Paul Robeson, the Spanish Civil War, and the Oliver Law Film That Never Was

Paul Robeson, the consummate renaissance man, is known as well for his amazing talent (an athlete, polyglot, orator, intellectual, singer, actor) as for his political involvement and passion for social justice.   His involvement in the Spanish Civil War[i] on the side of the Republican forces, though less well known, stands out as an episode that brings together Robeson’s multitude of talents, and shows his backbone in the worldwide struggle against fascism.

After the fascist coup attempt and ensuing breakout of war across Spain in July of 1936, Robeson’s support of the democratically elected Spanish Republic against grew strong.  He explained his support for the effort at a rally in London’s Albert Hall on June 24th, 1937:

The artist must elect to fight for freedom or slavery.  I have made my choice.  I had no alternative.  The history of the capitalist era is characterized by the degradation of my people: despoiled of their lands, their culture destroyed, they are in every country, save one, denied equal protection under the law, and deprived of their rightful place in the respect of their fellows.

May your inspiring message reach every man, woman, and child who stands for freedom and justice.  For the liberation of Spain from the oppression of fascist reactionaries is not a private matter of the Spaniards, but the common cause of all advanced and progressive humanity.

Robeson recorded speeches and broadcast them to rallies in Spain (in the speech excerpted above, Robeson raised $8,000).  He recorded songs that were sent to troops of the Republic and of the International Brigades.  Above (a photo montage video), Robeson sings The Four Insurgent Generals, a hymn of Spain’s betrayal. And here, a version of the Peat Bog Soldiers (Moorsoldaten) –  a song that was written by communist prisoners in a Nazi camp in 1933, which has become a popular protest song for the international left – that Robeson recorded for the war effort.

Still, Robeson felt that he wasn’t helping the effort enough, and in 1938, he ventured to Spain to visit troops and lend support with his wife, Essie.  She recorded the details of the journey in her diary (available in The Undiscovered Paul Robeson), where she records how the Robesons first heard of Oliver Law while driving across Spain.

Oliver Law (left) serving in Spain.

Oliver Law was a black man from Texas who joined the American Communist Party during the Great Depression and later, signed up with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade to fight against the fascists in Spain.  Law rose to the rank of battalion commander (according to Essie’s diary, “Many officers and men considered him to be the best battalion commander in Spain”), before he was shot and killed near Madrid.

Back in the U.S. in 1938, Robeson began to pursue the idea of making a film about Law that would detail Law’s life and the injustices lying behind Depression-era America and Spain.  The film, which Ernest Hemmingway was reportedly interested in helping write, never got any funding, and fed Paul Robeson’s growing contempt for Hollywood.  He commented in an interview that “the same interests that block every effort to help Spain control the motion picture industry.”

Robeson (second from left), in Spain

Robeson’s experience with the Spanish Civil War and the failure of the Oliver Law film project only seemed to strengthen his resolve and commitment to working for justice and freedom.  A young Harry Belafonte (here, speaking to veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigades) looked up to Paul Robeson as an exemplary model of activism and celebrity. Are the recent comments of Belafonte, on the lack of social responsibility and activism of black celebrities today, not that much more actual in the shadow of Paul Robeson?

And will someone please pick up the Oliver Law film?


[i] Check out this wonderful comic that covers Robeson’s time in Spain, printed by The Volunteer, a publication of the Abraham Lincoln Brigades Archive

About BFC/A

The Black Film Center/Archive at Indiana University was established in 1981 as the first archival repository dedicated to collecting, preserving, and making available historically and culturally significant films by and about black people. The BFC/A's primary objectives are to promote scholarship on black film and to serve as an open resource for scholars, researchers, students, and the general public; to encourage creative film activity by independent black filmmakers; and to undertake and support research on the history, impact, theory, and aesthetics of black film traditions. View all posts by BFC/A

3 responses to “Paul Robeson, the Spanish Civil War, and the Oliver Law Film That Never Was

  • WM

    Thank you for this interesting text. I have to read and analyze it once more with the purpose of writing a full comment.

  • laurie levinger

    Maybe John Sayles would like to take it on…

  • Owen Hayhurst

    I’m writing a college thesis here. Law was one of my earliest heroes, the very first African-American to command Caucasian American troops in combat. A forgotten hero who deserves recognition in the early fight against Fascism, Nazism, and reactionary ideologies both dead and fully present in 21st century America.

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