A Forgotten Man of Principle: The Life of Oliver Law

 /  March 25, 2015, 3:37 p.m.


Above: Law with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in Spain || Courtesy of the New York University Library Tamiment Collection

A black war hero is a rare sight in American cinema. Even when one does appear, he or she is almost never in the leading role. From Jim Brown’s memorable turn in The Dirty Dozen to Cory Hardrict’s Navy Seal, ‘D’, in American Sniper, black soldiers are often relegated to the role of stoic companion or splash of diversity in an otherwise homogenous unit. Recently, George Lucas spoke of the difficulty in funding Red Tails, his 2012 movie about the all-black Tuskegee Airmen during World War II. This has always been a tragic reality of the Hollywood system, one that robbed us of what might have been one of the greatest war movies ever made.

First proposed in 1937, this movie would have covered the life of Oliver Law, the first black commander of a mixed-race US military unit. Law rose from an unremarkable beginning in West Texas to become a community organizer on Chicago’s South Side, then to a brief but heroic command in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade during the Spanish Civil War. Though little remembered now, the performance of Law’s life story attracted the talents of famed African American actor Paul Robeson, and even the screenwriting talents of Ernest Hemingway.

Born on October 23, 1900, Law left few records during his childhood and adolescence. He first became known to history when he decided to join the 24th Infantry Regiment of the still-segregated United States Army in 1919. His enlistment came at a taut time in the 24th  Regiment’s history. Only two years before, in August 1917, over one hundred of its members had mutinied in Houston, during a race riot over abusive treatment by local law enforcement. Several white civilians and policemen were killed, along with a lesser number of black soldiers. In the ensuing months, 110 of the regiment’s members were convicted of mutiny, and nineteen were executed. Against this background of discontent and tension, Oliver Law would go on to serve six uneventful years on the Mexican border with the unit before leaving the military in search of civilian work. It was 1925, and difficult times lay ahead for both Law and the country.

After a few unhappy years working at a cement factory in Indiana, Law found himself in Chicago in search of lasting employment. Just as he seemed to have found a source of steady money, as a driver with the Yellow Cab Company, the Great Depression hit. Extended periods of unemployment were interrupted only briefly by jobs in the docks and in restaurants. It was during this period that Law emerged as a social and political activist. Gradually becoming more radical, he first joined first the Chicago chapter of the Longshoreman’s Association, followed by International Labor Defense advocacy group and, finally, the Communist Party. To Law, Communism represented a response to the many inequities he had suffered as a black man and as a union worker. As a labour organizer and a Communist, he fought for the rights of Chicago’s working-class residents in housing disputes with both landlords and the government.

These activities attracted the attention of the Chicago Police Department’s “Red Squad”, which harassed Law and his fellow leftists whenever possible. In 1930, the police threats turned to violence and Law was beaten so badly as part of ‘intensive questioning’ over a planned demonstration that he was hospitalized. Despite this intimidation, within a few years, Law was a well established member of the black left wing in Chicago, married to the daughter of leading black communist Claude Lightfoot, and finding a steady source of income from President Roosevelt’s Works Project Administration. Had this tireless campaigning on behalf of Chicago’s poor been all that he accomplished with his life, Oliver Law would still be a figure worthy of praise. But in October 1935, with the forces of Fascism on the march, the thirty-five-year-old Law heard a new call to action.

After months of threats and troop buildups, the army of Fascist Italy invaded Ethiopia. Similar to Vladimir Putin during the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine, Benito Mussolini brushed aside international outrage with veiled threats and claims of ‘national interest’. Nowhere in the United States was anger more acute than on Chicago’s South Side, where the black community rallied around the plight of Africa’s one remaining uncolonized nation. Law was one of several speakers to stand on the city’s rooftops as they addressed marchers at an unauthorized “Hands Off Ethiopia” rally.

