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Oliver Law, the Lincoln Brigade’s Black Commander

General Colin Powell was three months old when at 33 tall, broad-shouldered Texas African American Oliver Law, became the first Black Commander of an American Army.The date was June 12, 1937.

Law was  selected by a committee of three white officers to lead this integrated army.

Heard of Colin Powell but never heard of Oliver Law?

Hardly surprising. Law’s not mentioned in school books or social studies classes, and has yet to find a place in most college texts or history courses. But Law made his mark on world history in June 1937and for very good reasons.

Oliver Law was among a brave band of 2800 American men and women (including 90 other African Americans) who rushed to help the Spanish Republic Spain during its Civil War (1936-1939). Their aim was to stop Hitler and Mussolini from seizing and using Spain to launch their march  across Europe. This was a crucial Nazi warm-up for World War II.

These brave Americans were joined by 40,000 other men and women from 52 countries who also volunteered to save Spain’s Republican government from Hitler and Mussolini and General Francisco Franco, their Spanish fascist ally.

For the only time in world history a global volunteer force left their homelands to defend democracy in a distant land. Though few volunteers had any military training they aimed to shame and prod their governments to stop fascist aggression “at the agates of Madrid.” But at this point England, France, the US and other democratic governments did nothing about fascist aggression – and England and France encouraged it. So, as one American volunteer said, “some one had to do something!”

Among the US volunteers in the “Abraham Lincoln Brigade” military experience ran a low fourth to enthusiasm, commitment and sheer guts. Oliver Law was different. In Texas he had served six years in the Buffalo Soldiers, “US Colored Troops.” This was during the long night of US  segregation and lynching lasting through World War II. US War Department policy prevented Law from becoming an officer or reaching higher than corporal.

But for African Americans in Spain life was different. “I can rise according to my worth, not my color,” Law said. This volunteer army included Black and white men and women who united during the Great Depression to fight for unemployment insurance, union rights and social security, and to end to segregation, discrimination and lynching.

After the Lincoln Brigade’s first battle at Jarama, Law’s courage was rewarded with a promotion to lieutenant. Next he was placed in charge of a machine-gun company. Then Lincoln Brigade Commander Marty Hourihan recommended him for officers’ school.

When the position of Lincoln Brigade Commander became available on June 12th, a committee of three white Brigade officers voted Law a Captain and Brigade Commander. One of the three, Steve Nelson, who had worked with him in Chicago, told why they picked Law: “He had the most experience and was best suited for the job.” Further, he was “the most acquainted with military procedures on the staff at the moment . . . he was well liked by his men . . . .” Nelson continued, “When soldiers were asked who might become an officer — ours was a very democratic army — his name always came up. It was spoken of him that he was calm under fire, dignified, respectful of his men and always given to thoughtful consideration of initiatives and military missions.”

The rest of the story is sadder — for Law, the Lincoln Brigade, the International volunteers and the world. At 10:00 AM on July 9th at the battle of Brunete Commander Law insisted on leading his men against a fortified fascist position at Mosquito Ridge. Law, his runner New Yorker Harry Fisher recalled, was “running to the top of the hill,” waving his men on. Law did not “attempt to protect himself, and in a matter of seconds, machine-gun fire ripped into him.” Law’s other runner, Jerry Weinberg of Chicago, crawled across the battlefield to pull Law to safety. It was too late: “He died less than an hour  later,” Fisher recalled.

Oliver Law’s comrades buried him under a sign that proudly declared him the first Black commander of a US military unit.

Hitler, Mussolini and Franco defeated democracy in Spain and five months later, Nazi Germany’s marched into Poland and began World War II.

Had the democracies heeded the warning of the 40,000 volunteers, the story of World War II might have been different.

Though Oliver Law and a majority of the Americans died in Spain, survivors returned home to again fight fascism after Pearl Harbor. After the war veterans of the Lincoln Brigade continued to battle racism in the United States and oppose imperialist wars abroad, some into the 21st century. Now this year the last one has died.

This article is based on THE LINCOLN BRIGADE: A PICTURE HISTORY and based on interviews with Brigade veterans Steve Nelson, Harry Fisher, Sam Walters, and others during two trips to Spain with the veterans and their families.

 

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William Loren Katz is the author of 40 books on African American history, and has been associated with New York University as an instructor and Scholar in Residence since 1973. His website is www.williamlkatz.com. Read an interview with Katz about his life teaching and writing history.

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