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Oliver Law (October 23, 1900 – July 9, 1937) was an African American communist and labor organizer, who fought for the Republic in the Spanish Civil War. He was the commander of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade for four days. Oliver Law was the first African American to lead an integrated military force in the history of the United States.
Born in west Texas, Law joined the US Army in 1919. He stayed on until 1925. He served as a private in the 24th infantry, an Afro-American outfit on the Mexican border. After leaving the army, he went to Bluffton, Indiana, where he worked in a cement plant. He moved on to Chicago, where he drove a taxi with the Yellow Cab Company. In the Great Depression he found work as a stevedore and joined the International Longshoreman's Association. He then tried his luck with a small restaurant, but failed and got a job with the Works Project Administration. Law was a member of the International Labor Defense and joined the Communist Party in 1932. In 1930 he was very active in the unemployment movement.
Law worked with Harry Haywood to organize mass protests against Italy's occupation of Ethiopia at the Second Italo-Abyssinian War. He was arrested speaking at a demonstration in Chicago on August 31, 1935.
Law was married to Corrine Lightfoot, sister of regional CP leader Claude Lightfoot.
Spanish Civil War
In 1936 Law joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. He arrived in Spain on January 16, 1937 to fight for the Popular Front against Francisco Franco and the Nationalists. Having met the International Brigades at Albacete. Law first served as a group leaders of a machine-gun company engaged on the Jarama front. There were three group leaders, under the two section leaders and the company officers.
After failing to take Madrid by frontal assault, General Francisco Franco gave orders for the road that linked the city to the rest of Republican Spain to be cut. A Nationalist force of 40,000 men, including men from the Army of Africa, crossed the Jarama River on February 11, 1937. General José Miaja sent three International Brigades to the Jarama Valley to block the advance. Law first saw action on February 17. After disastrous setbacks on February 27, Law had performed well on the day and was soon promoted to section leader. Two weeks later he was made commander of the machine-gun company, when his superior officer was killed. The battalion leadership was annihilated at Jarama and Law advance fast in rank, even though there was some criticism of his performance at the attack on Villanueva da la Canada.
The experienced battalion commander Martin Hourihan recognized Law's abilities and wanted to send him to officer's training school. And when Hourihan became ill, Law was chosen to replace him temporarily. After Houridan transferred permanently to the regimental staff, the choice of battalion commander was between Law and Walter Garland, who was still recovering from wounds, and Law was chosen and led the Abraham Lincoln Battalion in the first days of the Battle of Brunete. At the beginning of July the Popular Front government launched a major attack to relieve the threat to Madrid. General Vicente Rojo Lluch sent the Republican Army to Brunete, challenging Nationalist control of the western approaches to the capital. The 80,000 Republican soldiers made good early progress but they were brought to a halt when General Francisco Franco brought up his reserves.
The Internationals also suffered heavy losses. Oliver Law was killed on July 10 leading his men in an attack on Mosquito Crest (Mosquito Hill).
- Eslanda Goode Robeson's diary excerpt of Oliver Law's story, as told by "K"
- Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives
- African Americans in the Spanish Civil War
- Grover Furr, "Anatomy of an Anticommunist Fabrication: The Death of Oliver Law, An Historiographical Investigation." In: Reconstruction 8.1. (Published March 19, 2008.)