This was an embarrassment to Mayor Edward Kelly, who had only four years before welcomed Italian fascist leader Italo Balbo to Chicago as a guest of the city. In an effort to promote greater ties between Italy and Chicago, and to court Italian American voters, Kelly had renamed 7th Street after Balbo and put up an ancient Roman column gifted to him by Benito Mussolini by Soldier Field.  When Law and his allies spoke out against Mussolini, Kelly’s police response was heavy-handed. In the words of one Tribune reporter, “Heads were thumped freely and the demonstrators screamed curses at the bluecoats as they were hustled”. Law and his fellow arrested protesters were forced to “run a gauntlet” of truncheon-wielding officers as they entered the Wabash Avenue police station to be processed. Besides Law and the other leaders, the police arrested around a dozen female students from the University of Chicago who “refused to give their names”, and who were threatened with a firehose if they continued to yell and sing.

In the months that followed, Law was one of many African Americans to pursue more active means of resisting Italy’s aggression. Soon, he and hundreds of others had organized  themselves to go to Ethiopia, intent on joining the army of its emperor, Haile Selassie. But before they could make the journey, Selassie’s defenders buckled under  Italian troops  willing to employ chemical weapons and advanced military machinery against the under-equipped Ethiopian forces, whose air force consisted of only four men. Thus, the volunteers were left ready to fight but had no battlefield. They would not have to wait long.

Barely two months after the Italian conquest of Ethiopia, civil war erupted in Spain. The roots of the conflict were varied and intricate, but its immediate cause was an abortive coup by Spain’s conservative generals. On one side stood this cabal of reactionary right-wing interests lead by General Francisco Franco, and on the other the workers and liberals of Spain under the leadership of Manuel Azaña. With Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany soon declaring support  for Franco’s Nationalist cause, Law and his black contemporaries saw an opportunity for revenge against the Italian fascists, who were rumored to be sending the freshly-victorious army of Ethiopia to Spain. “Most of us blacks who went to Spain went because of Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia”, Jimmy Yates, one of Law’s Comrades from Chicago would recall: “All they had to know was that Mussolini`s troops were going to Spain, and they knew they had to get there, too.” When the Spanish Republic sent out a call for international volunteers, it did not fall on deaf ears.

This time, Law and his comrades moved with speed. On January 7, 1936, Law  had received his passport; by January 16, he was aboard the Paris for a two-week journey across the Atlantic. This initiative went directly against the wishes of the non-interventionist American government, and many of the volunteers were threatened with the confiscation of their passports by American consular officials should they ever return to America.

Once the black volunteers arrived, they found themselves in a small minority. Democrats, anarchists, communists, and adventurers from the entire Western World had been drawn to the Republic’s cause as moths to a flame. Out of almost 50,000 men in the Republic’s International Brigades, 2,800 Americans had signed on as the Abraham Lincoln Battalion (ALB). These volunteers have been estimated to be one-quarter Jewish and predominantly of student backgrounds. Law and his comrades represented a mere one hundred men.

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="267"] Oliver Law in Spain
Courtesy of the New York University Library Tamiment Collection[/caption]

What most distinguished Oliver Law, however, would make him extremely  valuable to the Lincolns: his prior service in a regular army. Steve Nelson, one of the white political officers who would come to know Law well, recalled in an interview with the Chicago Reader that Law was widely respected for having been a professional soldier and for his knowledge of the ins-and-outs of military life. As it was, Law did not have much time to impart his military knowledge to his fellows before they received their first taste of combat.

With Franco’s armies advancing to the north of the capital, the Republic found it necessary to commit its volunteers to battle with minimal  training. Speaking years later, Nelson would characterize the Lincolns as  “anti-war activists, peaceniks” before the war, unready for the battlefield. Prepared or not, the men of the ALB were deployed in a counter attack across the floor of the Jarama Valley in an attempt to stall the Nationalists’ advance on Madrid. Younger on average than any of the Republic’s other international brigades, the Lincolns faced a horrible introduction to the realities of war. Of the 450 men who registered as fit for service at the beginning of February, 295 would become casualties by the end of the assault.

