One of the greatest Americans from the 20th century to remain unknown to many today. Despite efforts by governments to hide his voice from history, he continued his struggle for justice and peace. Like José Rizal, he is a multi-talented man who left a positive mark on countries around the world.
Born in 1898 to a Quaker mother and a father who was a pastor and an escaped slave. When Paul was six years old his mother died, his oldest brother filled her role and demanded academic excellence from all his siblings. His older brother’s efforts paid off when Paul graduated high school with honors, excelling in singing, acting and athletics and earning a full academic scholarship to Rutgers University.
Called “The greatest defensive end to ever trot the gridiron” and touted as the greatest football athlete of his era, Robeson would also gain entrance into multiple honor societies, earned 15 varsity letters in football, baseball, basketball, track and field and be twice named first-team All-America while at Rutgers. Even with all his success, he faced harsh racism, acts of violence and constant discrimination. This included being unable to play with his football team in Southern states, travel with the debate and glee clubs and being excluded from festivities and campus social events. In 1919, Robeson was selected as the class valedictorian and wrote his senior thesis on the 14th amendment and his optimism about the end of segregation.
He went on to play professional football to pay for his tuition at Columbia Law School. But after his graduation from Columbia, his dreams of being a lawyer were limited because of overt racism.
‘I stand here struggling for the rights of my people to be full citizens in this country and they are not…You [Congress] want to shut up every Negro who has the courage to stand up and fight for the rights of his people. . . That is why I am here today. . . “
Undaunted, Robeson turned to acting and singing as an occupation. He studied around the world, immersing himself in other cultures and learning over 15 languages. What he learned during this period would shape his views of race, democracy, and the importance of understanding cultural differences. He became one of the first black men to play serious and respectable roles in American theater, becoming a national hero at home, and an acclaimed actor in Europe. One of the highlights of this period in his life was leading in “Othello,” which became the longest running Shakespeare play in Broadway’s history. Yet at the peak of his success and the glowing admiration from prominent personalities, Robeson would become “the most persecuted, the most ostracized, the most condemned black man in America, then or ever” (Lloyd Brown).
It was the use of his fame and voice to fight for social justice and peace that robbed him of his popularity and goodwill. His political thinking transcended racial divisions. He brought attention to the struggle of Welsh coal miners, the labor struggles in Scotland, England and Ireland, and championed those fighting fascism during the Spanish Civil War. Upon learning about the oppression and exploitation taking place in the colonies of Africa, Paul Robeson became politically active on their behalf. He would also become the first African American to publicly confront baseball owners on the subject of integration in baseball, leading to Jackie Robinson’s entry into Major League Baseball.
“I’ve learned that my people are not the only ones oppressed.. . . I have sung my songs all over the world and everywhere found that some common bond makes the people of all lands take to Negro songs as their own.”
Like many Americans and intellectuals prior to the 1950’s, he had praised the USSR for their developments in culture and peace between national minorities. He also praised the USSR for extending rights to blacks, while the U.S. continued to enforce segregation and allow lynching. Hitler listed Robeson in his black book, along with other 2,000 other prominent political and cultural leaders who would be killed if captured.
The U.S. government would soon add him to their list once the alliance with the USSR changed and the era of McCarthyism began. The U.S. State Department fell began publishing and distributing false literature discrediting and misquoting Robeson. He was portrayed as un-American and as an instigating Communist. Members of his organization against Lynching (such as Albert Einstein) were labeled as “Communist sympathizers” and observed by the FBI.
When one senator asked him why he hadn’t remained in the Soviet Union, he replied, “Because my father was a slave, and my people died to build this country, and I am going to stay here, and have a part of it just like you. And no Fascist-minded people will drive me from it. Is that clear? I am for peace…”
For a period of eight years, Robeson’s passport was taken away by the U.S. government. He was banned from international public performances and restricted from T.V. appearances at home. Despite being vilified and having his main income and livelihood restricted, Robeson pushed forward. He campaigned for progressive candidates, fought for civil rights, wrote literature, and presented evidence to the U.N. Genocide Convention about the U.S government’s failure to stop lynching.
As an act of defiance to the ban on international concerts, he held concerts for tens of thousands of Canadians who gathered on their side of the border to hear him sing from the American Side.
Eventually, Robeson would successfully argue his innocence to the State Department, who would re-issue him his passport and admit their wrong. He would go on to sing and perform to sold-out crowds all over the world. However, his music, performances and political voice in the U.S. remained limited in the US by major media corporations who declined to produce, broadcast or distribute his work due to the controversies that had surrounded him.
“When Paul Robeson died, it marked the passing of a magnificent giant whose presence among us conferred nobility upon us all…” (Sidney Poitier)
Though health issues and age would eventually limit Robeson’s active lifestyle, his heart for social justice and his efforts for peace and racial reconciliation would live on. For such an amazing hero, it is discouraging that he remains little-known today because of the efforts made in the 1950’s to erase his voice from history. Yet, Paul Robeson is a Moral Hero if ever there was one. His examples of pursuing education, unwavering determination and bold social action should inspire us all.
Paul Robeson Quotes