(I had problems with HTML tags last night. Hence the delay in posting this — JnH)
On this day, January 23, 1976, one of the greatest Americans of the twentieth century died a nearly forgotten man in self-imposed seclusion in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Over the last three decades or so, you rarely, if ever, hear his name mentioned in the popular media. Once every few years, you might hear someone on PBS or C-Span remember him fondly and explain as to why he was one of the more important figures of the past century. In many respects, he had as much moral authority as Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks; he was as politically active as Dick Gregory, Harry Belafonte, John Lewis, and Randall Robinson; and, as befits many men and women motivated by moral considerations, he conducted himself with great dignity. For much of his life, not surprisingly and not unlike many of his worthy successors, he was marginalized and shunned by the political establishment of his time — until events validated their ‘radical’ beliefs and resurrected their reputations.
What did this man do that propel so many to ignore his numerous contributions and conveniently forget the crucial role he played in our culture and politics? Or, a few others to remember him with deep reverence and respect?
Who was this brilliant man? This article best summarizes the depth and breadth of his accomplishments
How many people do you know who are athletes? How about an athlete who has won 15 varsity letters in four different sports? An athlete who has also played professional football while at the same time being valedictorian at his university? Does this athlete also hold a law degree? How many scholar-athlete performers can you name? Concert artists who have sold out shows around the world and who can perform in more than 25 different languages? Does this scholar-athlete-performer also act in Shakespearean and Broadway plays and in movies? Can you identify a scholar-athlete-performer who is also an activist for civil and human rights? Someone who petitioned the president of the United States of America for an anti-lynching law, promoted African self-rule, helped victims of the Spanish civil war, fought for India’s independence, and championed equality for all human beings? Did this scholar-athlete-performer-activist also have to endure terrorism, banned performances, racism, and discrimination throughout his career?
I first became aware of Robeson in some detail in an American History seminar in undergrad school. One of the sections dealt with the famous 1948 Presidential Election. What caught my attention was not as much the dynamics of the Harry Truman-Tom Dewey race or the splintering of the Democratic Party by the defection of rightist Dixiecrats under Strom Thurmond but, rather, the leftist challenge to Truman’s candidacy by the Progressive Party and former Vice President under FDR, Henry Wallace. And the critical role played by Robeson in campaigning for Wallace in the then-segregated states of the Deep South.
What accounted for his greatness and what were the reasons so many ‘feared’ him? As the 1999 PBS ‘American Masters’ program, Paul Robeson: Here I Stand, described it
Paul Robeson was the epitome of the 20th-century Renaissance man. He was an exceptional athlete, actor, singer, cultural scholar, author, and political activist. His talents made him a revered man of his time, yet his radical political beliefs all but erased him from popular history. Today, more than one hundred years after his birth, Robeson is just beginning to receive the credit he is due.
During the 1940s, Robeson’s black nationalist and anti-colonialist activities brought him to the attention of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Despite his contributions as an entertainer to the Allied forces during World War II, Robeson was singled out as a major threat to American democracy. Every attempt was made to silence and discredit him, and in 1950 the persecution reached a climax when his passport was revoked. He could no longer travel abroad to perform, and his career was stifled. Of this time, Lloyd Brown, a writer and long-time colleague of Robeson, states: “Paul Robeson was the most persecuted, the most ostracized, the most condemned black man in America, then or ever.”
Robeson was not a perfect human being. Though never a member of the Communist Party of the United States, his admiration of the Soviet Union was the direct cause of some of his troubles with rightist elements in this country. Such was the price paid by many activists caught in the cross currents of Cold War politics. It is important to note that the J. Edgar Hoover-led FBI maintained a dossier on him for over three decades starting in 1941 — well before the Cold War had started and during the World War II years through 1945, until which time the USSR was officially an ally of the United States. If some of you have read the leading American newspapers of the 1941-1945 period, you know that stories about the “heroism” of Soviet soldiers fighting the Nazi war machine were as common in that day as are escapades of Britney Spears and Lindsey Lohan in today’s newspapers.
Nations, as Lord Palmerston once observed, do not have permanent allies or friends, only permanent interests. And as any student of international relations and history knows, once political “marriages of convenience” are over, the consequences are very unpredictable. Some societies adjust well to the divorce; others never quite recover from the shock. And individuals caught in this ever-changing dance of statecraft have to learn to adjust to the cynical realism of world politics. In this one instance, it is fair to say that Robeson was a slow learner.
He was also, however, by anyone’s fair and unbiased definition, a great American and one who dared to confront the societal injustices and political contradictions firmly entrenched in his own country’s long traditions. Borrowing the title from Martin Luther’s 1521 ‘Here I Stand’ Speech before the Diet of Worms in Germany, he stood up to express his outrage in his autobiography published in Great Britain during an earlier infamous ‘You-Are-With-Us-Or-Against-Us’ Era when he had much to lose in terms of both fame and fortune. This is what gained him, as we say in today’s parlance, “moral authority” and “political stature” — even if just about everyone in the mainstream media failed to recognize it at the time
In one area the boycott achieved a near-total success: with one insignificant exception, no white commercial newspaper or magazine in the entire country so much as mentioned Robeson’s book. Leading papers in the field of literary coverage, like The New York Times and the Herald-Tribune, not only did not review it; they refused even to include its name in their lists of “books out today.”