In a cruel twist of fate, the gutted Lincolns were then forced to hold the line against a series of furious Spanish Nationalist advances while Mussolini’s Italians passed around them to attack the forces to their North at Guadalajara. It was in this desperate period that Oliver Law came into his own. In describing what made Law so unique amongst the Lincolns, Nelson said, “He was efficient and knowledgeable about military basics; he knew how to respond when the enemy attacked, how to dig in, how to fire accurately... Oliver showed a certain calm in battle, and a certain rapport with the men”. As weeks of combat dragged on and the Nationalists probed Republican lines in a bid to launch a devastating attack, the Lincoln Battalion stood fast.

During these weeks of battle,  Law and his fellow  black Lincolns came face to face with the most painful contradiction of their war against fascism. Spain itself had been a colonial  power in Africa before the war, and the officers of its Moroccan army formed the nucleus of the nationalist uprising. Now, the rebelling generals had swelled their forces with men from Spanish Morocco. Fierce fighters and veterans of guerilla warfare against the Spanish, these African recruits were used to spearhead many of the nationalists’ most ferocious attacks upon the Republic’s positions. In a time when both sides sought to limit battlefield losses, these Moroccan regulares were often thrown into the most dangerous parts of the battlefield because they were considered expendable by their officers. To the black Lincolns, this strategy must have seemed a very familiar form of racism.  Their sympathy for the plight of the ‘Moorish’ troops can be summarized by Langston Hughes’ poem Letter From Spain, written during a visit to the Lincoln Battalion:

We captured a wounded Moor today.

He was just as dark as me.

I said, Boy, what you been doin’ here

Fightin’ against the free?


Cause if a free Spain wins this war,

The colonies, too, are free -

Then something wonderful’ll happen

To them Moors as dark as me.


Cause they got slaves in Africa -

And they don’t want ‘em to be free.

Listen, Moorish prisoner, hell!

Here, shake hands with me!

Nonetheless, any sentimentality toward the Moroccans on the part of the black volunteers was not extended to their white compatriots; as Hughes later wrote: “Fascists is Jim Crow peoples, honey— / And here we shoot 'em down”.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="700"] Map of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade's actions in the Spanish Civil War[/caption]

In February 1937, the fighting at Jarama petered out due to exhaustion and a lack of ammunition on both sides. The tattered Lincoln Battalion was finally removed from the front to rest and regroup before the start of the Republican offensive at Brunete. They were now veterans and would take “The Valley of Jarama”, sung to the tune of “Red River Valley”, as their new anthem. The Lincolns were reinforced by fresh American recruits, as was their newly created twin, the George Washington Battalion. Their respite was short lived: in early July of 1937, they were recommitted to the battlefront. Leading them would be Oliver Law, promoted to machine gun commander during the bitter fighting following their advance at Jarama; he had been earmarked for officer’s training before the severe illness of the battalion commander had prompted his sudden promotion to overall leadership. Most remarkably, his rise was the product of his nomination by a group of all-white American officers and a vote on the part of the entire unit. In taking over the Lincolns, Law would be stepping into the pages of history as the first black commander of an American mixed-race military unit.

In an age when Barack Obama serves as Commander-in-Chief of the United States and black officers such as Colin Powell have risen to command American armies, appreciating just how radical this move was might be difficult. To offer some context, the United States only officially desegregated its armed forces in 1948, and it would be several years more before any true progress was made to put the order into effect. Law’s old Twenty-Fourth Infantry Regiment, serving in Korea in 1951, effectively disintegrated as a frontline combat unit because of the continuing tension between an almost entirely white officer corps and the black enlisted men who felt unable to challenge their often-misguided orders. Even decades after Law’s initial promotion, racial tension would continue to run through the very heart of the American military.

