‘Paul Robeson Day’ is now an official holiday in Washington, D.C.
Paul Robeson speaks to an audience attending his concert at Baker's Hall on Chicago's Near North Side, Sept. 23, 1949. | Paul Cannon / AP

WASHINGTON—Civil rights activists, the African-American community, and progressive people of all stripes in Washington, D.C., spent Tuesday celebrating the city’s first-ever Paul Robeson Day. Credited in the official proclamation declaring the commemoration were the Claudia Jones School for Political Education and the D.C. Friends of People’s World.

Mayor Muriel Bowser declared Tuesday, April 9, 2024 “Paul Robeson Day” through a proclamation she signed days earlier. The proclamation recognizes Robeson as a “world-renowned singer, gifted lawyer, athlete, actor, and activist against bigotry and injustice” and mentions his student accolades at Rutgers College and his acting in “Show Boat,” “Othello,” and “Emperor Jones.”

The document also mentioned that Robeson was a “devoted civil rights leader and humanitarian” who sought to empower African Americans, union members, blue-collar workers, and the world’s most vulnerable communities.

The Claudia Jones School and D.C. Friends of People’s World were specifically mentioned in Bowser’s proclamation, as was the annual banquet and awards ceremony the two organizations recently hosted to celebrate the 126th anniversary of Robeson’s life.

Several years ago, longtime D.C. peace activist and singer, Luci Murphy, was awarded the Paul Robeson Award by the D.C. Friends of the People’s World. When interviewed about the declaration of Robeson Day, she wore a beaming smile.

D.C. activist and musician Luci Murphy, a previous recipient of the People’s World Paul Robeson Award, was an eager celebrant on Tuesday. | Courtesy of Communist Party of D.C. (CPUSA)

“The legacy of Paul Robeson that we can carry on today is to stand up for what is right, no matter what,” Murphy said.

The proclamation comes several months after the anniversary of the historic We Charge Genocide petition, which was presented in 1951 to the United Nations. That document criticized the United States government’s crimes against the African American people. Robeson was one of the main signers of this petition and delivered it to U.N. officials at the mission in New York City.

Discussing the petition, Murphy said, “He stood for union, against the Black Codes, against lynchings…and for his efforts to defend Black people in the United States, they took his passport.”

ORDER A COPY of We Charge Genocide from International Publishers.

Murphy also recalled Robeson’s regular expressions of solidarity with liberation movements around the globe and linked them to the events of today. “He stood with people who were struggling to free themselves from colonialism,” she said. “Paul Robeson would definitely be demanding a ceasefire” in Gaza if he were alive today.

The International Court of Justice, the highest court of the U.N., has claimed that it is “plausible” that the Israeli government is carrying out a genocide against the Palestinian people in Gaza.

Despite honoring Robeson, a declared opponent of genocide, the D.C. government has yet to call for a ceasefire in Gaza or an end to the genocide unfolding now.

A delegation led by Paul Robeson presents a copy of the ‘We Charge Genocide’ petition to the United Nations Secretariat in New York on Dec. 17, 1951. | Daily Worker / People’s World Archives

The proclamation also came on the heels of Bowser announcing her proposed budget for the coming fiscal year. It proposes major cuts to social programs (such as the pay equity fund, pay raises for childcare workers, and childhood educators), emergency rental assistance, circulator bus service, and repealing key priorities of the D.C. Council like free Metro fares, the criminal code revision commission, providing low-income residents with attorneys, the baby bonds program, and the increase of the earned income tax credit.

Robeson, local activists argue, would be standing firmly against the mayor on these decisions and would be demanding major tax hikes on the wealthy and for the D.C. government to shift its priorities to focus on uplifting the working class and poor.

Last year in D.C., the Paul Robeson mural on historic U St. was defaced by an unknown graffiti tag artist. The artist who painted the mural is still raising money to restore it and is looking for support from the community. Activists in the D.C. community continue to push for more historic landmarks and commemorations of those who fought for Black freedom and against racism around the District, including not just Robeson but others like Langston Hughes, Frederick Douglass, and more.

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Jamal Rich
Jamal Rich

Jamal Rich writes from Washington, D.C. where he is active with the Claudia Jones School for Political Education.