Today in labor history: Paul Robeson born


On April 8, 1898 singer, actor, civil rights and labor leader, peace activist and athlete Paul Robeson was born.

Due to his actions and beliefs the notorious anti-Communist, Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his witch-hunting committees persecuted him, and he had his passport revoked.

At a 100th anniversary of his birth celebration in 1998, Jarvis Tyner, executive vice chair of the Communist Party USA, called Robeson "a great fighter for equality and world peace, a genius who gave his heart and soul to the people."

Tyner said of Robeson: "He embraced all the advanced ideas of the CPUSA, the need for a socialist transformation of society, for unity of Black, brown and white. If you look at this writings and you know the party's history and policies, he was an important figure, helping to give leadership in the party's formulation of its policies.

Robeson's father, a runaway slave, graduated from Lincoln University, and his mother came from an abolitionist Quaker family.

Robeson attended Rutgers University on a four-year academic scholarship. He won 15 varsity letters and was twice named to the All-American football team. He became Phi Beta Kappa in his junior year and graduated as valedictorian.

At Columbia Law School, Robeson met and married Eslanda Caroza Goode, who became the first Black woman to head up a pathology lab. He took a job in a law firm, but reportedly left when a white secretary refused to take dictation from him.

He then shifted gears and launched into an acting and singing career.

Robeson, as an actor and a singer, backed striking workers, supported the peace movement and was a strong advocate for friendship with rather than enmity toward the Soviet Union.

Because of this he was hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee led by the infamous Sen. McCarthy. Robeson refused to be broken by the committee and was quoted as saying: "The artist must elect to fight for freedom or for slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative."

Sixty of his concerts were cancelled, and in 1949 two interracial outdoor concerts in Peekskill, N.Y. were attacked by racist mobs. "I'm going to sing wherever people want me to sing," Robeson responded, "and I won't be frightened by crosses burning in Peekskill or anywhere else."

Upon his death in 1976, at a memorial meeting in Harlem, New York the lines waiting to get in stretched for blocks with thousands waiting for hours. In the Soviet Union a mountain was named after him.

In 200 a postage stamp was issued in his honor. The stamp, bearing his portrait, has inscribed on it: "An incomparable artist and singer, human rights advocate, scholar and athlete and defender of Black freedom."

Photo: September 1942, Paul Robeson, world famous baritone, leading Moore Shipyard [Oakland, CA] workers in singing the Star Spangled Banner, at their lunch hour recently, after he told them: "This is a serious job---winning this war against fascists. We have to be together." Source: Still Picture Records Section, Special Media Archives Services Division (NWCS-S), National Archives at College Park, MD.


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  • My mom, Luberta Williams Clay, a pubic school teacher in Missouri for some fifty years, (starting as a teenager), always reminded me how Paul Robeson was a hero of the causes and positive passions of the whole Negro People, and through this, of the august causes of the whole people of the world.
    According to the great Mary McLeod Bethune, Paul Robeson was "The Tallest Tree in the Forest"among humankind.
    "Paul", as Communist Party member Hershel Walker of St. Louis called him, with a special smile, and twinkling eye, was one with a great African spirit of love, kindness and tenacity, inspiring activists today like Mumia Abu-Jamal and Stevie Wonder, wrote, with the great writer and Communist, Lloyd Brown, his enduring and wonderful Here I Stand.
    We all have to read this little book to start to understand this colossal man for human justice and real human peace.
    Paul Leroy Robeson's profound Renaissance Man understanding of humanity, as a true to life Shakespeare's Othello, the role of Africa in human development and the development of the international working class, is essential to today's most advanced human understanding.

    Posted by E.E.W. Clay, 04/10/2013 10:11am (3 years ago)

  • McCarthy didn't oversee HUAC. That kind of factual error should have been caught in proofreading and should be corrected.

    Posted by John Hensley, 04/10/2013 4:15am (3 years ago)

  • His legs bestrid the ocean: his rear'd arm
    Crested the world: his voice was propertied
    As all the tuned spheres, and that to friends;
    But when he meant to quail and shake the orb,
    He was as rattling thunder. For his bounty,
    There was no winter in't; an autumn 'twas
    That grew the more by reaping
    Antony and Cleopatra

    Posted by robert alpert , 04/09/2013 6:18pm (3 years ago)

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