April 9 is the 107th birthday of one of the foremost African Americans of the 20th century — Paul Robeson.
Robeson, a world-renowned singer and actor, was a leading civil rights activist and stalwart fighter for human dignity, peace and democracy.
During his lifetime, Robeson gave his considerable talents and energy to the struggles of workers around the world. While performing in “Show Boat” in London’s West End in 1928, he met a group of unemployed miners who had walked to London to draw attention to the hardship endured by thousands of unemployed miners and their families in South Wales. Thus began a long relationship between, which included numerous visits by Robeson to Welsh mining towns. He also starred in the 1940 movie, “The Proud Valley,” a film about life in a mining community in the Rhondda, Wales.
The U.S. government denied Robeson the right to travel from 1952-57 because of his outspoken left-wing and anti-racist views, which included solidarity with the socialist Soviet Union.
In an act of resistance, Robeson participated in the 1957 Miners’ Eisteddfod, a famous sports and cultural gala in Wales, through a transatlantic telephone link to a “secret recording studio” in New York.
After an international campaign, which included the Welsh miners, the Supreme Court was forced to reinstate Robeson’s passport in 1958.
“Paul Robeson’s record of fighting for his political beliefs, of giving substance to his vision of working-class solidarity, was quite simply unparalleled by any other cultural figure in American history,” wrote Dr. Mark Naison, chairman of Fordham University’s department of African American studies.
“He did so, at great financial sacrifice, when he was at the height of his commercial popularity, and he did so when he was an outcast in his native land, unable to find a commercial concert hall which would rent him space,” Naison wrote.
Robeson pointed to the essential part African American labor, paid and unpaid, played in the building of the United States.
“He sang to African American tobacco workers in the Carolinas in schoolyards and Baptist churches, around the campfires of Filipino and Japanese pineapple workers in Hawaii, to Black and white stevedores and factory workers in union halls in Memphis, to Jewish-American garment workers in Catskill bungalow colonies and Bronx social halls, to Finnish miners in their social clubs in the Mesabi Range of Minnesota,” Naison wrote, “to Mexican American miners in Colorado and Arizona, to black Panamanian government workers assembled in a stadium in Panama City, to crowds of thousands of auto workers outside of factories in California and Michigan, to an audience of Canadian miners and metal workers on the border between Washington state and Vancouver, to congregations of his brother’s AME Zion church.”
Robeson died in 1976. The U.S. Postal Service released a stamp in his honor in 2003, after a grassroots struggle initiated in Robeson’s centenary year of 1998.
Often referred to as “the tallest tree in the forest,” Robeson is an enduring role model for today’s artists and workers struggling for an end to the Iraq war, the Bush administration’s ultra-right and corporate onslaught and for a just and equitable world.
“The artist must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative,” Robeson once said.
Millions have pledged never to forget his legacy. Happy birthday, Paul!