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Remember Robeson this month

February 9, 2012
By Bruce Dudley

During Black History Month we are reminded of the achievements and heroics of famous Afro-Americans.

There will, however, be one puzzling exception - the name Paul Robeson (1898-1976) will likely not be among those honored.

Considering Robeson's accomplishments over a long lifetime, his omission from the pantheon of great black leaders is more astounding.

Article Photos

Paul Robeson in 1942
(Photo from Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

Robeson, son of a runaway slave, was one of the first Afro-Americans to graduate from Rutgers University, where he won fame for his academic brilliance and athletic prowess.

His play on the football gridiron brought him All-American recognition, and years later he was named to the Collegiate Football Hall of Fame.

Standing slightly over 6 feet, 2 inches and weighing 220 pounds, Robeson had an Adonis-like physique which complemented his graceful bearing.

He also possessed natural charisma, and this quality, coupled with his deep baritone voice, proved an invaluable asset when Robeson began his career as an entertainer. In addition to concerts and leading dramatic roles, he made more than a dozen films during his years as a performing artist.

In the 1930s, Robeson experienced the threat of fascism as he traveled through Germany on his way to visit the Soviet Union. He soon became a fierce opponent of fascism and related its political persecution of Jews and other minorities with the discriminatory treatment of Negroes in the United States.

Robeson, on the other hand, was favorably impressed by the Soviet Union and its Constitution of 1936, which banned racial discrimination.

Returning to the United States from Europe in 1939, the world celebrity entertainer often expressed praise for the Soviet Union.

The popular Robeson's pro-Soviet sentiment did not yet raise concern, and his political views were taken in stride by the American public.

During World War II, Robeson enthusiastically backed the U.S. and its Allies in the fight against the Axis powers. He also campaigned for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's re-election in 1944 while simultaneously attacking Jim Crow practices in American athletics and segregation in the military. By the end of the war, only heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis rivaled him as the most celebrated Afro-American in the nation.

However, Robeson's stature declined in the years following FDR's death and the beginning of Cold War tensions with the Soviet Union.

Viewing post-war developments around the world, Robeson felt that the U.S. had abandoned its idealism and replaced the British, French and Dutch as an oppressive upholder of colonial rule over non-white populations.

In the mid-1940s, Robeson took part in demonstrations protesting racial lynchings in the South and other forms of discrimination directed at blacks.

Government foot-dragging in addressing these issues resulted in a confrontation with President Harry Truman in the fall of 1949, after Robeson had organized an "American Crusade" against such practices.

Following a meeting of several thousand supporters, Robeson presented a petition to Truman urging him to push for anti-lynching legislation in Congress. The president responded irritably to both the petition and his visitor's anti-imperialist views, prompting an angry Robeson to warn that unless blacks received protection from the federal government, they would defend themselves by any means available.

A year earlier, Robeson had played a major role in former Vice President Henry Wallace's third-party protest against Truman's hard-line policy toward the Soviet Union and what he perceived to be the president's reluctance in persuading congressional Democrats to champion civil rights legislation. Robeson campaigned tirelessly for Wallace's Progressive Party as Truman won an upset victory over the GOP's Thomas E. Dewey in one of the most memorable elections in U.S. history.

The year 1949 proved to be a nightmare for Robeson. He was mercilessly criticized for his leftist politics, and press attacks on him picked up momentum.

Forced to defend his pro-Soviet sympathies and loyalty, he charged that the accusations stemmed from mindless Cold War hysteria and "the basest kind of character assassination." To one reporter who questioned his patriotism, Robeson shot back: "I happen to love America very much - not Wall Street and not your press. I love the working classes of Britain and France and the people of the Soviet Union. I love them for the struggles for the freedom of my people and the working white people."

Hatred toward Robeson errupted in an ugly episode at Peekskill, N.Y. The embattled entertainer's life was threatened when he held an outdoor concert for a major civil rights organization. After the concert, veterans' groups and anti-communist thugs attacked the departing crowd. Although New York state troopers were on hand, they did little to restrain protestors who damaged vehicles and injured well over 100 Robeson fans. A furious Robeson, who noted that some law officers took part in the violence, called them "fascist stormtroopers who knock down and club anyone who disagrees with them."

Throughout the 1950s and long afterward, Robeson was subjected to the same surveillance and harassment by government agencies as Martin Luther King Jr. would experience during the Civil Rights Movement. Robeson's phones were tapped, his mail intercepted and his movements closely monitored by J. Edgar Hoover's Federal Bureau of Investigation. Moreover, on a couple of occasions, it was discovered that one of the front wheels of the car belonging to his driver and bodyguard had been tampered with, causing it to come off.

That same decade, the State Department revoked his passport for several years, with Robeson only having it restored after a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1958 ruled that the government had no right to deny a passport because of a citizen's political beliefs.

At a prior time, Robeson was subpoenaed to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in Washington. Robeson immediately aggravated his interrogators by taking the Fifth Amendment and refusing to answer whether he was a member of the Communist Party. Although he had denied that charge years earlier under oath in California, Robeson had become increasingly weary of the allegation. By the end of the session, the defiant witness was shouting at members of the committee and at one point bellowed out, "I am not being tried for whether I am a communist; I am being tried for fighting for the rights of my people, who are still second-class citizens in America."

Blacklisted in the entertainment industry and effectively marginalized, Robeson never regained his former iconic status. The stubbornly outspoken champion of human rights and world peace eventually succumbed to a series of disabling health problems and was eclipsed by the new breed of black leaders during the 1960s.

Like so many battle-scarred radicals before him, Robeson wore himself down both physically and mentally. In 1976 he died at the home of his sister in Philadelphia following a debilitating stroke.

As Baseball Hall of Fame legend Jackie Robinson wrote in his autobiography, "Robeson ... sacrificed himself, his career and the wealth and comfort he once enjoyed because, I believe, he was sincerely trying to help his people."

Robeson's own epitaph perhaps best memorializes his personal destiny: "The artist must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative."

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Bruce Dudley lives in Camden, Del., and Paul Smiths.

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Sources:

Bruum, Eric, and Lowenstein, Frank (2007) "Voices of Protest: Documents of Courage and Dissent."

Duberman, Martin (1989) "Paul Robeson: A Biography"

Journal of Social History, spring 1998

Kazin, Michael (2011) "American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation"

Newfield, Jack (2003) "American Rebels"

Robeson, Paul Jr. (2001) "The Undiscovered Paul Robeson: An Artist's Journey, 1898-1939"

Robeson, Paul Jr. (2010) "The Undiscovered Paul Robeson: Quest for Freedom, 1939-1976"

 
 

 

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