On July 19 1936, General Franco, with the backing of Hitler and Mussolini, led a coup against the democratically elected Government of Spain. It kick started the Spanish civil war which saw a viscous fight between right wing and left wing ideologies. Of the many like minded individuals who went to Spain to fight against Franco’s fascists was a young man from Texas who would become the first African American to lead an integrated fighting force.
Oliver Law was born on a ranch in Texas on October 23rd 1900. At the age of 19 he joined the United States army but despite his impeccable record, segregation prevented Law from rising in the ranks and after six years in uniform he left for a civilian life. In 1925, Law, like so many others of that time, left the rural south to seek better opportunities in the industrial north. At the beginning he found work in a cement plant in Indiana before eventually settling on the Southside of Chicago where he worked as a cab driver, and then finding employment as a stevedore. Racism fuelled Law’s passion to fight for social equality while the Great Depression only served to strengthen his left wing values. He chaired the Southside chapter of the Labour Defence League in Chicago, which was the legal wing of the American Communist Party and became a frequent target of police harassment as his activism grew.
In 1930, Law was beaten and arrested with 14 other activists at an International Unemployment Day rally in Chicago. In 1935, Law helped organise a large rally in protest against Mussolini’s occupation of Ethiopia and was arrested while giving a speech to the 10,000 strong crowd. When the Spanish Civil war flared up in 1936, Law joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and within a year he was in Spain fighting Franco’s fascists.
On January 16 1937, Law along with many other volunteers from America, arrived in Spain. On February 17 they got their first taste of action in the Jarama valley where the task of the International Brigade was to stop the advancing might of Franco’s troops. Although Law and his fellow brigadistas were unable to hold out against the better equipped fascists, his display on the battle field saw him rise through the ranks of the Lincoln Brigade. Two weeks after landing in Spain, Law had been promoted to section leader in the Lincoln Brigade and on February 27th he took part in an attack on Pingarron Hill in the Jarama Valley. Of the 500 Brigadistas that went into that battle against Franco’s troops, some 300 were killed and wounded. Two weeks after this setback, Law was promoted to commander of the machine gun company. Heavy losses dented the International Brigades, and the Lincoln Brigade was one that suffered the most. With the high losses, Law soon rose quickly among the ranks and six months after arriving in Spain he had become commander of the Lincoln Brigade.
Oliver Law became the first African American to lead an integrated American fighting force. In the United States army, the highest rank Law could rise to was corporal, due to segregation, but in Spain he was now leader, even if it was just for a short time.
In July 1937, Law led his brigade into the Battle of Brunete where Franco had sent back up troops to prevent an approach on Madrid. On July 10, Law assembled his troops to advance on a hill known as Mosquito Crest. Franco’s troops were there waiting with severe fire power but Law charged forward waving his pistol and encouraging his men to follow. It proved a bloody battle and one in which Law would lose his life. A snipers bullet hit Law in the stomach and he fell in mid charge. As he was being brought down from the hill on a stretcher, another bullet hit him and his life ended there in the battle fields of Spain along with 135 other Americans that day.
The 37 year old Oliver Law was well respected and had gained trust from those who fought alongside him, and his loss was a major blow to his comrades in the Lincoln Brigade. In the immediate years after his death, an attempt was made to make a film on the life of Oliver Law but it was blocked by the right wing influences in the film business. Among the 3,000 volunteers from the United States that went to fight fascism in Spain, some 80 of those were African American, and among them was Oliver Law, who fought and died for all workers regardless of their colour and creed.