James Yates fought the war of inequality on the battlefield and in his civilian life till death

Stephen Nartey November 15, 2022
Photograph: James Yates, Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Photograph Collection; ALBA Photo 15; Series I Photographs 1930s-1990s, Box 3, Folder 91. Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives. Elmer Holmes Bobst Library, 70 Washington Square South, New York, NY 10012, New York University Libraries.

When the Communist International made a clarion call for people to voluntarily join the republic side in the Spanish war in 1937, African-American anti-fascist James Yates decided to respond to the appeal. His motive for joining the war was his disapproval of racism against African Americans. 

The war attracted 50,000 volunteers mainly made up of African Americans, Cubans and people from the Caribbean. In 1936, Yates was resolute that the Spanish war was the only one he needed to participate in and make his views on fascism count. He was conscripted, according to Business Insider, into the Abraham Lincoln Brigade which was made up of 2,800 Americans and 85 African Americans. 

In the recent past, there has been criticism about attempts to water down the contributions of these African Americans in the history of the Spanish and American alliance in the war. Many of these African Americans like Yates worked in the cotton fields of Mississippi. They saw the war as an opportunity to escape the inequality and racial discrimination they endured in the United States.

When Yates migrated to New York, he was confident of several economic opportunities. But, the reality of the systemic challenges hit hard at him when he had to take poor-paying jobs in factories and businesses. The financial meltdown in 1929 further worsened his plight. Another trigger that prompted many African Americans to join the war was the decision by Italian leader Mussolini to invade Ethiopia. They were of the view that Ethiopia was the only independent African country and does not deserve such intrusion from Italy, as reported by the co-director of the documentary on the lives of these unsung heroes, Alfonso Domingo. 

Though many Americans were determined to fight on behalf of Ethiopia, administrative challenges such as the acquisition of visas restricted them. Those who were disappointed in their inability to fight in the Italio-Ethiopian war decided to join the Lincoln Brigade to fight for a bigger cause. The Lincoln Brigade is credited for being the first unit in U.S. military history with officers of different races. It was also the only unit that was headed by an African American prior to the Second World War. It was a social leveler where the race or color of whoever fought never mattered. 

The stark contrast however dawned on Yates when he was denied access to a hotel when he returned to New York. In Spain, he drove trucks and entered different places and was never questioned. It was rare to see an African American driving a truck in the 1930s. To make matters worse than he could imagine, he found it difficult to secure a job despite fighting the war. He was considered a dangerous communist by the FBI and witnessed concerted persecution from the system. This was in spite of the hundreds of thousands of Americans who hailed them after they returned from the war. 

Yates was virtually sacked from every job he ever got compelling him to venture into entrepreneurship. He established his own shop where he repaired television. Despite these challenges, he never lost sight of the social cause he fought for. 

He had speaking engagements where he spoke about the sacrifices they made for the Lincoln Brigade. He wrote his memoirs and was a staunch civil rights advocate. He made subsequent trips to Spain and managed to write a second book about New York City but was never published. He was interred at the military cemetery after he passed away in New York.

Last Edited by:Welby Obeng Updated: November 16, 2022


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