OAKLAND, Calif. – Merritt College, a community college with a long history of engagement in people’s struggles, was the site Feb. 18 for Oakland’s “unveiling” of the Black Heritage series stamp honoring civil rights and civil liberties hero Paul Robeson.
Featured speakers included the Bay Area’s Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.); William E. Adams, international secretary-treasurer of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union; Oakland Postmaster Lawrence Barnes; and Sylvester Hodges, chair of the Bay Area Paul Robeson Centennial Committee.
They were joined by students and faculty in addressing a standing-room-only crowd in the capacious student lounge. Performers included the Vukani Mawethu choir and members of the student body. A proclamation by the Alameda County Board of Supervisors declared the date “Paul Robeson Day.”
“Paul Robeson has given me the strength and encouragement to do what I have to do each day – deal with the Bush-Ashcroft administration,” said Lee. She said the administration’s efforts to paint dissent as unpatriotic reminded her of the repression visited on Robeson, including the snatching of his passport, because he insisted on confronting racism and upholding the struggle for peace. “Paul Robeson lives,” she declared, “and his day is here!”
The ILWU’s Adams called Robeson “our Black and shining knight, a Renaissance man, ahead of his time. He understood the plight of working people.” Robeson, who was made an honorary member of the ILWU in 1943, stood with the union when its legendary leader, Harry Bridges, was threatened with deportation and the union was under attack during the McCarthy era. “If there is one person who should receive the Nobel Peace Prize, it is Paul Robeson,” Adams added. “He will, if we have anything to do with it.”
Robeson remains a beacon of steadfastness in the struggle for civil rights and against racism, said Sharon Lockhart, president of the Associated Students of Merritt College. “We hope our generation will produce an artist on the Robeson model who will advocate for those of us less fortunate,” she said.
“Stamps tell the world of our achievements and the Black Heritage series tells the story that African Americans made America great,” said Postmaster Lawrence Barnes. He noted that Robeson joins 26 African Americans who have already been honored through the series, and emphasized that the series will continue.
Hodges, of the Bay Area Robeson Committee, called for “the kind of cooperation that put this celebration together,” to ensure that Robeson is heard about, known and studied for people to emulate.
The Merritt College celebration was among many such gatherings around the country. In Chicago, two celebrations, on Jan. 25 and 26, featured Reps. Jesse Jackson Jr., Danny K. Davis and Bobby Rush, as well as Dr. Margaret Burroughs, founder of the DuSable Museum of African American History, Mark Rogovin, a leader of the Robeson 100th Birthday Committee, and others.
In Montgomery, Ala., Postmaster Alfreda Winston was joined at a Feb. 26 unveiling by other postal officials, State Board of Education member Ella Bell, and leaders of the Mid-South Diversity and Affirmative Action Advisory Committee.
In San Francisco’s Bayview-Hunter’s Point neighborhood, Mayor Gavin Newsom, District Attorney Kamala Harris and Supervisor Sophie Maxwell headlined a Feb. 19 celebration.
April 9 is the 106th anniversary of Paul Robeson’s birth.
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