What You Missed in Part I of This Diary
Paul Robeson had as much moral stature as all of the icons associated with the Civil Rights Movement. Before he had turned forty years old, he had accomplished more than many individuals combined might achieve in several lifetimes.
Finding very limited opportunities in New York after graduating from Columbia University Law School, he lived in London from 1928-1939 and where he became an international star in film and the theatrical stage. His travels broadened his political horizons and increased his activism - notable among them the Republican cause in the 1936-1939 Spanish Civil War. Returning home, he continued to perform in musical concerts supporting the Allied effort in World War II.
The onset of the Cold War in the late 1940's made many Americans wary of the Soviet Union and Robeson, like other political activists involved in progressive and radical causes, was tarred with engaging in "Un-American activities." The years of the "Red Scare" would make his life miserable and with his U.S. passport revoked, a virtual prisoner in his own country for almost a decade.
If the government wanted to silence his voice, it failed for Robeson fought back.
How big a star was Robeson in Europe? Watch this video "Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist" (go to the 10:45 mark) in which both the opposing Republican and Nationalist troops during the Spanish Civil War listened to Robeson sing. His presence made "a war stand still" - reminiscent of the Christmas Eve peace that broke out during World War I. I recently wrote about it in this diary - The Night the Guns Fell Silent on the Western Front - December 24, 1914. Photograph credit: Rotten Tomatoes.
Returning to Europe Under the Watchful Eyes of the CIA and MI5
In April 1949, just as the Cold War was beginning to intensify, actor, singer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson traveled to France to attend the Soviet Union-sponsored Paris Peace Conference. After singing "Joe Hill," the famous ballad about a Swedish-born union activist falsely accused and convicted of murder and executed in Utah in 1915, Robeson addressed the audience and began speaking extemporaneously, as he often did, about the lives of black people in the United States. Robeson’s main point was that World War III was not inevitable, as many Americans did not want war with the Soviet Union.
Before he took the stage, however, his speech had somehow already been transcribed and dispatched back to the United States by the Associated Press. By the following day, editorialists and politicians had branded Robeson a communist traitor for insinuating that black Americans would not fight in a war against the Soviet Union. Historians would later discover that Robeson had been misquoted, but the damage had been almost instantly done. And because he was out of the country, the singer was unaware of the firestorm brewing back home over the speech. It was the beginning of the end for Robeson, who would soon be declared "the Kremlin’s voice of America" by a witness at hearings by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).
"Past Imperfect: What Paul Robeson Said," September 13, 2011 - Smithsonian magazine. In the difficult years that followed, Robeson saw his annual income drop from $150,000 to under $3,000 per year. The above sketch portrays FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover's heavy-handed and, often, illegal methods employed to suppress dissent amongst various domestic political groups. Sketch credit: Labor Arts.
Europe was a place where Robeson was held in high regard as an artist and unlike America, not every aspect of his life closely examined through a negative political prism. After a long struggle of eight years, his passport was finally reinstated in 1958. Sensing greater opportunities abroad, Robeson returned to London to resume his career and activism (see this British video and contentious interview in which he details his ambitious plans). During the earlier decade that Robeson had lived in London in the Interwar period, his political awakening included becoming intimately familiar with the plight of millions of colonized Africans and vigorously championing the rights of Welsh coal miners struggling against harsh working conditions in the coal mines of Wales. An early ideological influence and attraction to socialism was due to his friendship with playwright and literary critic George Bernard Shaw. Exposure to many Africans living in London had taught him the depths of independence struggles in Africa and the pernicious effects of imperialism from many future African leaders like Jomo Kenyatta, Nnamdi Azikiwe and Kwame Nkrumah.
He desperately wanted to do something about these injustices. However, his plans to jump start his political activism were dealt a serious blow in 1961
By 1961, eager to join the fight for civil rights in his own country, Robeson decided he would return to America after completing a farewell world tour that was to include visits to Africa, India, China and Cuba. However, these plans were aborted when, during a stay in the Soviet Union, Robeson experienced a psychological breakdown. Based on Freedom of Information Act documents and the recollections of witnesses, some have raised the possibility that the incident was the result of the hallucinatory drug LSD being administered to Robeson by agents of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency’s "MKULTRA" Project. He recovered rapidly under the care of his Soviet doctors, but returning to London he had a relapse. Despite his Soviet doctors’ advice to the contrary, he was admitted to a British hospital where he was subjected to 54 electroshock treatments. Convalescing in East Berlin, doctors expressed surprise at the excessive amount of shock therapy and medication that he had received. A subsequent brain scan performed in the United States revealed significant brain damage caused by the electroshocks. Robeson was now gaunt and worn. The United States Government agencies maintained their interest in Robeson during this period of ill health. In 1962, under the heading of "Internal Security" the FBI noted: "We will continue to follow Robeson’s activities closely."
