Stjepan Mesaros, best known as Steve Nelson (1903–1993) was a Croatian-born American political activist. Nelson achieved public notoriety as the political commissar of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War and a leading functionary of the Communist Party, USA. Nelson is best remembered for having been prosecuted and convicted under the Smith Act in 1953.
Stjepan Mesaros ("Stephen Mesarosh") was born in Subocka, Croatia on January 1, 1903 of ethnic Hungarian extraction. The Communist Party of the United States would later claim he was born in Steelton, Pennsylvania.
Mesaros emigrated to the United States of America with his mother and three sisters 1919. He started working in a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania slaughterhouse and meat-packing plant. A succession of blue-collar jobs followed.
In 1923, by now using the Americanized name "Steve Nelson," he joined the youth section of the American Communist Party, the Young Workers League. He went on to join the adult Workers (Communist) Party in 1925. He met Margaret Yaeger, a typist in the Pittsburgh office of the Party. They married and went to Detroit in 1925, where he worked in the auto industry as an assembly line worker and union organizer. In 1928 the Nelsons moved to New York City. Nelson studied Marxism at the New York Workers School and afterwards, with the onset of the Great Depression, the Nelsons worked for the Communist Party full-time.
Nelson organized the International Unemployment Day demonstration on March 6, 1930, at which he, Joe Dallet and Oliver Law were beaten up and arrested. Two weeks he was among the 75,000 demonstrators to demand unemployment insurance. Nelson and his wife were sent to Moscow in 1931, he visited the International Lenin School for two years. He was a courier for the Communist International (Comintern), delivering documents and funds to Germany, Switzerland and China. On return to the United States in 1933, they settled in Wilkes-Barre.
In 1937 he immediately tried to join the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, but had to stay in Pennsylvania where he agitated coal miners. After the severe setback at Jarama, Nelson, Joe Dallet and 23 others were allowed to fight in Spain. At first arrested by the French, they reached Spain climbing the Pyrenees mountains and met the International Brigades at Albacete in May 1937.
Nelson started the war as political commissar of the Lincoln Battalion. After heavy loses at Brunete the Abraham Lincoln Battalion and the George Washington Battalion were merged into the Lincoln–Washington Battalion. Mirko Markovicz, a Yugoslav-American, was appointed as commander of the Lincoln–Washington Battalion and Nelson became his political commissar. In August 1937 the American forces were reorganized. Nelson was promoted to brigade commissar and Robert Hale Merriman became brigade chief of staff. Hans Amlie became commander of the Lincoln–Washington Battalion. In the fighting at Belchite, which started very bad, only two soldiers of twenty-two survived a first attempt to take the church of the town. Nelson then led his men in a successful diversionary attack and Amlie's men could enter the fortified town. Nelson was shot in the face and leg, Merriman and Amlie received head wounds. After recovering in Valencia, Nelson was given the task to escort prominent visitors like John Bernarddisambiguation needed, Dorothy Parker and Ernest Hemingway.
In the 1940s, Nelson rose to the top ranks of the communist party. After years on the West Coast, the Nelsons returned east, when he was elected to the National Board of the party. He settled in Pittsburgh as District Secretary of Western Pennsylvania.
In August 1950, after 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.
Nelson initially received a 20-year prison sentence, $10,000 in fines and $13,000 in prosecution costs. He was jailed in Pittsburgh for seven months and then released on bail pending his appeal. In 1953 he and five others were indicted under the Federal Smith Act. This time the fine was 5 years and $10,000. All six were granted bail.
In 1956 in Pennsylvania v. Nelson, the United States Supreme Court overturned the Pennsylvania Sedition Act, saying that the Federal Smith Act superseded this and all similar state laws.
In the same year testimony at the first trial was found to have been perjured and a new trial was granted. In 1957 the government dropped all charges against the defendants.
In 1975 he retired with his wife of 60 years to a home he had built in Truro, Massachusetts on Cape Cod.
Death and legacy
Nelson died in December 1993 at the age of 90.
- Americans Battling Communism
- Foley Square trial
- Cecil Eby, Comrades and Commissars: The Lincoln Battalion in the Spanish Civil War. University Park: Penn State University Press, 2007; pp. 141–142.
- Pennsylvania -v- Nelson, 350 U.S. 497 (1956)
- Eby, Comrades and Commissars, pg. 435.
- The Volunteers: A Personal Narrative of the Fight Against Fascism in Spain. New York: Masses and Mainstream, 1953.
- The 13th Juror: The Inside Story of My Trial. New York: Masses and Mainstream, 1955.
- Cecil Eby, Comrades and Commissars: The Lincoln Battalion in the Spanish Civil War. University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2007.
- Steve Nelson, James R. Barrett, and Rob Ruck, Steve Nelson, American Radical. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1981.
- Historical/Biographical Note, Steve Nelson Papers, Tamiment Library
- Pennsylvania -v- Nelson, 350 U.S. 497 (1956)
- Mesarosh -v- United States, 352 U.S. 808 (1956)
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