When the Communist International issued a rallying cry for people to join the republican side in the Spanish Civil War in 1937, African-American anti-fascist James Yates decided to respond. His opposition to racism against African Americans drove him to join the war.
The war drew 50,000 volunteers, the majority of whom were African Americans, Cubans, and Caribbean residents. Yates was adamant in 1936 that the Spanish war was the only one in which he could participate and make his views on fascism count. According to Business Insider, he was conscripted into the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, which included 2,800 Americans and 85 African Americans.
There has recently been criticism of attempts to minimize the contributions of these African Americans in the history of the Spanish-American alliance in the war. Many of these African Americans, including Yates, worked in Mississippi’s cotton fields. They saw the war as a chance to escape the inequality and racial discrimination they had experienced in the United States.
When Yates moved to New York, he was optimistic about his prospects. However, the reality of the systemic challenges hit him hard when he was forced to take low-paying jobs in factories and businesses. The 1929 financial collapse exacerbated his predicament. Another factor that prompted many African Americans to join the war was Mussolini’s decision to invade Ethiopia. According to Alfonso Domingo, co-director of the documentary on the lives of these unsung heroes, they believed Ethiopia was the only independent African country that did not deserve such intrusion from Italy.
Though many Americans were eager to fight on Ethiopia’s behalf, administrative obstacles such as visa requirements hampered their efforts. Those who were dissatisfied with their inability to fight in the Italio-Ethiopian war joined the Lincoln Brigade to fight for a greater cause. The Lincoln Brigade is credited with being the first military unit in US history to have officers of different races. Prior to the Second World War, it was also the only unit led by an African American. It was a social leveler in which the race or color of the person fighting made no difference.
The stark contrast became apparent to Yates when he was denied access to a hotel upon his return to New York. He drove trucks and entered various locations in Spain without being questioned. In the 1930s, it was unusual to see an African American driving a truck. To make matters worse, despite fighting in the war, he found it difficult to find work. The FBI classified him as a dangerous communist, and he faced systematic persecution. Despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of Americans greeted them when they returned from the war.
Yates was fired from nearly every job he ever held, compelling him to pursue entrepreneurship. He opened his own shop and repaired televisions. Despite these difficulties, he never lost sight of the social cause for which he fought.
He had speaking engagements where he talked about the Lincoln Brigade sacrifices. He was a civil rights activist who wrote his memoirs. He returned to Spain several times and wrote a second book about New York City, which was never published. After passing away in New York, he was interred at the military cemetery.