Standing with Spain: Michigan Students and the Spanish Civil War

June 14, 2017
By
Michigan students rally for Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Photo University of Michigan.

Michigan students rally for Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Photo University of Michigan.

After the 1936 outbreak of the war in Spain, students at the University of Michigan rallied in support of the Republic. A symposium on March 23-25 featuring Peter Carroll and Robert Cohen commemorated this history of political commitment.

During the Spanish Civil War, a vibrant student movement at the University of Michigan rallied in support of the Republic. The Progressive Club, a local chapter of the American Student Union, led efforts to mobilize the student body and to connect with an international movement that hoped to halt fascism in Spain. The Student Senate passed a resolution urging the U.S. government to lift the embargo on selling arms to the Spanish Republic. Students and faculty formed a medical aid committee, held rallies, and raised funds to send an ambulance. Three students volunteered for the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and fought in Spain—Ralph Neafus, Robert Cummins, and Elman Service—joining an estimated 100 volunteers from Michigan. After Neafus was captured by Nationalist forces in March 1938, students on campus mobilized to pressure the State Department to seek his release. Eventually, the government made inquiries through the Consul in Seville, but in the meantime, Neafus was executed along with the other International Brigaders captured at the same time.


After Michigan student Ralph Neafus was captured by Nationalist forces, the campus mobilized to pressure the State Department to seek his release.


To commemorate this history of political commitment, students and faculty held a symposium on March 23-25: “Standing with Spain: Anti-Fascist Student Activism and the Spanish Civil War”—one of many events organized to mark the University’s bicentennial. In preparation, students conducted archival research in the newly digitized student newspaper, Michigan Daily, in the Bentley Historical Library, and in the ALBA database, as they explored this largely forgotten history. The symposium provided undergraduates with the rare opportunity to present their original research to a broader public. Their papers included a variety of topics: the “Fighting Finns,” on the Finnish-Americans from the Upper Peninsula who volunteered in the ALB; “An Unexpected Voice,” on Chi Chang, a Chinese-American mining engineer in Michigan who volunteered in Spain; “Elman Service on Campus,” on a student volunteer who returned as a professor; and “The Michigan Six,” on the persecution that still another Michigan volunteer, Saul Wellman, endured during the McCarthy era.

Michigan students rally for Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Photo University of Michigan.

Michigan students rally for Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Photo University of Michigan.

The symposium also gave students the opportunity to engage in dialogue with two leading scholars: Peter Carroll, an expert on the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, and Robert Cohen, an authority on student activism in the 1930s and ’60s. In their keynote addresses, both speakers presented new research on the contributions of Michiganders in supporting the Spanish Republic. Carroll, in his address—“Facing Fascism: Americans and the Spanish Civil War”—recounted the experiences of Ralph Neafus, Saul Wellman, and William Titus. Cohen discussed the radicalization of Arthur Miller at the University of Michigan in a talk titled, “Where Have You Gone, Arthur Miller? America’s Forgotten Student Movement and the Spanish Civil War.”


The symposium provided undergraduates with the rare opportunity to present their original research to a broader public.


Other events included a recital and lecture by the pianist and human rights activist María Isabel Pérez Dobarro on the music of the second Spanish Republic; and a screening of Invisible Heroes: African-Americans in the Spanish Civil War, followed by a discussion with the co-director, Alfonso Domingo. On the final day, in a round-table discussion, representatives from Students for Justice and scholars with expertise in radical history examined the challenges facing activists today and the lessons to be drawn from movements in the past.

As part of an ongoing course on student activism during the Spanish Civil War, future students will continue to research these largely forgotten events and to contribute to the historical record by submitting their work to the University archives.

Juli Highfill is a professor of Spanish at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Share

Leave a Comment