics jotted in his capacity of political commissar.
Series II, General Correspondence, 1952-1991, consists of Nelson's incoming and outgoing correspondence as well as third party letters forwarded to Nelson. These letters reflect the close interconnection between Nelson's political and personal life. Nowhere is this more evident than in Nelson's correspondence with Abraham Lincoln Brigade veterans. In his capacity as National Commander of VALB many of Nelson's fellow volunteers wrote to him directly on both private and organizational matters; mail was also forwarded to Nelson from the VALB office. There are also letters from a range of political figures, writers, historians, and trade union workers who maintained their friendships with Nelson from his years as an organizer. Notable correspondents include: Howard Fast, who corresponded with Nelson during the 6 years of trials and imprisonment; Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, one of the few CP colleagues who did not sever contact with Nelson after he left the Party; Joseph North offering extensive advice on writing the The Thirteenth Juror; Benjamin J. Davis, offering praise and criticism on this work; and journalist and cartoonist Robert Minor, who wrote regularly during Nelson's seven-month imprisonment. Of particular interest is a hand-written letter (in Spanish) to Nelson from Spanish Communist leader Dolores Ibarruri.
The preponderance of the material is from VALB members who formed the core of his colleagues and friends during the last forty years of his life. Among the VALB members who corresponded with Nelson regularly are: Bill Bailey, Alvah Bessie, Robert Colody, Moe Fishman, Carl Geiser, Manny Harriman, Fredericka Martin, Abe Osheroff, Albert Prago, Abe Smorodin, Irving Weissman, Saul Wellman, and Milton Wolff. There is also extensive correspondence from Fredericka Martin who volunteered as a nurse in the Spanish Civil War. Also in this series is correspondence between Nelson and historians James Barrett and Robert Ruck (who transcribed and edited Steve Nelson: American Radical); Rosalyn Baxandall; Cedric Belfrage; Vivian Gornick; Howard Zinn; and a letter from Michael Meeropol (son of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg) apologizing for a mischaracterization of Nelson's behavior during the Rosenberg Trials.
Series III, Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, 1950-1991 (bulk 1975-1987). These papers document the major activities of VALB during the 1970s and 80s and consist of general records pertaining to national conferences, anniversary celebrations, and elections. Also included are minutes of board and committee meetings, general correspondence, the organization's constitution and bylaws, and promotional material on the documentary "The Good Fight: the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War."
Notable are manuscripts by Bill Bailey, Alvah Bessie, Arthur Landis, Norman Dorland, and Herbert Burton related to American participation in the Spanish Civil War; transcriptions of Spanish Civil War era letters written by African-American volunteer Canute Frankson; documents concerning the death of Oliver Law; guidelines for countering questions pertaining to George Orwell and the Spanish Civil War; correspondence related to VALB's support of Nelson during his trials and imprisonment; and the establishment of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives (ALBA).
VALB's activism is well represented in the files relating to topics that preoccupied the membership, including the protest against the establishment of U.S. military air bases in Spain (Madrid Pact); the campaign to solicit support for the Nicaragua Ambulance Fund; and a birthday tribute for Nelson which raised close to $15,000 to aid political prisoners in Spain. Also of interest are clippings, travel materials, and correspondence related to veterans' trips to Spain; and the unveiling of the International Brigade monument in Barcelona.
Series IV, Trials and Imprisonment, 1951-1955, consists of court records of Nelson's sedition and Smith Act trials. The material contains a full transcript of the sedition trial, in which Nelson served as his own counsel, along with the notes he took in preparation for the trial, and a draft of the appeal in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, written by National Lawyers Guild attorney Victor Rabinowitz. This series also includes incoming and outgoing correspondence from these years, much of which deals with Nelson's defense and his attempts to secure legal counsel. In addition to regular communication from the Civil Rights Congress and Rabinowitz, Nelson was also the recipient of letters of support from friends and admirers. Among the correspondence is a scattering of postcards from Nelson's young son and daughter. Also in this series are leaflets and letters for public appeals campaigns on behalf of Nelson and other Smith Act defendants who were being tried and imprisoned.
Series V, Writings, 1953-1988 (bulk 1977-1984), contains drafts and promotional materials for Nelson's three books: Steve Nelson: American Radical, The Thirteenth Juror, and The Volunteers. Much of it pertains to the preparation of Steve Nelson: American Radicaland includes transcriptions of taped interviews of Nelson conducted by co-authors James Barrett and Robert Ruck, as well as promotional materials and reviews. [Note: Correspondence from Barrett and Ruck is located in Series II, filed by correspondent.] Publication and promotional materials for Nelson's other books are also located here and include brochures and original book jackets for The Thirteenth Juror. Of particular note among the other writings is an essay titled "Leaving the Party" about Nelson's decision to resign from the Communist Party.
Series VI, Subject Files, 1937-1990 (bulk 1975-1987). Among the notable material in this series is a portion of Nelson's Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) records, which include correspondence between Nelson and the Department of Justice and the Central Intelligence Agency; pamphlets, handbills and other material related to other sedition trial defendants including Harry Bridges and James Dolsen; information on the International Brigades arranged by country; biographical material on Jack Shirai, a Japanese volunteer in the International Brigades; writings of friends and colleagues including Carl Marzani's unpublished manuscript on Orwell; program notes and papers related to a symposium on Malraux and Hemingway; clippings on Nelson; and transcriptions of oral histories with Nelson that are not associated with Steve Nelson: American Radical. These files also include extensive material on Spanish politics, poems and clippings on the Spanish Civil War, and clippings on individual veterans. Of particular interest is a 1937 souvenir program commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Soviet Union, which pictures Nelson on the cover, and a series of poems inspired by Steve Nelson including efforts by Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Howard Fast.
Materials are open to researchers. Please contact the Tamiment Library & Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives for more information and to schedule an appointment, firstname.lastname@example.org or 212-998-2630.
Any rights (including copyright and related rights to publicity and privacy) held by the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives (ALBA), were transferred to New York University in November 2000 by the ALBA Board of Governors. Permission to publish or reproduce materials in this collection must be secured from the Tamiment Library & Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives. For more information, contact email@example.com or 212-998-2630.
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Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives
Elmer Holmes Bobst Library
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New York, NY 10012, New York University Libraries.
The Steve Nelson Papers were donated to Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives in 1991 by Steve Nelson. This collection came to New York University in January 2001 as part of the original acquisition of ALBA collections, formerly housed at Brandeis University.
Photographs from the Steve Nelson Papers have been transferred to the non-print section of the ALBA collection in the Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives.