CHICAGO – Bowing to a six-year grassroots campaign, the U.S. Postal Service has announced that it will issue a stamp commemorating the life of Paul Robeson. The announcement is being greeted with joy in the ranks of those who fought for its issuance.
The campaign for the stamp was launched in 1997, a year before the 100th anniversary of Robeson’s birth. Mark Rogovin, a leader of the Chicago-based Paul Robeson 100th Birthday Committee, credited two people as initiators of the idea of honoring Robeson with a stamp – Dr. Margaret Burroughs, founder of Chicago’s DuSable Museum of African American History and a friend of Robeson, and Veterans for Peace activist LeRoy Wolins.
“We had this idea about pushing for the stamp and we obtained contacts from all over the United States in connection with the 100th birthday celebrations,” Rogovin said. “We decided to come up with a very simple petition urging the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee to issue a postage stamp in honor of Paul Robeson.”
Many thousands or even tens of thousands of signatures were gathered at the DuSable Museum, he said. Every day, busloads of school children would visit the museum on field trips, learn about Robeson, and sign the petition.
The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom was another group whose members threw themselves into the campaign, especially members of the Los Angeles WILPF branch, and members from Philadelphia to Miami and from Portland, Maine, to Portland, Oregon.
“In the end, I think we gathered nearly a quarter million signatures from all over the country,” Rogovin said. “We went to the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee and turned them in. After working on this for nearly four years, every month or two we’d call and ask them for an update and they’d say: ‘It’s still under consideration.’”
He added, “We were never certain that we were going to have a success, but we always felt that whether we got the stamp or not, the campaign would have been worthwhile to do anyway since we introduced so many people, especially young people, at the grade school level, at the high school level, who had never heard of Robeson, to this great man.”
Now, he said, the task of educating the people about Robeson has been made easier but at the same time a greater challenge.
“I think this is a tremendous victory,” Rogovin said. “We should think about holding celebrations all over the United States, stamp parties, and so on.”
The stamp, part of the Postal Service’s Black Heritage Series, was unveiled at a Sept. 29 news conference at Columbia University where Robeson earned a law degree in 1923. It will be released in time for African American History Month this coming February.
Professor Manning Marable, director of Columbia’s Institute for Research in African American Studies, told the news conference that Robeson “was a man who spoke truth to power.”
Robeson’s life, he said, is an argument for affirmative action to increase enrollment in the nation’s colleges and universities by men and women of color.
Columbia Law School’s vice dean, Richard Briffault, spoke at length of Robeson’s legacy at the law school, from which he graduated in three years. “He is one of our greatest graduates,” Briffault said, hailing his stand against colonialism and fascism and for civil liberties and civil rights.
Former New York Mayor David Dinkins told the news conference, “We thought this day would never come. For years we got stamps for Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse and no Paul Robeson.” He praised Robeson as a giant in the struggle for African American equality and against racist oppression. “We all stand on the shoulders of Paul Robeson,” Dinkins said.
Present at the event was Jarvis Tyner, executive vice chair of the Communist Party USA. “This is a great victory,” Tyner told the World. “The U.S. Postal Service could not have honored a greater American. Now, every school child will be told about Paul Robeson, the great fighter for equality and world peace, the great athlete, singer, actor. He was a genius who gave his heart and soul to the people.”
Robeson, he added, “embraced all the advanced ideas of the Communist Party USA, the need for a socialist transformation of society, the need for unity of Black, Brown and white. He played an outstanding role in the defeat of McCarthyism.” Tyner was referring to Robeson’s scathing testimony during an appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee, in which he denounced lawmakers who were covering up for lynchings and segregation in the South. The witch-hunters had put Robeson on the blacklist in an attempt to block him from singing in concerts or speaking. They revoked his passport to keep him from traveling abroad.
Tyner said the grassroots petition movement for the Robeson stamp deserves thanks for their efforts and congratulations for a hard-won victory. “We need a grassroots movement urging people to buy this stamp. Every stamp that goes through the system is like a picket sign for justice.”
He warned that the Postal Service is threatening to terminate the Black Heritage Series claiming “low demand.” Said Tyner, “We need a campaign to get people to use these stamps that have honored giants like Harriet Tubman, W.E.B. Du Bois, Thurgood Marshall and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”
The stamp is a black and white photo portrait of Robeson. On the back Robeson is described as an “incomparable artist and singer, human rights advocate, scholar and athlete, defender of Black freedom.”
