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Oliver Law

Oliver is another interesting character from the Spanish Civil War as he was the first African American combat military commander (I’m sure there will be someone who will dispute this) but also because like Robert Merriman there are various tales of his abilities and even how he met his death.
oliver law.jpgBorn in Texas in 1899 he served as a young man in the US Army during WW1 (24th Infantry – rising to corporal – the maximum rank that could be achieved by a Negro). Post war he had several jobs and moved to Chicago.
By 1930 he was a member of the communist party and very active in fighting the unemployment of the Great Depression. Other activists in Chicago included Steve Nelson and Joe Dallet both strong figures in the Spanish Civil war on the side of the Republic. He also became involved in the anti-fascist demonstrations against Mussolini and the invasion of Ethiopia. He married Corrine Lightfoot the sister of a fellow Chicago communist Claude Lightfoot.
In 1936 he volunteered to fight in Spain and joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, making his way to Albacete in early 1937 where the International Brigade was forming.
During Feb 1937 he took part in the battle for Jarama and did so well he was quickly promoted to company commander and then later to battalion commander. In July he was killed in battle at Brunette.
His grave post read – ‘Oliver Law, the first negro to command American white soldiers’. Blackpast.org

So why is Oliver Law important?
He was in many ways ahead of his time and seems to have succeeded against the prejudices of the early 20th century. In my opinion there is a case for saying he should be viewed as heroic, a fighter against social injustice and one of the first black civil rights leaders.

  1. As an unemployment activist he fought for workers of all colours. During the early 1930’s he was targeted by police as he helped organise the unemployed.
  2. As an African American he commanded a battalion of racially integrated fellow countrymen. In fact the Abraham Lincoln Brigade were part of an International Brigade that was made up of volunteers from 55 countries incorporating every colour and race and from every economic background – at least 80 were African Americans. Remember this was a time when the US Army was strictly segregated and lynching’s common in southern states.
  3. As an African American communist he had to be double determined to succeed amid the increasing popularity of right wing politics, fascism and racial pressures.

To put things in proportion
‘I would have been among the first group (to sail for Spain in 1936) had I not been born in the racist state of Mississippi, they didn’t give birth certificates to black people those days so I was delayed’.  James Yates ALB
‘Spain was the first place I felt like a free man. Leaving Spain was one of the saddest days of my life. Just the thought of going back to Jim Crow America made me sick! Like me you realised that after Spain our struggle was at home, just as it was before we sailed for Europe’. Thomas Page ALB – Workers World Newspaper

How was he viewed at the time?

Paul Robeson wanted to make a film of Law’s life but got nowhere, he said ‘the same money interests that block every effort to help Spain control the motion picture industry, and so refuse to allow such a story.’ Spartacus.
It was reported in the press that he died a hero leading his men from the front in an attack on Mosquito ridge at Brunette.

What has happened since then?

It has been suggested that Law was in fact killed by his own men. William Herrick (an author of 9 books and ex ALB in Spain) says he was murdered because ‘his men objected to being lead by a black man.’
In my opinion Herrick has a vested interest in creating controversy – firstly to sell books and secondly although an ALB vet and communist he is very bitter about Stalinism and how it influenced the International Brigade (more later).
Additionally there are reports that Law was a coward, inept and had been found hiding in a shack during battle.

Others maintain Law died as a result of wounds inflicted by Franco’s Nationalists.

‘Died from a bullet to the chest whilst advancing.’ Harry Fisher 

‘He was killed by Nationalists.’ Dave Smith, medic who attended to him

Is there anything behind this?

The International Brigade depended on financial aid & weapons from Russia. Stalin realised it was to his advantage to support a possible ally in southern Europe but he did not want a popular uprising. Time has shown that there was a coordinated plan to politically influence the brigades and the government. Key personnel infiltrated important positions to further Russian Communist ideology rather than fully support the Spanish Republican government.
It is possible that brigade appointments were political appointments and any military skills were secondary. In this case Oliver Law may have become commander because he was an approved person.
Post war many ABL veterans were horrified by the Russian/German pact and turned against Stalin. They felt betrayed and realised the influence of the political commissars had been nothing more than dishonest. Herrick believed the International Brigade were Stalin’s puppets and many had died needlessly because of political intrigue.   See International Brigade


Any Information on Oliver Law would be appreciated.