Oliver Law (1899-1937)

Oliver Law was born in Texas on 9th July 1899. He was a somewhat controversial officer in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade which fought against Fascism during the Spanish civil war. Law served for six years in the US army, where he apparently showed considerable ability but the US army of the time would not promote Black African-Americans so a somewhat disillusioned Law left. He then lived on the South Side of Chicago working in the construction industry but soon made a name for himself as a political activist. Law was a natural leader and passionate about workers rights and helped organised a huge rally in the US in Aug 1935 in support of Ethiopia, and in protest against the Italian occupation during the Second Italo-Abyssinian war. Law was arrested at this event when trying to speak to the crowd. As a black labour organiser and political activist Law was constantly attracting police attention especially after he joined the communist party in 1929.

In 1937 Oliver Law traveled to Spain to join one of the international brigades (foreign volunteer units) fighting General Francisco Franco. Law quickly gained promotion (within 6 months) and was well respected among his men described as quiet, serious and respectful and encouraging of the men under his command. Law was a tall impressive figure standing around 6ft 2.  Around 3,000 volunteers, traveled from the US to Spain and most were in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in which Law served, more than half of those who volunteered were killed or wounded during the conflict.  Law became a commander of a battalion and it is sometimes claimed that he was the first African American to command white American troops, but this is a dubious claim as the international brigades were not under American control and a few Black officers were serving in the American Coast guard and Army at that time.

On 27 February 1937 Oliver Law fought at the battle of Jarama River , where the first black volunteer Alonzo Watson was killed. Along with two other Black volunteers Law received a battlefield promotion for bravery. Jarama river was General Franco’s attempt to cut the road that linked Madrid to the rest of Republican Spain after his forces had failed to take the city by frontal assault. The nationalist forces of 40,000 faced three international Brigades under General Jose Miaja.

In July 1937 the Republicans launched an offensive in an attempt to free Madrid from threat. The Republican Army of 80,000 men tried to drive off the Nationalists near Brunete on the Western approaches to Madrid. In the hot Spanish summer sun the Republican International Brigades suffered heavy losses and according to the official records Oliver Law was killed leading his men on an attack on Mosquito Ridge. Some eye witnesses disagree and claim that Law was an incompetent officer whose lack of ability had led to some deaths and in fact he was only promoted for propaganda reasons. It is also claimed that Law was actually killed by his own men. What ever the truth Oliver Law remains an interesting character and the final word goes to the black American singer Paul Robeson who in 1938 said

“I would like to make a film on the life of a Black commander of the Lincoln Battalion in the International Brigades who died there; but this would be refused by the big Yankee movie companies “

It is clear he was referring to Oliver Law.

Jumping the Line: The Adventures and Misadventures of an American Radical. A lively book of the life of William Herrick an Amercian communist who fought against facism in the Spanish Civil War and then went on to become disillusioned with communism after the Hitler-Stalin pact. Herrick went on to be a personal assistant to Orson Welles and tells some great stories and background about Citzen Cane in this book. A well written book which tells the tale of murdered idealism.
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How to cite this article: Dugdale-Pointon, T. (14 December 2007), Oliver Law (1899-1937) , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/people_law_oliver.html

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