From Mississippi to Madrid

Post date: 15/12/2021

Robin DG Kelley, historian and Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives (ALBA) Honorary Board Member spoke at their ‘A Legacy of Hope and Activism’ online event in September. His talk focused on the Lincoln Battalion volunteer James Yates and the connections between anti-fascism in the Spanish Civil War and civil rights in the United States. Selected excerpts have been reproduced below and the full talk is available to view here

Black Lincoln Battalion veteran James Yates titled his memoirs ‘From Mississippi to Madrid’.

Now, it may seem strange to say that fascism first emerged in the United States, in the US South, long before it arose in Europe. But Black members of the Lincoln Brigade had been saying it the moment they set foot on Spanish soil. As Walter Garland put it, ‘We can’t forget for a minute that the oppression of the Negro is nothing more than a very concrete form, the clearest expression of fascism. In other words, we saw in Spain those who chain us in America to cotton fields and brooms.’


Some also saw in Spain how racism was used to undermine the prospects of solidarity. Spanish colonialism in anti-Black racism against the Moors ensured that North Africans ended up fighting for Franco. Langston Hughes wrote a beautiful poem titled ‘Letter from Spain’ that captures this contradiction. He wrote:

‘We captured a wounded Moor today.

He was just as dark as me.

I said, Boy, what you been doin’ here

Fightin’ against the free?’

Both Spain and Mississippi, in fact, enjoyed the benefits of brigades, as it were. That is, volunteers who came there to fight for freedom and democracy. In Spain there was the Lincoln Battalion, the Washington Brigade, the Garabaldis and so on; in Mississippi there was the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Freedom Summer, and the Republic of New Africa. In the Lincoln Battalion, some of the volunteers were from Mississippi, like Eluard Luchell McDaniels, who was from Lumberton, just south of Hattiesburg.


And of course, there was James Yates, born in 1906, in Quitman, Mississippi. He was influenced by his uncle as a follower of Marcus Garvey, who eventually moved to the all-Black town of Boley, Oklahoma. Yates was nourished on stories of another uncle of his, who once defended his family from the Klan with guns, and of the Irish immigrant neighbor who gave him the ammunition. He would eventually migrate to Chicago, join the labour movement and the Communist Party, and then go off to Spain.

Let me end with the prescient words of Yates, who wrote in his memoirs:

‘I was just beginning to learn about the reality of Spain and Europe, but I knew what was at stake. There the poor, the peasants, the workers and the unions, the socialists and the communists, together had won an election against the big landowners, the monarchy and the right-wingers in the military. It was the kind of victory that would have brought Black people to the top levels of government if such an election had been won in the USA. A black man would be governor of Mississippi. The new government in Spain was dividing its wealth with the peasants. Unions were organizing in each factory and social services were being introduced. Spain was the perfect example of the world I dreamed of.’


Posted on 15 December 2021.

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