If you are largely unfamiliar with Robeson, watch the below video which summarizes his “multi-talented, multi-dimensional” life and one in which he sings a Czech song, Ol’ Man River, his attraction to the Soviet Union as explained by British socialist leader Tony Benn, Robeson’s own thoughts on Communism, and scenes from his funeral
How does Robeson compare to several other prominent African-Americans who followed him and are celebrated today for their ground-breaking achievements? Quite well, actually. If he’d done nothing else except excel academically at Rutgers University and graduated from Columbia University Law School — where future US Supreme Court Justice, William O. Douglas, was a classmate — undoubtedly he’d have had a very successful life. Considering that he finished law school in 1923, this was quite an achievement in those days.
A decade before the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. (deservedly) emerged as the face of the modern civil rights movement — one identified with fighting Jim Crow laws in the South — Robeson had been an important participant in a long civil right struggle centered in New York City. Additionally, many historians credit him for sowing the seeds of the political movement to come during the 1948 Wallace Presidential Campaign. He had tirelessly championed the cause of poor and oppressed people not only in the United States but all over the world. If he was a beloved figure for Welsh coalminers, in Africa, he had achieved near-mythical status for his anti-colonialist positions.
One example of his political activism
As this diary — Labor Organizer Joe Hill: Executed This Day in 1915 — first mentioned it a few weeks ago, you can listen to the Depression-era ballad, ‘I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night’ as sung by Robeson in the below video — a 1998 anti-Mayor Rudy Giuliani protest in New York City.
I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night,
Alive as you and me.
Says I “But Joe, you’re ten years dead”
“I never died” said he,
“I never died” said he.
“In Salt Lake, Joe,” says I to him,
him standing by my bed,
“They framed you on a murder charge,”
Says Joe, “But I ain’t dead,”
Says Joe, “But I ain’t dead.”
From San Diego up to Maine,
in every mine and mill,
where working-men defend their rights,
it’s there you find Joe Hill,
it’s there you find Joe Hill!
In the field of professional sports, decades before Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson, Bill Russell, and Jim Brown came to dominate their respective sports (boxing, baseball, basketball, and football), Robeson had been an All-American football player at Rutgers University and, following that, one who also played pro football. In the arts too — well before Singer Sammy Davis, Jr. and Actor Sidney Poitier became ‘acceptable’ to mainstream white audiences — Robeson was a respected and accomplished stage/film actor and singer with numerous recordings, the most famous of which is perhaps this 1928 rendition of Ol’ Man River.
And, yes, before anyone had ever heard the fiery speeches of Malcolm X and the morally courageous anti-war stands taken by Muhammad Ali in the 1960’s, Robeson had carved a niche for himself not only as an anti-imperialist champion but, also, as a forceful advocate for economic and social justice.
It would, therefore, not be too much of a stretch to assert that in many different fields of endeavor, Robeson was an unique individual way ahead of his time.
I have long admired Robeson for his staunch political convictions, principled stands, and perseverance when the odds were heavily stacked against him. That is the essence of political courage and greatness. But, in the “fierce urgency of now” and this obsessively politically correct era we live in, we tend to forget many like him who’ve come before us — especially those unfairly tarred with accusations of unpatriotic behavior by shameless demagogues amongst our midst
To this day, Paul Robeson’s many accomplishments remain obscured by the propaganda of those who tirelessly dogged him throughout his life. His role in the history of civil rights and as a spokesperson for the oppressed of other nations remains relatively unknown. In 1995, more than seventy-five years after graduating from Rutgers, his athletic achievements were finally recognized with his posthumous entry into the College Football Hall of Fame. Though a handful of movies and recordings are still available, they are a sad testament to one of the greatest Americans of the twentieth century. If we are to remember Paul Robeson for anything, it should be for the courage and the dignity with which he struggled for his own personal voice and for the rights of all people.
Note: if you’ve never watched ‘Here I Stand’ on PBS, see the below video of ‘The Charlie Rose Show’ in which Rose discusses the PBS Documentary with actor and activist Ossie Davis and Paul Robeson, Jr. a few days before it was broadcast in early 1999. Fast forward to the 42:40 mark of the video.
Towards the end of Arthur Miller’s classic play, Death of a Salesman, Linda Loman cries out with a memorable demand for respect for her deceased husband, Willy Loman
Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person. You called him crazy… no, a lot of people think he’s lost his… balance…
How long can that go on? How long? You see what I’m sitting here and waiting for? And you tell me he has no character? The man who never worked a day but for your benefit? When does he get the medal for that?
The painful question implicit in Linda Loman’s anguished cry for help is, at least to me, quite self-evident: what kind of a society do we live in, one that recognizes and acknowledges a man’s contribution to his fellow human beings only after he has departed this good earth and left us for good? And even then, we often fail to credit those whose shoulders we stand upon today. For, without their efforts and sacrifices, we wouldn’t amount to much.
Indeed, not unlike Willy Loman, attention must be paid to Paul Robeson.
Note – almost all of us hold the civil rights movement leaders I’ve mentioned in the diary poll in high regard. Given the limitations of the poll — without discounting the contributions of, among others, Whitney Young, A. Philip Randolph, James Farmer, Joseph Lowery, and Roy Wilkins along with countless others who suffered in anonymity — what I’m interested in finding out is this: Were you or your parents involved in the Civil Rights Movement? Did you ever attend a rally? If you met Robeson or one of the leaders mentioned, what are your lasting memories? And even if you’ve never met any of them, what do you think of their contributions? Share your thoughts, and impressions. Thanks.