Tyner said he met Robeson at a rally in New York in the early 1960s. “I came up from Philadelphia to deliver my first speech as leader of the W.E.B. Du Bois Clubs,” Tyner said. “I was very nervous but I finished my speech. To my surprise there was thunderous applause and cheers.” Tyner chuckled. “I thought it was my speech, but then I looked to the back of the room and there was this towering giant of a man coming in. It was Paul Robeson. He had just arrived home from Europe. He shook our hands and then delivered a powerful speech. He sang ‘Deep River’ and the crowd cheered. It was a life altering experience for me, to find myself in the same room with the great Paul Robeson. It steeled me in my beliefs.”
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Paul Robeson, a brief biography
Paul Robeson was a famous African American athlete, singer, actor, scholar and advocate for the civil rights. He rose to prominence in a time when segregation was legal in the United States, and Black people were being lynched by racist mobs.
Born on April 9, 1898, in Princeton, N.J., Paul Robeson was the youngest of five children. His father was a runaway slave who went on to graduate from Lincoln University, and his mother came from an abolitionist Quaker family.
In 1915, Paul Robeson won a four-year academic scholarship to Rutgers College. Despite violence and racism from teammates, he won 15 varsity letters in sports and was twice named to the All-American football team. He received the Phi Beta Kappa key in his junior year and graduated as valedictorian. However, it wasn’t until 1995, 19 years after his death, that he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
At Columbia Law School (1920-1923), Robeson met and married Eslanda Cardoza Goode, who was to become the first Black woman to head a pathology laboratory. He took a job with a law firm, but left when a white secretary refused to take dictation from him. He left the practice of law to use his considerable artistic talents in an acting and singing career.
In the 1920s Paul Robeson performed Eugene O’Neill’s “Emperor Jones” and “All God’s Chillun Got Wings.” In 1930 Robeson earned international acclaim for his role in “Othello” on a London stage. Robeson played Joe in “Showboat,” and was later to change some of the words of the song “Old Man River” from the meek “I’m tired of livin’ and ‘scared of dyin’” to a declaration of resistance, “I must keep fightin’ until I’m dyin’.” [He made] 11 films, including Proud Valley (1939).
Paul Robeson used his deep bass-baritone voice to promote Negro spirituals, to interpret through song the cultures of other countries, and on behalf of the labor and social movements of his time. He sang for peace and justice in 25 languages throughout the U.S., Europe, the Soviet Union, Asia and Africa. Among his friends were future African leader Jomo Kenyatta, India’s Nehru, historian Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois, anarchist Emma Goldman, and writers James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway. In 1933, Robeson donated the proceeds of “All God’s Chillun” to Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler’s Germany. In 1938 Paul Robeson traveled to Spain and sang in hospitals and on the front lines to troops of the International Brigades [against fascism].
During the 1940s, Robeson continued to perform and speak out against racism, in support of labor, and for peace. He was a champion of working people and organized labor, speaking and performing at strike rallies, conferences, and labor festivals worldwide. As a passionate believer in international cooperation, he protested growing Cold War hostilities and worked tirelessly for friendship between the U.S. and the USSR. In 1946, he headed the American Crusade Against Lynching, challenging President Truman to support anti-lynching laws. In the late 1940s when dissent was scarcely tolerated in the U.S., in a speech in Paris, Robeson openly questioned why African Americans would want to take up arms against anyone in the name of those who have oppressed them. Because of his outspokenness, he was accused by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) of being a Communist Party supporter. While he was indeed an advocate of socialism, he considered HUAC to have opposed the freedom of expression of those who worked for international friendship among nations and peoples.
The accusation nearly ended his career. Sixty of his concerts were cancelled, and in 1949, two interracial outdoor concerts in Peekskill, N.Y., were attacked by racist mobs while state police stood by. Robeson responded, “I’m going to sing wherever the people want me to sing … and I won’t be frightened by crosses burning in Peekskill or anywhere else.” In 1950, the U.S. revoked Robeson’s passport, leading to an eight-year battle to re-secure it and to travel again. Beginning in 1952 the Mine, Mill and Smelters Workers Union sponsored four annual Robeson concerts. They were held at Peace Arch Park at the U.S.-Canadian border with as many as 40,000 people in attendance. In ill health, Paul Robeson retired from public life in 1963. He died on Jan. 23, 1976, at age 77.
Excerpted from the booklet Paul Robeson’s Living Legacy, by Barbara Armentrout and Sterling Stuckey, 1999.
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Taking a stand
From a 1937 anti-fascist speech in defense of republican Spain:
“Every artist, every scientist, must decide now where he stands. He has no alternative. There is no standing above the conflict on Olympian heights. There are no impartial observers. Through the destruction, in certain countries, of the greatest of man’s literary heritage, through the propagation of false ideas of racial and national superiority, the artist, the scientist, the writer is challenged. The struggle invades the formerly cloistered halls of our universities and other seats of learning. The battlefront is everywhere. There is no sheltered rear. … The artist must elect to fight for Freedom or for Slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative.”
– Paul Robeson