Will Parry, now head of the Seattle chapter of the Alliance for Retired Americans, attended the concert by Paul Robeson when he sang at the Peace Arch Park on the U.S.-Canadian border near Blaine, Wash., on May 18, 1952.
He will travel there again on May 18 to attend a commemorative concert celebrating the 50th anniversary of what he calls ‘a head-on challenge to the anti-communist hysteria of the time. Robeson refused to concede the right of the U. S. government to deny him the right to go to Canada to perform.’
A highlight of the program will be Danny Glover’s reading of the speech Robeson gave at the first concert. Other scheduled performers include Ronnie Gilbert of the Weavers, the combined voices of Seattle Labour Chorus, Vancouver Solidarity Notes and Vancouver Jewish Folk Choir and punk band D.O.A.
Parry, who worked as a member of Robeson’s security detail, told the World the most impressive thing about the concert was ‘Robeson himself – the power of his presence; his powerful personality, his oneness with the audience and his connection with the largely working class audience.’
Robeson, who had been invited to Canada by the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers, was not allowed to travel outside the United States. The State Department had revoked his passport because of his outspoken defense of peace, his militant opposition to Jim Crow and his courageous refusal to knuckle under to the witch-hunters on the House Un-American Activities Committee.
‘So we had to find ways around it,’ Parry remembered. Robeson would go to the park, remain on the U.S. side of the border and perform from the back of a flat-bed truck.
Kostyn and Bev Gidora of Canada provided the truck and by mid-afternoon that sunny day 50 years ago, a crowd of 40,000 had come to hear Robeson’s amazing voice as he sang songs of struggle, courage and hope. ‘The concert made a tremendous impression, mainly because of the outpouring of affection and pride in Paul Robeson,’ the Gidoras told the World. ‘Having so many Americans in attendance gave us hope for the future.’
Tim Wheeler, then 12, and now editor of the Peoples’ Weekly World, said he was ‘thrilled by the power of Robeson voice as he sang ‘Joe Hill,’ ‘Old Man River,’ ‘Go Down Moses’ and ‘Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho.”
Parry said the first Peace Arch concert showed that ‘the struggle against the forces of the right can prevail and win. And the same is true 50 years later. Just as Robeson ultimately won the right to once again travel, today we can beat back Ashcroft and company and win back our basic rights. The people won the struggle against McCarthyism and so it is with the struggle against Ashcroftism today.’
Organizers on both sides of the border, including the Vancouver and District Labour Council, the Washington State AFL-CIO and the Bay Area Paul Robeson Centennial Committee are working to bring a large crowd to the May 18 event.
The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org The website for the event is at www.herewestand.org