Although his health did not allow his active participation in the struggle for racial equality during this period, his fight against racial segregation in earlier years had helped lay the foundation for the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
"Biography: Let My People Go" - The Paul Robeson Foundation. To learn more about this serious allegation, see this excellent three-part 1999 audio interview that Amy Goodman of Democracy Now conducted with Paul Robeson, Jr. - Paul Robeson & LSD: MKULTRA. The CIA's MKULTRA project first came to light in the Church Committee Investigation conducted by the United States Senate in 1975. Although most documents had been destroyed by the order of then-CIA Director Richard Helms, over 20,000 documents had survived this document purge. An article written in 2008 in the Guardian newspaper - "Theatre of the Absurd" - suggests that in the immediate post-World War II period, Robeson's activities were closed monitored by MI5 (the British equivalent of the FBI) as he was seen as a threat to the interests of the British Empire.
Robeson biographer and historian Martin Bauml Duberman elaborated on the above in an interview (go to 5:30 mark of the NPR interview) he gave in 1989. In it, he explained why he had to sue the FBI to gain access to secret files. He accused government agencies - particularly the FBI - in being complicitious and responsible for the decline of Robeson's health and career. Many of these files were destroyed and never released.
The most dramatic revival of Robeson’s legacy took place in Carnegie Hall at a 75th birthday celebration. Produced by Harry Belafonte in collaboration with Paul Robeson, Jr., it was attended by many notables including Coretta Scott King, Sidney Poitier and James Earl Jones. Birthday greetings came from around the world, including several from third-world leaders – President Julius Nyere of Tanzania, Prime Minister Michael Manley of Jamaica, President Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia and India’s Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Mayor Richard Hatcher of Gary, Indiana eloquently referred to Robeson as "our own black prince and prophet."
The audience heard Paul’s recorded message: "Though I have not been able to be active for several years, I want you to know that I am the same Paul, dedicated as ever to the worldwide cause of humanity for freedom, peace and brotherhood. Though ill health has compelled my retirement, you can be sure that in my heart I go on singing.
But I keeps laughing instead of crying
"Biography: Let My People Go" - The Paul Robeson Foundation. The video "Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist, Part II" covers Robeson's life from the time he had been blacklisted in 1950 to his death in 1976.
In most cases, life's endings are neither easy nor comfortable. So was the case with Robeson. Two years after his return from Europe, his wife Eslanda died in 1965 after a long bout with cancer. Suffering from ill health himself and shunning the public limelight for the rest of his life, he moved in with his sister, Marian. From time to time he would make political statements such as speaking out against the racist apartheid system in South Africa. In 1974, a concerted effort was made (as described above) to honor his contributions and revive his legacy.
Paul Robeson died on January 23, 1976. He was seventy seven years old. Over 5,000 people attended his funeral, many complete strangers who had never met him in person. An excellent article written in Ebony magazine not long after his funeral remembered him fondly
He had to live up to a living legend and that is, he had to live up to a public which expected him to be bigger than life. There is no such thing as bigger than life, as he would impress upon me often. So, that's an immense burden and he said when he retired and became what people said, well, he's a recluse. No, he had had enough of being a public figure and he wasn't about to be someone's wise, wise elder and some kind of living icon. He'd done his job, he'd finished and he wasn't about to give up one second of his private life after his retirement. So, I remember him saying when he was about sixty, "You know, I hope I hope I don't live to be an old man and I hope I have an heart attack or something and go quickly. I wouldn't know how to be an old man after my public career is gone because nobody would accept me as just a person who is not some kind of icon." So, he sacrificed being able to be old.
By anyone's fair and unbiased definition, Paul Robeson was a great American and one who dared to confront the societal injustices and political contradictions firmly entrenched in his own country's long traditions.
Farewell To a Fighter
Paul Robeson, 77, concert singer, actor, and one of the most courageous men in black history, died in Philadelphia on January 23 after being "buried alive" for years because of his uncompromising stand against American racism
A cold rain, one of those depressing mid-winter rains, had fallen all day. It was falling as knots of somber people side-stepped chilly black puddles in the Harlem streets on the way to the Mother A.M.E. Zion Church. There, in a silk suit and tie and a closed mahogany coffin, lay Paul Bustill Robeson.
