[Documents menu] Documents menu
Date: Thu, 9 Apr 98 11:27:18 CDT
From: &Workers World& <ww@wwpublish.com>
Organization: WW Publishers
Subject: Paul Robeson: What Made Him a Giant
Article: 31967
To: undisclosed-recipients:;
Message-ID: <bulk.4921.19980410121544@chumbly.math.missouri.edu>

Paul Robeson: Anti-racist figher for socialism

Workers World, 16 April 1998

Conferences, documentaries and film festivals are now marking the April 9 centennial of Paul Robeson's birth. This multi-faceted African American excelled as athlete, actor and singer. Through his whole life he fought racism and struggled for socialist ideals until he died in 1976.

Even the big business press that demonized him when he was alive, or tried to ignore his accomplishments, has lately acknowledged the injustices done him.

But this admission is only a tiny beginning. This centennial of Robeson's birth is an opportunity to bring his story to the many young activists who have not had the opportunity to learn of his life. It is a chance for the progressive movement to elevate his contributions to the anti-racist and anti-imperialist struggle.

And the U.S. government must be held accountable for carrying out an anti-communist witch hunt campaign against him, similar to the vicious campaign it waged against Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

Robeson was born in Princeton, N.J. His father was a runaway slave who graduated from Lincoln University. His mother came from an abolitionist Quaker family. His roots were working class.

At Rutgers University from 1915-1919 he won an astonishing 15 varsity letters in baseball, basketball, football and track and was named twice to the All-American Football team.

He survived the racist attacks of his white teammates who attempted to kill him.

Only in 1995 was Robeson finally inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.

What made Robeson so extraordinary was that he understood that protest and resistance were the most effective means to overcome the obstacles he faced living in a country as racist as the U.S.

After attending Columbia Law School, he found a job at a law firm. But he abandoned the idea of becoming a lawyer when a white secretary refused to take dictation from him. At this point Robeson sought a career in the theater and on screen as an actor and singer.

He won acclaim throughout the world with his performances in Shakespeare's Othello. Yet Hollywood refused to bring this role to the big screen.

Robeson always fought to bring dignity to his characters at a time when Hollywood studios thrived on pro moting racist stereotypes of Black people and other nationalities of color.

In the 1939 film Proud Valley, about coal miners in Wales, Robeson's character promotes Black and white worker solidarity. With so few positive roles for him or other Black actors, he eventually walked away from Hollywood.


Racist and anti-communist reaction to Robeson's outspoken criticism of U.S. racism limited his opportunities to perform in the U.S. He then brought his unique bass voice to concert halls throughout the world.

As he traveled, his social consciousness was broadened, especially as thousands of admirers greeted him with cheers and flowers in the Soviet Union and the Eastern European socialist countries.

In a socialist environment, Robeson did not face racist segregation and bigotry as he did in the U.S. Robeson once commented, &The power of the Soviet Union ... would become an important factor in aiding the colonial liberation movement.&

Robeson was an international ambassador of African American culture. He also developed into an activist and fighter for civil rights, the socialist liberation of Africa and for organized labor.

During the 1940s, he challenged then-President Harry Truman to sign an anti-lynching bill. He asked publicly why Black soldiers should fight for a country where segregation was the law of the land.

He fought against the Cold War and tirelessly promoted organizations that sought friend ship and cooperation between the peoples of the Soviet Union and the United States.

During the McCarthyite era, the notorious House Un- American Activities Committee charged Robeson with being a communist. The U.S. government and police authorities considered an African American communist with such recognized talents a threat to their oppressive rule.

When HUAC asked Robeson why he did not just stay in the Soviet Union, he replied, &Because my father was a slave and my people died to build this country and I'm going to stay right here and have a part of it, just like you. And no fascist-minded people like you will drive me from it. Is that clear?&

This &blacklisting& of Robeson forced 80 of his concerts to be canceled. In 1949, racist mobs attacked two of his interracial concerts in Peekskill, N.Y., as white police passively stood by. Robeson was the target of reactionaries because of pro-Soviet statements he had made.

In response to this incident, Robeson stated, &I'm going to sing wherever the people want me to sing ... and I won't be frightened by crosses burning in Peekskill or anywhere else.&


The government revoked Robeson's passport in 1950. It was only reinstated after an eight-year legal and political battle.

Without a passport, the only country Robeson could visit legally was Canada. But Truman issued an executive order to keep Robeson from crossing even that border in 1952 for a concert in Vancouver organized by mineworkers. Truman claimed Robeson was a &national security risk.&

Still, Robeson performed anyway. He stood a foot from the Canadian border on a flatbed truck next to an upright piano. He sang and spoke to an audience of 30,000 massed on the other side.

Last Dec. 9, the U.S. Postal Service refused requests by 90,000 letter writers and petitioners to issue a Paul Robeson stamp during the centennial commemorations. The campaign will continue.

The FBI should be forced to open up its files against Paul Robeson to the public. This will expose the extent to which this government will go to destroy the lives of talented individuals who take progressive positions.

And above all, the big business media must not be allowed to co-opt Paul Robeson's memory. Robe son was against all that the capitalist media stood for. He was a working class hero who defended the most oppressed, the workers and socialism.

Above all Robeson refused to compromise his principles no matter how intense the political repression.

This is his greatest legacy.

(Copyright Workers World Service: Permission to reprint granted if source is cited. For more information contact Workers World, 55 W. 17 St., NY, NY 10011; via e-mail: ww@workers.org. For subscription info send message to: info@workers.org. Web: http://workers.org)