Sadly, Law’s was not to be a long-lasting command. The Republic’s attack on Brunete in July of 1937 saw a tragic waste of the experienced International Brigades in ruinous advances against well-prepared enemies for negligible gains. In one of these assaults, Oliver Law fell to enemy fire, hit twice while leading his men from the front as they attempted to storm a Nationalist position dubbed “Mosquito Hill”. Though accounts differ of his final moments, his friend Jimmy Yates would recall being told by Law’s stretcher bearers that he had ordered them to abandon him on the hillside and rescue  men that might still be saved. He was buried nearby under a sign declaring his historical accomplishment as “the first negro to command American white soldiers.” Sadly, the grave’s exact location was lost in the post-war years.

His comrades would continue ‘the good fight’ in Spain for another year after his death, but they would not be able to turn the tide of the war. In late 1938 the weakened and fragmented Spanish Republic disbanded  the International Brigades that had defended the dream of a ‘Free Spain’ for almost two years. Their  expulsion was a last, unsuccessful attempt to win support from the ostensibly neutral democracies of Europe. But it was too little, too late. France and England’s leaders had no desire to be held responsible \for starting another Great War in Spain, especially when a Republican victory might well have meant the rise of a leftist, or even Communist government. For the volunteers of the International Brigades, the war in Spain was over. Though the Republic’s final struggle would continue for another year, they would play no part in it.

Paul Robeson, having himself returned from the Christmas tour of Republican Spain in which he had first heard of Oliver Law’s story from his surviving comrades, would also struggle in the following years to bring to the screen a film that would do justice to the legacy of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and its first black commander. Despite Robeson’s draw as an internationally acclaimed actor and musician, the combination of Law’s race and his politics made the prospect investing in a movie about him distasteful to the Hollywood executives whom Robeson petitioned for support. An angry Robeson would exclaim in exasperation that “the same interests that block every effort to help Spain control the motion picture industry”.

American politics also devalued Law’s contribution to the war effort. A suspicious American government branded the veterans of Law’s battalion as untrustworthy “premature anti-fascists” intent on pursuing an anti-communist alliance with Franco’s victorious Nationalists. Disheartened by the lack of interest in his project, Robeson’s personal assistant later credited the failure of his plans to bring Law’s story to the public with his eventual withdrawal from the movie business altogether.

Law’s race and political views are undoubtedly to blame for the lack of recognition in the decades after his death. Had he survived the war, he may well have gone on to reject communism, as many other International Brigadiers, including George Orwell, would.  He might have been able to rehabilitate his political reputation, which could have made an appreciation of his unique place in American history more palatable to the American public. As it was, his death in combat robbed him of any chance to make right with the politically conservative American political establishment, or to find his voice heard when American culture began to reevaluate the values of communism during the sixties and seventies. But neither his political affiliation nor his untimely death are no reason for Law’s story to remain forgotten. The narrative of Oliver Law’s life was one of overcoming challenges  and it is a cruel irony that he found fair treatment only while in a nation far from his native home. The next time we reach for examples of heroism, we might consider the example of this adopted Chicagoan, who took a principled stand against injustice in its many forms long before the United States itself was willing to do the same

The life and legacy of Oliver Law were best summed up at the Lincoln Battalion’s sending-off parade in Barcelona, where the labor leader Dolores Ibárruri, commonly referred to as La Pasionaria by the troops, addressed the soldiers as they prepared to depart the country and the cause for which they had given so much. Her speech, much quoted in the years since then, sums up well the sacrifice made by men such as Oliver Law for the people of a foreign land whose language he did not speak:

It is very difficult to say a few words in farewell to the heroes of the International Brigades, because of what they are and what they represent...They gave us everything - their youth or their maturity; their science or their experience; their blood and their lives; their hopes and aspirations - and they asked us for nothing... Today many are departing. Thousands remain, shrouded in Spanish earth, profoundly remembered by all Spaniards...

Piers Brecher


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