Among the thousands who crowded into the historic sanctuary were faces from the old Harlem Writers Guild, the Old Left, and others were just old. Few had ever met the moody giant, and fewer had known him well. There were ideologues whose visions he had shared and supported, there were people whose personal resolve had been strengthened by the example of his steel-hard integrity, and people who loved him because he sang of them and to them of a voice unmatched in its combination of technical mastery and natural beauty.
Recordings of the songs that were Paul Robeson's gift from black America to the world floated over the silent crowd, but no one was there to mourn a mere singer of songs... a black woman proudly displayed an autographed program from a Roberson concert in the 1940's and wondered aloud, "How could they have done what they did to him?"
A tearful Jewish woman who had never been close enough to Robeson to shake his hand said she felt she had lost a friend. "Paul Robeson shared my life from the time I was fifteen," she said. "I loved his voice. I loved his decency, integrity, and courage."
Carlyle Douglas, "Farewell To a Fighter" - Ebony, April 1976.
In 1958, 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."
However, even if one could imagine that every one of the editors of the entire white American press, individually and without pressure, came to the same judgment that Robeson's book did not merit attention, there exists an overwhelming fact to prove that their unanimity was not a miraculous coincidence.
Lloyd L. Brown, "Robeson's Here I Stand: The Book They could Not Ban" - Paul Robeson: The Great Forerunner (pp.150-51). When the book was republished forty years later in 1998, the publisher added this note: "Here I Stand offered a bold answer to his accusers. It remains today a defiant challenge to the prevailing fear and racism that continues to characterize American society." Sterling Stuckey is the Professor Emeritus of History, University of California, Riverside. Watch this recent video of a realy interesting discussion at the Claremont Graduate University - "Paul Robeson and Religion."
Today, Paul Robeson seems impossible. How could one man have accomplished so much, commanded such respect, be so large and legendary, even during his lifetime? It sounds reductive to attribute his success to genius, too easy to call him destined for greatness. Even if they might be true, such stories leave out the sheer will it must have taken for Robeson, son of a runaway slave, to find himself in so many ways, and even more to the point, to make himself known - boldly, bravely, and magnificently.
A decade before the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks (deservedly) emerged as the face of the modern civil rights movement - one identified with fighting Jim Crow laws largely 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 Great Britain, 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 years ago, you can listen to the Depression-era ballad, 'I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night' as sung by Robeson in this video. The scenes are from a 1998 protest in New York City against then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R-NY).
I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night
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!
An icon of the labor movement, Joe Hill was charged with murder (wrongly, many contend) and executed by a firing squad on November 19, 1915. Immortalized in a tribute poem by Alfred Hayes, the lyrics were first sung by Robeson in 1936. Among others, singers Pete Seeger and Joan Baez have often performed this song. Sketch credit: The City Project.
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, 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, written expressly for Robeson by composers Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II.
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 uniquely brilliant individual way ahead of his time. That he could excel at so many different things in life made him stand out among his peers and successors and further testimony to his determination and will power to succeed.
What accounted for his greatness and what were the reasons so many "feared" him? In 1999, a wonderful program about his life described it this way
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 obsessive 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
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."
"American Masters: Paul Robeson, Here I Stand" - PBS. See reader comments in response to the PBS program and article "Paul Robeson: About the Actor." The photograph is the cover of Paul Roberson, Jr.'s two-volume book about his father - The Undiscovered Paul Robeson, An Artist's Journey, 1898-1939 and The Undiscovered Paul Robeson: Quest for Freedom, 1939-1976. Photograph credit: Open Library. For more on Muhammad Ali's incredible career and political activism, see this diary that I wrote only a couple of months ago - "Lawdy, Lawdy, He's Great" - A Profile in Political Courage.
One of the most important contributions that Robeson made was that his political activism gave hope to and emboldened many others in the years to come to question a political and economic system that had long deprived millions of Americans of dignity and basic human rights.
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.
If you've never watched "American Masters: Paul Robeson, Here I Stand" on PBS, learn more about the program. The above video shows his son Paul Robeson, Jr. discussing baseball great Jackie Robinson's testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee and what both his father (at the time) and Robinson really felt about this appearance many years later.
It gave them confidence to continue their struggle
As the civil rights movement emerged, constructive and self-assured images of African Americans began to replace the habitually negative depictions of black people and characters in mainstream culture.
This positive imagery found its way into myriad books, magazines, newspapers, films, television programs, posters, and advertisements. It also inspired an industry unto itself - aimed at instilling pride through the representation of black achievers - exemplified by this birthday card celebrating the work of the renowned actor, singer, and humanitarian, Paul Robeson.
