A state Supreme Court justice, novelist and strident anti-Communist, Michael A. Musmanno may be one of the most complicated figures in Pittsburgh history. He was a defender of executed anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti who became Pittsburgh's answer to Red-baiter Joe McCarthy. He spared people the horrors of living under communism in Europe, but he exposed people to the excesses of anti-communism at home.
Among the first of Musmanno's many causes was his defense of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two Italian immigrants convicted of involvement in a 1919 bomb plot. Musmanno assisted in the fruitless efforts to appeal the conviction, which was based on shaky evidence and, Musmanno suspected, anti-Italian bigotry. The men were executed, but the case established two key interests for Musmanno: a defense of his Italian heritage, and a sympathy for the working class. Musmanno became an ardent defender of Christopher Columbus' claims to have discovered the New World, and he wrote books celebrating the heritage of Italian Americans. As a state representative, he also took up the noble cause of disbanding the state's notorious Coal and Iron Police, a cadre of union-busting thugs employed by corporations but given state sanction. The death of a miner at the hands of police even prompted Musmanno to write a novel titled Black Fury, which was later made into a movie.
Even a partial list of the items on file at Duquesne suggests the scope of Musmanno's activities. The archives include:
-- Documents related to Musmanno's activities trying Nazis as a judge in the Nuremberg trials, and his investigations verifying Adolf Hitler's death
-- Papers detailing Musmanno's efforts to loosen the state's "Blue Laws," which prevented business and cultural activities from being conducted on Sundays
-- Drafts and other materials related to Musmanno's numerous books, which included titles like That's My Opinion and Verdict! The Adventures of the Young Lawyer in the Brown Suit.
-- Records of Musmanno's work on the Board of Soviet Repatriation, where he often fought successfully against attempts to return postwar refugees to communist countries.
That noble legacy has a darker side, however. As with many postwar politicians, his reputation among labor activists was tarnished by excesses fighting communism.
Musmanno was the unofficial spokesman for Americans Battling Communism, a powerful but shadowy group of local business and political leaders. And he helped turn Pittsburgh into what one observer called "that Mecca of the [anti-communist] inquisition."
The high (or low) point came in 1950, when Musmanno played a key role in convicting Communist Party organizer Steve Nelson of sedition. As Musmanno wrote in his book Across the Street from the Courthouse, the fiasco began when Musmanno paid $5.75 for Marxist-Leninist tracts from a Communist bookstore, which Musmanno insisted was "the equivalent of an advance post of the Red Army." The resulting trial was a circus: Musmanno appointed the judge presiding over the trial and then testified for the prosecution, while Nelson had to act as his own lawyer after "one night's study of The Art of Cross-Examination," as he recalled in his biography.
In his book The Cold War at Home, historian Philip Jenkins argues "[t]he charges themselves were questionable," since the Communists were merely selling books anyone could get at the local library. Nelson was convicted anyway, and while those convictions were overturned, Jenkins notes that while "Party leaders were facing long prison terms ... Musmanno was [elected to] the state supreme court."
Was Musmanno a politician with an anti-communist agenda, or an anti-communist with a political agenda? Even Nelson acknowledged Musmanno "was not an easy man to figure out," though he "would do almost anything for a chance to get his name in the paper."
For his part, Jenkins notes Musmanno's "pro-labor credentials were wonderful" and credits him for "attract[ing] the ire of the far Right when he supported civil rights marchers." And he notes that as Catholics in Eastern Europe fell under communism's sway, Catholics like Musmanno "had powerful and multifaceted reasons for opposing communism." So too did Democrats and many labor advocates, who'd come under fire from Republicans for being soft on communism. "Democratic anti-Communism was a matter of self-preservation," Jenkins writes, and the same was true of Musmanno, even if there "is no adequate excuse for the hysteria of those years." Musmanno was a singular figure, but also an emblem for his time.
He died in 1968. On Columbus Day.