NEW YORK — The life of Paul Robeson was extraordinary; his journey of struggle and steadfast commitment to democracy and the working class was recalled by Nancy Wallach — the daughter of a Veteran of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade — in a riveting talk on the connection between Robeson and the Lincoln Brigade, given December 17 at New York University’s Tamiment Library.
The talk was entitled “The Artist Must Elect to Fight for Freedom or Slavery.” The words were those of Robeson himself.
The event was sponsored by an organization of descendants of some of those who had volunteered to fight in Spain; the Friends and Family of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (FFALB). The talk highlighted Robeson’s support for the Spanish Republic and the International Brigades – the volunteers who had come from around the world to fight for democracy and to resist fascism in Spain.
The Lincoln Battalion was a component of this International Brigade, a part of the U.S. contingent. The International Brigade had been organized by the Communist International to assist the democratically elected Popular Front government of the Spanish Republic during the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930’s.
The 60,000 volunteers had come from many different nations and from many different walks of life but they had one thing in common: the resolve to fight fascism.
Paul Robeson had left the U.S. for Europe in the early 1930’s, at a time when the U.S. was in the period of Jim Crow and opportunities for a Black artist were limited. He gave concerts in England and Scotland.
Robeson was immensely popular in Europe and his concerts always sold out within hours. During this period, he grew to love the international working class so when the civil war broke out in Spain he already had a deep understanding of how the struggle for democracy was inextricably part of the class struggle.
The fascist governments of Nazi Germany and Italy gave General Franco, the military leader of the Spanish fascist rebellion, massive support—including in logistics and armaments—while most of the nations of Western Europe and the Americas, including the U.S., took a position of “neutrality,” a policy that, in essence, supported the fascist forces.
Witnessing these developments, Robeson strove to enlighten the people of the Western nations about the situation in Spain and worked tirelessly to raise money for the cause of Spanish democracy. During his time in Spain he visited the troops in the fields and hospitals and gave concerts at every opportunity to help lift the spirits of these courageous fighters and to arouse support for their cause.
Robeson eventually travelled to Spain itself and said, “I went to Spain in 1938, and that was a major turning point in my life. There I saw that it was the working men and women of Spain who were heroically giving their last full measure of devotion to the course of democracy.”
Later, in 1943, speaking of his visit to the front lines in Spain, Robeson told the Herald Tribune, “My heart was filled with admiration and love for these white Americans, and there was a sense of great pride in my own people when I saw that there were Negroes, too, in the ranks of the Lincoln men in Spain.” Ms. Wallach noted that such observations stood in stark contrast to the then-segregated U.S. army.
Comments from the audience were very moving, describing the love shown to Robeson when he visited the working men and women and sang for them in their homelands.
Vinie Burrows, actor and storyteller, reminded the audience of “the tallest tree in the forest,” Paul Robeson. She said, “Paul Robeson’s life and vision for a world of peace remain an inspiration for all, but particularly I hope for young people. His unswerving stance against the violence of war and of poverty must motivate all actions to support the global peace movement and for nuclear abolition.”
In 1940 the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade made Paul Robeson an honorary member, a rare honor. Founding member of VALB, Milt Wolf, said, “When I stood beside him to pin the star on his lapel, I had this feeling that Paul Robeson was not so much becoming a member of the Lincoln Brigade, as that we were becoming a part of Paul Robeson.”
The last word on Paul Robeson was given to long-time International Brigade supporter, the musician/actor and activist, Harry Belafonte. “It is interesting to me that I should have been blessed in those early years of decision-making by having been embraced by a man who had a profound effect on my life . . . Paul Robeson. . . . And it was from Paul that I learned that the purpose of art is not just to show life as it is, but to show life as it should be.”
Finally, Ms. Wallach concluded the event with the words, Robeson’s own, which served as the title of the event and which are engraved on Robeson’s tombstone: “The artist must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice, I had no alternative.”