Happy Birthday, Paul Robeson
Paul Robeson was born 115 years ago today. For me, the mere mention of Robeson’s name brings to mind a summer Saturday way back in 1949. On the same block as my apartment building in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, was a two-story structure almost under the elevated tracks of the Q train. The building was mainly known for its second-story poolroom. On that same floor, in another large room, was the headquarters of the local communist youth group, which consisted of the offspring of men and women who cared more about the effectiveness of their garment-industry unions than about revolution.
I had taken note of a street-level sign telling the departure time for the bus that would be carrying the group to the Paul Robeson concert and rally in Peekskill, in upper Westchester County. I wasn’t a member of the group or particularly sympathetic, but in a spirit of adventure I signed up for the trip. I did not bargain for the rocks that would come flying through the windows of the bus as we neared Peekskill.
By 1949 Paul Robeson might have been the most widely known living African-American. Son of a runaway slave, he had a compelling life story. He was one of the few blacks ever admitted to Rutgers, where he excelled in his classes and oratorical competitions, became an all-American in football, played baseball, ran track, and was class valedictorian. He went on to Columbia law school, from which he graduated in 1923.
Had he stayed with law, Paul Robeson could very well have been a predecessor of Thurgood Marshall or Barack Obama. But finding himself racially isolated in the New York law firm where he had his first job, Robeson quit the law. His anger at the unequal treatment of black people that had rankled from an early age could not be softened. All his life he craved being treated like anyone else. In trying to reach that goal he made some foolish choices.
When he left the law, he became a singer and actor. He played the emperor in Eugene O’Neill’s “The Emperor Jones.” He was the first black man to play Othello with an otherwise white cast. His signature song became “Ol’ Man River” from “Showboat,” the Kern-Hammerstein musical in which he starred. Nevertheless, regardless of where he performed in this country, he was subjected to the humiliation of segregation laws and customs. He usually submitted, but he fumed at not being allowed into hotels, restaurants, and restrooms used by whites. He was determined to see American law put a stop to such treatment.
In 1934 Robeson made his first trip to the Soviet Union. As he travelled across Germany, he witnessed the beginning of the persecution of Jews, and thereafter he always remained conscious of the bond between Jews and his own people. In the USSR, although he might have been duped by official minders, for the first time in his experience he found all people being treated equally. He became a great friend of the USSR and was always ready with words of praise. As the Cold War began, Robeson got involved with Soviet-dominated international organizations that presented the USSR as peace-loving and the U.S. as war-mongering and racist.
He spoke out more and more about the glorious Soviet Union, and his popularity declined. On one trip to Moscow he had irrefutable evidence of the harsh imprisonments of Soviet citizens who spoke out against the system but pretended he had not heard or seen anything. The FBI did its best to get venues to cancel Robeson performances. By 1949 Paul Robeson was known as a Cold War traitor.
In April of 1949, Robeson addressed a meeting in Paris of the World Congress of the Partisans of Peace, and he uttered words that brought a ton of trouble down on him: “It is unthinkable that American Negroes would go to war on behalf of those who have oppressed us for generations against a country (the USSR) which in one generation has raised our people to the full dignity of mankind.” Americans, black and white, denounced the statement, and Robeson was accused of inciting treason.
The House Un-American Activities Committee asked Jackie Robinson, who had broken the color line in major league baseball and who was in his third season with the Brooklyn Dodgers, to come before the committee and give testimony on the issue of blacks’ loyalty to America. This was difficult for Robinson. In 1943 Robeson had met with major league owners to urge them to end Jim Crow in baseball. In 1945, upon Robinson’s signing his first contract with all-white baseball, Robeson had declared the signing “the greatest step ever taken by organized baseball on behalf of the American Negro.”
Jackie Robinson’s political views were nowhere near Robeson’s, although Robinson had had his own problems with American racism. For one, while an Army lieutenant in Texas he was court martialed for being involved in a ruckus when he refused to move to the back of a civilian bus. At the House hearing on July 18, 1949, Robinson called Robeson’s remark “silly.” But he did not hesitate to assert that he knew where Robeson was coming from. That Robeson befriended communists did not alter the truth of what he said about racism in America. It doesn’t matter “who denounces the injustices in the courts, police brutality and lynching, when it happens, it doesn’t change the truth of Mr. Robeson’s charges.”
In the words of Arnold Rampersad, in his superb biography, Robinson basically said, “Blacks were stirred up long before the Communists arrived and will be stirred up long after the party has disappeared—unless Jim Crow has disappeared by then as well.”
Patriots across the country, many of whom probably were hearing the name Paul Robeson for the first time, were shocked by what they thought was a call for treason. Robeson’s career had to be destroyed and his supporters routed. When Jackie Robinson learned of the actions of the Peekskill mob he was shocked. August 26, 1949, made Robinson into more than an All-Star ball player.
Robinson recognized anew how much he and Paul Robeson shared. As one sports writer, Bill Mardo, put it, After Peekskill, “Jackie Robinson put his hand in Paul Robeson’s and together they fought the same fight. Each in his own voice, but it was the same fight.” As I ducked rocks on the bus that August Saturday, I certainly had my adventure but knew little of its lasting meaning.
Paul Marx is the author of “Jim Rouse: Capitalist/Idealist.”
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