Local Heroes: Oliver Law, a black who fought the fascists | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Arts & Culture » Calendar

Local Heroes: Oliver Law, a black who fought the fascists

by

Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe

comment

Last week's reenactment of Kristallnacht, the vandalizing of synagogues and Jewish businesses on the 49th anniversary of the riots that commenced Hitler's all-out assault on the Jews, was a chilling reminder that the legacy of fascism persists. It's worth noting that Chicago has other, perhaps less horrifying reminders of that legacy. Across Lake Shore Drive opposite Soldier Field stands a monument to fascism, an ancient Roman column given by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini to mark the visit to Chicago of his Atlantic Squadron in 1933, "the eleventh year of the Fascist era," as the inscription on the monument reads.

During Chicago's Century of Progress fair that year, a squadron of 24 Italian seaplanes flew across the Atlantic in formation--the largest mass flight yet attempted--landing on Lake Michigan on July 20, 1933. Some 100,000 Chicagoans jammed Navy Pier and the lakefront to cheer General Italo Balbo, Mussolini's minister of aviation, who had flown the squadron's lead plane. Balbo, who was responsible for building Italy's air force into the second largest in the world, was "one of the most popular leaders of Fascism" in Italy, as the Italian consul told the Chicago Tribune that day. Greeting the dashing young aviator, Mayor Edward Kelly announced that Seventh Street was formally being renamed Balbo Drive as a tribute to his daring expedition.

Balbo's welcome wasn't unanimous, however. Contemporary accounts report there was "but one jarring note": thousands of leaflets denouncing Balbo and Mussolini were distributed by the Italian Socialist Federation and the Italian League for the Rights of Man. And in coming years, as World War II approached and Balbo led Italy's bombers in attacks on villages in Ethiopia and later in Spain, opposition to the ideology for which he fought grew in Chicago.

That opposition has left its own legacy, counterposed to the legacy of Kristallnacht; and that legacy of international solidarity against fascism is being celebrated this weekend by activists who are focusing on an historical figure who could be counterposed to Balbo: a young black radical from the south side named Oliver Law. When Balbo bombed Ethiopia, Law protested in Chicago; when he bombed Spain, Law joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (ALB) to fight in defense of the Spanish Republic, and he was killed in action. While Balbo made aviation history with his trip to Chicago, Oliver Law made social history in Spain by becoming the first black American to lead white soldiers into battle.

Law was one of over 80 blacks who were among the 2,800 Americans in the ALB. "Most of us blacks who went to Spain went because of Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia," says James Yates, a black ALB vet who recently published his memoir, From Mississippi to Madrid. "We were ready to go to Ethiopia."

Eager to oppose Mussolini's October 1935 invasion of the only noncolonized nation in Africa, blacks in America organized giant material-aid campaigns for embattled Ethiopia; over two tons of medical supplies were sent from Harlem alone. Volunteers to fight in defense of Ethiopia were being organized when Emperor Haile Selassie was forced into exile in May 1936.

Scarcely ten weeks later, the Spanish army, led by General Francisco Franco, revolted against the democratic government of Spain. Within days Mussolini dispatched a division of Italian troops directly from Ethiopia to aid Franco's Nationalists. When the Spanish Republic issued a call for volunteers from around the world, Oliver Law was in the first shipload of men to leave the States (in violation of a U.S. embargo imposed in the name of neutrality) to join the International Brigades.

Law had been prominent in organizing a "Hands Off Ethiopia" parade on the south side in August of 1935, while Mussolini was massing troops in preparation for the invasion. Mayor Kelly's police commissioner had refused to grant a permit for the parade, citing the corporation counsel's warning that allowing a protest might be viewed as an "unfriendly act" by Italy. And although police enforced the ban brutally--as the Tribune noted, "heads were thumped freely"--10,000 showed up for the protest. As cops tried to disperse the giant assembly, speakers who the night before had hidden on rooftops of buildings along 47th Street jumped up to address the crowd. When one was hauled off, another would appear on another roof. The first of a half dozen such speakers was Oliver Law. He was one of nearly 300 persons arrested that day and charged with unlawful assembly. As demonstrators were unloaded from patrol wagons at the police station they were forced to run a gauntlet of club-swinging cops in a scene characterized by a Chicago Defender reporter as one of "downright savageness."

That kind of brutal suppression of political activity was the rule, not the exception, in Chicago in the early 1930s, a time of deep political ferment. Oliver Law must have encountered a good deal of it as an organizer of the unemployed, as someone active in stopping evictions, and particularly as chairman of the south-side chapter of the International Labor Defense. The ILD organized campaigns to free the Scottsboro Boys, Angelo Herndon and Tom Mooney, and also bailed out and defended local activists jailed in the course of their political work. Law was hospitalized in 1930 after being beaten by Chicago police, who'd broken up a meeting of 700 persons planning to demonstrate for unemployment insurance. Over 100 were arrested, and Law was among the small group held for intensive questioning, which left him with a hernia from being kicked in the groin.

In Spain, Law may have felt relief at getting away from both political harassment and the daily indignities of American racism. He was one of the few volunteers in the Lincoln Brigade with any military training. "We were all antiwar activists, peaceniks," says Steve Nelson, who served with Law in the ALB. "The Spanish army had collapsed; their officers almost to a man went over to the fascists." In the emergency, the Lincolns were sent into battle with no training. Law had served six years in the U.S. Army, emerging from that segregated institution with the rank of buck private. His experiences with Jim Crow in the military contributed to his radicalization, James Yates believes. But now his military training was helpful to the Lincolns, Steve Nelson recalls. "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."

Nelson was on the committee that chose Law as commander of a 600-man battalion around May of 1937. "Oliver showed a certain calm in battle, and a certain rapport with the men," he recalls. "They respected him. He didn't act like a southern officer, ordering them around." He remembers Law as "a very determined guy."

Yates recalls him as "a very serious person and a very likable person" whose kindness had impressed Yates when he'd known Law back in Chicago. The day Law was killed, leading his men in a charge up a hill, "a lot of men were upset about it," Yates says. "He was very popular."

At the urging of Nelson and local ALB vet Milt Cohen, Oliver Law is finally receiving a measure of recognition for his place in history. This Saturday, November 21, Nelson, Yates, Cohen, and their comrades will join Pete Seeger, Margaret Burroughs, Alexander Cockburn, and others in "A Special Tribute to Oliver Law: In Celebration of Internationalism" at Sauer's Restaurant, 311 E. 23rd St. The evening is being sponsored by a coalition of Central American and southern African solidarity groups who see themselves carrying on the internationalism of Oliver Law and the Lincolns. Money raised by the event ($10 for the 8 PM program only; $25 for the program and dinner at 6 PM) will go to establishing a travel scholarship in Oliver Law's name that will help young people who wish to give a year of their lives to service projects in the frontline states of southern Africa. The scholarship is intended to mark Law's place in the tradition of internationalism in the black community as well as the parallel between Spain 50 years ago and the embattled popular revolutions of Angola, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe today. For information and reservations, call 643-3407.

Add a comment