Singer – actor – athlete – political activist
“We realise that our future lies chiefly in our hands. We know that neither institution nor friend can make a race stand unless it has strength in its own foundation”
When it comes to those who stand up for their beliefs, those who stick their heads above the parapet to be counted and in doing so invoke the the full wrath of those in power, here you must count Paul Robeson amongst the great USA Civil Rights activists.
Many know him only as a great American bass baritone concert artist and stage and film actor who became famous for his cultural accomplishments, but in the USA he was also famous for his political activism in a time when this could cost you your life.
In the words of Paul Robeson:
“To be free – to walk the good American earth as equal citizens, to live without fear, to enjoy the fruits of our toil to give our children every opportunity in life – that dream which we have held so long in our hearts is today the destiny that we hold in our hands”.
To his credit Robeson did not just fight for Black Civil Rights he also fought for Civil Rights for the ‘Working Class’ and the poor of all colours. Travelling the world to supporting workers rights.
His concert career reads like a world traveller’s passport: New York, Vienna, Prague, Budapest, Germany, Paris, Holland, London, Moscow, and Nairobi. His travels taught him that racism was not as prevalent in Europe as it was back home. In the United States, he couldn’t enter theatres through the front door or sing without intimidation and protest, but in London he was welcomed with open arms and standing ovations. Robeson believed in the universality of music and that by performing Negro spirituals and other cultures folk songs, he could promote intercultural understanding. As a result, he became a citizen of the world, singing for peace and equality in twenty-five languages including Chinese, Arabic, Russian and various African languages
Robeson based himself in England from the 1929 to the outbreak of the Second World War; a house in Camden bears a Blue Plaque with his name. In England he said he:
“learned that the essential character of a nation is determined not by the upper classes, but by the common people, and that the common people of all nations are truly brothers in the great family of mankind”.
During this period he was also deeply influenced by the Spanish Civil War against fascism and saw it as a turning point in Human Rights performing in concerts to support the conflict refugees. He joined the Communist Party in 1934 and enjoyed huge popularity in Soviet Russia. He remained a Marxist-Leninist until the day he died.
His support of workers and workers rights was a ‘hallmark of the man’. Performing in docks, shipyards, mines and strike gatherings around the world, including pits in Wales and Scotland taking every opportunity to perform the Civil Rights song ‘Joe Hill’, ironically about White unionist and poet and founding member of the Industrial Workers of the World Union (The Wobblies) Joel Hägglund executed in 1915. In 1952, with the encouragement of his friend the great Welsh politician Aneurin ‘Nye’ Bevan (founder of the NHS), Robeson recorded a number of radio concerts for supporters in Wales.
When performing and supporting the Aborigines cause in Australia he was told that they were ‘backward’, to which he retorted:
“There’s no such thing as a backward human being, there is only a society which says they are backward”.
During his travels he visited the Soviet Union and found them to be a tolerant and friendly nation, he began to protest the growing Cold War hostilities between the United States and the USSR. He began to question why African-Americans should support a government that did not treat them as equals.
All this was taking place at a time when dissent was hardly tolerated, Robeson was looked upon as an enemy of the state by his government. In 1947, he was named by the House Committee on Un-American Activities ‘McCarthyism’, and the State Department denied him a passport until 1958.
Paul Robeson on his socialist politics in 1958:
“I do not believe that a few people should control the wealth of any land.”
Robeson along with his friend W.E.B. Du Bois made serious political misjudgements, most notably on the Hungarian Uprising and Stalinism, but they never faltered from their beliefs in basic human rights and what they believed was the best political system to deliver it, right or wrong.
Looking back on his life as a young man, you can clearly see how this wonderful honourable man developed.
In his formative years Robeson was awarded a four year academic scholarship to Rutgers University in 1915, the third black student in the history of the institution. Despite the openly racist and violent opposition he faced, Robeson became a twelve letter athlete excelling in baseball, basketball, football, and track. He was named to the All American Football team on two occasions. In addition to his athletic talents, Robeson was named a Phi Beta Kappa scholar, belonged to the Cap & Skull Honour Society, and graduated valedictorian of his class in 1919.
He went on to study law at Columbia in New York and received his degree in 1923. There he met and married Eslanda Cardozo Goode, who was the first black woman to head a pathology laboratory. Robeson worked as a law clerk in New York, but once again faced discrimination and soon left the practice because a White secretary refused to take dictation from him.
Before the 1950s, Robeson was one of the world’s most famous entertainers and beloved American heroes – once being named ‘Man of the Year’ by the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People. Despite all his accomplishments, Paul Robeson remains virtually ignored in American textbooks and history.
Today we are looking again, he has become revered man once more, not just for his musical and cultural talents but for his long overdue recognition as a political activist, who put body on the line for what he believed to be a just and fair society.
Listen to this interview in 1960
In truth we abandoned him after his ‘McCarthyism trial’ the slander stuck. Robeson disappeared in a sea of mental breakdown, sadness and loneliness. A cruel end for a man who conducted a life full of desire and achievement, passion and conviction:
“the story of a man who did so much to break down the barriers of a racist society, only to be brought down by the controversies sparked by his own radical politics.”
Listen and Enjoy
Land of My Fathers 3.04min (Wales)
Old Man River 3.18min to Sydney Opera house workers:
The First Black star tribute 6.44min
The Volga Boatman 2.42min