Date: Fri, 19 Mar 1999 23:13:40 -0800 (PST)
From: firstname.lastname@example.org (Fred Hirsch)
Subject: [BRC-NEWS] Paul Robeson and Labor
Paul Robeson and Labor
By Fred Hirsch, AME-Zion Church, San Jose, CA, 12 March 1999
Paul Robeson was a musical artist, orator, renowned actor, student of languages and a scholar of African culture and the worldwide web of influence that grew from those roots, but he drew his strength from being a worker and a man of struggle, and that's what he was. He told the UAW (1947): "I have always put my faith and confidence in the working people in all countries and of all colors. I truly believe that they constitute the greatest force in the world for the advancement of all people."
Robeson's interest in the working class did not start when he joined the struggle of the Welsh miners in the early 30s. Else he'd not have said: "It seemed strange to some that having attained some status and acclaim as an artist, I should devote so much time and energy to the problems and struggles of working men and women. To me, of course, it is not strange at all. I have simply tried never to forget the soil from which I spring...I've learned that my people are not the only ones oppressed..." He spoke of a "common bond...Whether people weave, build, pick cotton, or dig in the mine, they understand each other in the common language of work, suffering and protest." In all: "The problem of the Negro people is generally a problem of working people. Their future lies with labor. They must work side by side with labor."
Robeson didn't have to look far to become a partisan of workers and, with that, of the trade union movement. The most important person in his life was his father. His father was a minister, but before that, a slave, a worker in the most abject of American working class conditions.
At fifteen years old Robeson's father ran away from his owner to join the Northern forces, to work and fight to eradicate slavery. Young Paul respected his father more than any person in the world. In the late forties I listened in awe when Robeson spoke of how his "people freed the mules and left their plows and their cotton sacks to rot in the furrows where they dropped. They put down their baling hooks, their hammers and saws. They stopped making the things and wealth the slave owners needed to supply their armies. It was the biggest strike of workers ever seen on this continent. Thousands of Negro slaves made their way across the South to fight against slavery and win that great war." (paraphrased) Paul traveled far from the soil from which he sprang. He left his legacy in that soil and that soil never left his soul.
Paul Robeson, speaking, singing, marching, and organizing, left pieces of his legacy and portions of his passion with many unions, too. Among them were: the The Welsh Miners, the Scottish Miners, Australian Construction workers, United Public Workers of America, United Auto Workers, National Maritime Union, International Longshore & Warehouse Union, State, County & Municipal Workers, Fur and Leather Workers, Shipscalers and Painters, Marine Cooks and Stewards, Food and Tobacco Workers, United Steel Workers, Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers, Transport Workers, National Trade Union Congress, National Labor Council for Negro Rights, Packinghouse Workers, and his own basic union, Actors Equity. I'll touch on a few highlights.
In 1939 Paul went to the racist U.S. Zone in Panama with the United Public Workers to organize and give concerts fighting for the rights of the mainly Black "Silver Roll" workers to equal pay, equal opportunity, decent housing and a 25 cent minimum wage. He helped build that union and and kept backing it up all the way.
At the National Maritime Union Convention in 1941 Robeson spoke out, demanding, "complete rights for labor, for complete equality for the colored people of this country and for a right to a better life for every worker in this land of ours." The Union then threw its full weight to the march on Washington called by A.Philip Randolph, resulting in FDR's signing the Executive Order for Fair Employment Practices, a milestone against institutionalized racism.
When sugar union leaders were being assassinated in the Phillipines and Cuba, the government, the Chamber of Commerce and the American Legion extended that same climate of fear and terror to the ILWU sugar workers in Hawaii. Over a hundred workers were charged with felonies. Discouraged and despairing, the Union asked Robeson's help to revive and rebuild the workers' spirit.. Despite the dangers, in two weeks time, Paul made 27 appearances at meetings and concerts. He sang and spoke in fields and meeting halls by day and met with the workers in their homes and barrios at night. The ILWU created our first lasting farm workers' union and projected an enduring worker friendly influence on life in Hawaii.
Here on the West Coast Robeson helped shape the ILWU into a conscious bulwark of affirmative action. ILWU leader Eddie Tangen told of Robeson's guidance to show that "the fight for Negro rights was a special problem and needed special solutions...Paul very forcibly brought to our attention that the whole fight had to be led by Negroes..." When Tangen, a white man who had led fights against racism, said: "I understand the problem, why can't I lead?" Robeson told him, "You're not Black, that's why." After brooding on that, Tangen stepped aside so that Joe Johnson became the Sec.Treas. of the whole union, an affirmative action landmark.
In 1941 UAW faced a tight situation at Ford in Detroit. White workers had called a wildcat strike in the middle of a do-or-die organizing drive. Loss of the campaign could have halted progress in the auto industry. The Company had lured African-American workers from the South with the best wages they had ever known, thus buying a certain loyalty. When the strike broke out, Black and white workers were divided. Black workers went to the roof of the Rouge plant and threw objects at the picketline. Robeson worked tirelessly, singing, speaking and going one-on-one at the plant gate picket line. Black and white together, the workers won their union and the union won the industry.
In Peekskill, NY a fascist mob canceled a Robeson concert. They turned back the concert goers by rioting. They layed waste to the concert grounds, attacked the set-up crew, and burned two Klan crosses on nearby knolls. The next day Robeson vowed to return the following weekend saying, "I shall take my voice wherever there are those who want to hear the melody of freedom or the words that might inspire hope and courage in the face of despair and fear." On his word alone, New York trade unionists opened a floodgate of organizing and delivered 25,000 people the following Sunday. We surrounded the concert meadow with a shoulder-to-shoulder security line of 1500 unionists ready to face any assault.
Paul Robeson was primarily a man of struggle. He never gave up and he never gave the workers he loved and led less than his best. Robeson's genius was, while singing or speaking to a large audience, to reach into the very heart of each and every person. He brought his whole knowledge and experience to us all, in every corner of this land and, listening, always listening, he heard our issues, shared our struggles and carried them, with glistening clarity.to the big world beyond our reach. Through Paul we reached all humanity and all humanity reached us.
Soon after Peekskill they took away Paul's passport. Many of the unions he helped build were planning a CIO strategic campaign to confront Jim Crow and organize the Deep South. In the year of Peekskill the CIO expelled those very unions and, instead of organizing Dixie, the CIO turned on itself to cleanse its ranks of Robeson supporters. Now, after fifty years, the AFL-CIO is back on track to organize.
If Paul were with us today he'd be in the front ranks for affirmative action. He'd champion the movement against lynchings by police and the so-called justice system. He'd struggle for planet-wide recognition of workers' rights in the global economy and he'd plunge into the new AFL-CIO's drive to organize the unorganized. He might repeat his 1949 words to Tobacco workers in Winston-Salem: "If fighting for the Negro people and their trade union brothers, if that makes me the subversive that they're talking about in Congress, if that makes me a Red, then so be it!" He said North Carolina is the "state where my people were born and reared, where my father was a slave, where my cousins are tobacco workers...We must dedicate ourselves to the struggle...to see that this will be a bounteous, peaceful world in which all people can walk in full human dignity."
Paul immortalized the song "Joe Hill," about a martyred radical labor organizer, and brought it to world attention. The verses could as well describe Robeson: "I dreamed I saw Big Paul last night alive as you and me. Says I, 'But Paul, you're now long dead.' 'I never died' says he. 'I never died' says he. And standing there as big as life and smiling with his eyes, Paul says 'My work, it didn't die- goes on to organize - goes on to organize.'"
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