Charlie Rose: Let me go on. His voice, his command of song, his power on stage. Tell me more since your voice is reasonably good, Mr. Davis.
Ossie Davis: His voice, number one. Out of his voice came a sense of command, a sense of power that was to us as a powerless people almost an invitation to be born again. I, as a boy in Georgia, I knew what it meant to be a nig##r and how to cooperate with the system that insisted that I be. I knew how it diminished me as a human being and I accepted it because the culture insisted that I do.
Paul was one of the people who was able to by his voice and the command within it to say, "Hey, get up. Stand up. You're a man, too." And I was a man in his image. The voice, the songs, there was art in them. There was entertainment in them but there was more. There was human spiritual regeneration in his singing and he knew that. He knew the effect he had on people as he sung to them. More than entertainment, more than the movie in an artistic sense that you shall be born again, you know, because of the power I had that I share with you.
"Paul Robeson Birthday Card" - Smithsonian - National Museum of African American History and Culture. A few days before PBS broadcast "American Masters: Paul Robeson, Here I Stand" in 1999, Charlie Rose discussed this superb documentary with actor and activist Ossie Davis and Paul Robeson, Jr. Fast forward to the 42:35 mark of this video to watch this conversation in which, among other things, Davis talks about Robeson's flirtation with the Soviet Union.
Paul Robeson Deserves Our Attention and Respect
While Robeson was winning one accolade after another, he continued to do what his enemies disliked: he never accepted his success at the expense of the suffering of his people. Personal success was not enough for him. He demanded success, liberation, freedom for all mankind... What happened to Robeson as a result of his Othello was a prelude to the terror he later met and the curtain of silence that had been drawn around him... This amazing man, this great intellect, this magnificent genius with his overwhelming love of humanity was a devastating challenge to a society built on hypocrisy, greed, and profit-making at the expense of common humanity.
A curtain of silence had to brought down on him. He had to be kept off tv, maligned, and omitted from the history books. Perhaps if we begin to lift the curtain of silence surrounding the accomplishments of Paul Robeson, we may begin to walk down the road of nationhood and equality.
"Time to Break the Silence Surrounding Paul Robeson?" by Loften Mitchell in Paul Robeson: The Great Forerunner by editors of Freedomways (pp. 69-71, 1998). Robeson played Shakespeare's Othello on Broadway for a record 296 times. Sketch credit: African American History & Heritage.
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 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.
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?
Indeed, not unlike Willy Loman, attention must be paid to Paul Robeson.
Notes About the Diary Poll
As a young man in the late 1930's, Pete Seeger first saw Paul Robeson speak at a rally in Madison Square Garden, by which time he had dropped out of Harvard College and started pursuing a career in music.
Seeger adored Robeson, the causes he represented, and finally met him after the end of World War II. Many years later, Seeger described that encounter
It was the late 1930's: 20,000 crowded Madison Square Garden to protest the growing world menace of fascism. I was one more teenager in the upper tiers. There had been many speeches that evening, mostly by white people, some lecturing, some shouting and declaiming at ever higher pitch. Then this tall, broad-shouldered black man stepped up to the microphone.
"Good evening, friends." The voice was so low, so deep, and resonant, it seemed to represent the whole vast mass of rank-and-file humanity. The entire auditorium responded with one, big, and loving exhalation. This man represented us, all of us...
He was the hero of my youth. Several million other young whites must have also felt so. When I was in the U.S. Army in World War II my wife wrote me a long description of the huge birthday party given him in New York City. After the encomiums, he sang, and some would have wanted him to sing all night, but others knew he had a hard schedule, playing six nights a week in Othello and their admonition was picked up by thousands, "Save your voice, Paul!"
After the war, I met him in person. I waited in line after the concert, knocked on his dressing-room door, and asked if he would be the sponsor of our fledgling organization, People's Songs. "Why, of course," he said with that broad smile. With all the other things on his mind he took time to help us, advise us.
This 1940 photograph shows Pete Seeger (left) with another legendary singer-songwriter, Woody Guthrie. Photgraph credit: The Nine Pound Hammer. Seeger wrote the above 1998 tribute to Robeson in Paul Robeson: The Great Forerunner, p. 311.
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 - and without discounting the contributions of, among others, Whitney Young, A. Philip Randolph, James Farmer, Medgar Evers, The Little Rock Nine, Dick Gregory, Julian Bond, Thurgood Marshall, Stokely Carmichael, Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, 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 Paul 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.
In the above photograph, Paul Robeson is greeting W.E.B. Du Bois at the 1949 World Peace Congress in Paris, France. Photograph source: W.E.B. Du Bois Library, University of Massachusetts.