Paul Robeson fought Jim Crow, lynching, and McCarthyism

Gerald Horne has made an amazing contribution to African American radical history with the newly published biography Paul Robeson: The Artist as Revolutionary.

Though not as widely known as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. or Malcolm X – at least, not among most white activists – it is impossible, as Horne argues, to understand their lives without first understanding Paul Robeson’s.

“Like Malcolm, he [Robeson] was a militant: a turning point in his dramatic fall was when he confronted President Harry S. Truman face-to-face in the White House, berating him because of the lynching of African Americans…” Additionally, Robeson, who lived abroad for years, “developed a global appeal that dwarfed what the Muslim Minister only sought to accomplish in the final months of his life.”

Further, “Like Dr. King he had a mass appeal among African Americans. But, unlike the Nobel Laureate, Robeson was not only an artist whose performance stirred emotions and fealty worldwide, he was also allied with a then rising socialist left and allied trade unions…providing this performer with a reach that even Dr. King at his height found difficult to match,” writes Horne.

Time magazine in 1943, would claim Robeson was “probably the most famous living Negro…” The Worker in 1964 would proclaim Robeson “the best known American in the world,” though he would ultimately also become “the most blacklisted performer in America…,” as Pete Seeger, the well-known folk singer, told his fellow performer.

As a political biography, Horne does a great job connecting Robeson’s internationalism with the emerging socialist camp – and the concomitant rise of Communist Parties – as the Rutgers educated sportsman, actor and activists’ thirst for language, enabled him “to communicate more effectively with diverse audiences” around the world. 

Robeson intently “deepen[ed] his knowledge of languages,” which “introduced him to the unity of humankind and thus dovetailed with his developing socialist beliefs…” Horne writes.

Arguably a product of his times, Robeson was a man one generation removed from slavery who grew up in a country practicing its own form of racist apartheid known as Jim Crow. As a Black man who eventually became a world-renowned actor and artist, early in his career Robeson’s “groping as an actor in his attempt to grasp the lineaments of Othello was of a piece with his groping as a black man seeking to grasp the lineaments of capitalism, colonialism and white supremacy.”

Seeking to make a living as an actor, it was in London where Robeson got his first big break – and began his life-long relationship with communism. For as Horne writes, while Robeson was very close to U.S. Black communists like Ben Davis and William L. Patterson – and while he never shied away from supporting the CPUSA – he repeatedly denied membership, though “his closeness to London comrades raises questions – rarely asked, hardly answered definitively – as to whether he was ever a member of the party in Great Britain, more of a likelihood than U.S. membership.”

Gus Hall, the CPUSA’s long-time chair, would later claim in 1998 that Robeson was in fact a member of the Communist Party, USA. He told attendees at a Robeson centennial tribute in late May of that year, “My own most precious moments with Paul were when I met with him to accept his dues and renew his yearly membership in the CPUSA. I and other Communist leaders, like Henry Winston…met with Paul to brief him on politics and Party policies and to discuss his work and struggles.”

Regardless of Robeson’s actual membership status, he unabashedly supported communists – even at the height of McCarthyism, telling a crowd of 5,000 in Harlem in June 1949, “…I’m not afraid of Communists; no, far from that. I will defend them as they defended us, the Negro people. And I stand firm and immovable by the side…” of the arrested CPUSA leaders. “Their struggle is our struggle.”

Though he was at times an extremely wealthy man – making $100,000-plus a year in the late 1940’s – he was also always broke, as he donated considerable income and time to working class and revolutionary movements, often singing and/or performing for free or donating the proceeds to progressive political causes. One example was the Council on African Affairs (CAA), “the vanguard organization in the U.S. campaigning against colonialism,” headed by W.E.B. Du Bois and W. Alphaeus Hunton.

As McCarthyism enveloped the United States, Robeson’s passport was confiscated, eliminating his ability to travel and earn a living, though his “voice continued to resonate abroad.” In fact, argues Horne, “…Robeson’s consistent internationalism, his maniacal study of languages and cultures was redeemed…when a great wave of humanity demanded that his right to travel be restored.”

The attempted isolation of Robeson wasn’t just about silencing him as an African American man who embodied the challenge to domestic Jim Crow, racism and international colonialism. It was also about silencing the domestic communist-led Left, dismantling a long fought for and hard won Red-Black alliance and the organizations which this alliance birthed. For, as the Party-led Civil Rights Congress and CAA were being destroyed – as other organizations, especially those tied to Dr. King filled the vacuum – it became increasingly apparent that they “did not have the international ties of the CRC, nor the global reach of the CAA, which amounted to a net loss for African-Americans and their allies,” writes Horne.

I devoured Paul Robeson: The Artist as Revolutionary in one sitting. In a relatively short book, Horne has captured the essence of Paul Robeson as both a domestic leader for African American equality, as well as an international icon promoting decolonization and socialism on a world stage.

I hope a new generation of activists – Black and white – read Horne’s insightful book.

Paul Robeson: The Artists as Revolutionary

By Gerald Horne

Pluto Press, 2016, 174 pages



Tony Pecinovsky
Tony Pecinovsky

Tony Pecinovsky is the author of "Let Them Tremble: Biographical Interventions Marking 100 Years of the Communist Party, USA" and author/editor of "Faith In The Masses: Essays Celebrating 100 Years of the Communist Party, USA." His forthcoming book is titled "The Cancer of Colonialism: W. Alphaeus Hunton, Black Liberation, and the Daily Worker, 1944-1946." Pecinovsky has appeared on C-SPAN’s "Book TV" and speaks regularly on college and university campuses across the country.