Who was Oliver Law? (left). Ever hear of him?
How about Harry Haywood? (right) No clue right?
Well, Oliver Law was a black man, born in West Texas in 1899. He served in the First World War and stayed on as a buck Private in the 24th Infantry, an all negro unit stationed on the Mexican border.
In 1925 Law left the Army, first taking a job in a cement plant and eventually moving to Chicago where he drove a cab. After the coming of the Great Depression he obtained work as a stevedore and then ran a small restaurant.
During the height of the depression, Oliver Law joined the Communist Party and became active in the movement to create unemployment insurance – he was instrumental in organizing “Unemployment Insurance Day” demonstrations on March 6, 1930. Yes; only the Communists supported the establishment of unemployment insurance for workers; the AFL opposed it.
Unemployment Day – Union Square, New York – thousands marched around the nation
During the demonstrations some fifteen leading activists, including Law, were arrested and badly beaten by police. Two weeks later, still recovering, Law marched with 75,000 demonstrators demanding unemployment insurance.
It was during this time that Oliver Law met Harry Haywood.
Harry Haywood, also a black man, was born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1898 to former slaves. As a youngster he was a fervent admirer of Booker T. Washington. He became more radical when his family was attacked by a white mob and ordered to leave town. He too served in the First World War, spent six months on the Western Front and eventually returned to Chicago where he obtained work on the railroad as a waiter.
In 1919 a white mob attacked a black teenager for swimming in Lake Michigan too near to a white beach. The resulting 6 day race riots killed 38 people. Haywood organized other black WWI veterans into armed self defense forces to protect black neighborhoods.
Haywood too joined the Communist Party, traveled to the Soviet Union and studied at the Lenin Institute. Haywood argued at the Comintern for support for the idea of a black state in America carved out of the southeastern states. In 1928 the Comintern agreed that blacks in the United States were an “oppressed nation” deserving of self determination.
Haywood returned to Chicago and with Oliver Law organized thousands protesting Fascist Italy’s attack on Abyssinia. Haywood organized the “League for Negro Rights” which campaigned against lynchings. He was also active in attempts to free the Scottsboro Boys.
With the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War both Oliver Law and Harry Haywood walked the walk and joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, fighting on behalf of the Second Republic against the Fascists.
Oliver Law – Commander of the Lincoln Brigade
Oliver Law would become Commander of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade – the first black man to command an integrated American military unit. He would be commander for four days.
He was killed at the Battle of Brunete, leading his men on an attack against Fascist hilltop positions.
Haywood with two other members of the Lincoln Brigade
Haywood would survive the Spanish Civil War and return to the U. S. During the Second World War he served in the Merchant Marine. In 1948 he published his seminal work; “Negro Liberation”, the first major study of the African American national question written by an American Marxist.
According to his autobiography the book was subsidized by Paul Robeson who chipped in $100 a month. Haywood’s biography, “Black Bolshevik” was published in 1978.
Haywood continued to be one of the most astute observers of the civil rights and black power movements during the later 1950s and 1960s. His work on the insurrectionary potential of the black masses in the long, hot summers of 1965-1968; his work on the revolutionary implications of black nationalism with the coming of Malcolm X, his work with the Revolutionary Action Movement, and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers.
With the rise of Nikita Khruschev in the USSR the Communist Party in the U. S. essentially gave up supporting the black liberation movement. Haywood worked with Malcolm during the year before his asassination and was grievously disappointed that the CPUSA failed to take a leadership role in the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
Harry Haywood died in 1978. He is buried in Arlington.
Neither man is remembered as an icon of the struggle for civil rights.
They were communists. Paul Robeson wanted to do a movie about them. Nobody was interested.
“Mothers! Women! When the years pass by and the wounds of war are stanched; when the memory of the sad and bloody days dissipates in a present of liberty, of peace and of wellbeing; when the rancors have died out and pride in a free country is felt equally by all Spaniards, speak to your children. Tell them of these men – how these men reached our country as crusaders for freedom, to fight and die for Spain’s liberty and independence threatened by German and Italian fascism. They gave up everything — their loves, their countries, home and fortune, fathers, mothers, wives, brothers, sisters and children — and they came and said to us: “We are here. Your cause, Spain’s cause, is ours. It is the cause of all advanced and progressive mankind.
You are the heroic example of democracy’s solidarity and universality in the face of the vile and accommodating spirit of those who interpret democratic principles with their eyes on hoards of wealth or corporate shares which they want to safeguard from all risk.
We shall not forget you; and, when the olive tree of peace is in flower, entwined with the victory laurels of the Republic of Spain — return!
Return to our side for here you will find a homeland — those who have no country or friends, who must live deprived of friendship — all, all will have the affection and gratitude of the Spanish people.
You are history. You are legend.”
Dolores Ibarurrri – “La Pasionaria” – Leader of the 2nd Spanish Republic – October 17, 1938
I knew about Law and the Lincoln Brigade in Spain, but only because I have read a lot about that war. I confess that I had never heard of Haywood before, despite following the Civil Rights movement (and Malcolm X) with some interest, during my teens.
Thanks for the education, Frank, and for a very interesting and informative article.
Best wishes, Pete.
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Reblogged this on An Outsider's Sojourn II.
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thanks sojourner and regards
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