Today is the 30th anniversary of the death of Paul Robeson, political activist, singer, actor, and author. I remember this date because of my recent involvement on a five-volume series called “Making Freedom: African Americans in U.S. History.” This is a fantastic resource for teachers that recounts the African-American experience through hundreds of documents, diaries, photographs, paintings, and texts. I wish my memories were more personal but I’m afraid on the actual day that Paul Robeson died, January 23, 1976, I was trudging through my senior year of high school and my main reference point for the whole of African-American history was Cicely Tyson’s performance in “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” (“Roots” was still a year away).
It was a thrill working with the hundreds of fascinating primary source documents that the “Making Freedom” writers and scholars gathered for this series, but out of all of them one item was so extraordinary that I think it should be required reading for every person in this country: the transcript of Paul Robeson’s 1956 hearing in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).
Robeson’s accomplishments were so plentiful that it can be daunting to read his bio. The child of a former slave, Robeson excelled in high school and was awarded an academic scholarship to Rutgers University where he became a Phi Beta Kappa Scholar, excelled in baseball, basketball, and football, and was the valedictorian of his 1919 class. He received a law degree from Columbia University in 1923 but later left a law practice when a white secretary refused to take dictation from him. He then returned to his childhood love of acting and singing and in 1924 starred in Eugene O’Neill’s “All God’s Chillun Got Wings.” In one controversial scene, a white actress had to kiss Robeson’s hand. This so infuriated the Grand Kleagle of the Ku Klux Klan that he wrote O’Neill a letter threatening the life of the playwright’s son if the play went on. To O’Neill’s great credit, he sent the Klan leader a one-sentence reply: “Go fuck yourself.”
Robeson also starred in O’Neill’s “Emperor Jones,” created a sensation in Shakespeare’s “Othello,” and sang the haunting “Ol’ Man River” in the play and first movie version of “Showboat.” We have a desk in our house that once belonged to Jerome Kern and I like to think of it as our direct connection to Robeson. Kern wrote “Ol’ Man River” specifically for Paul Robeson (Oscar Hammerstein wrote the lyrics) and it became his theme song. Every time I sit at our Jerome Kern desk I can’t keep myself from lowering my voice three octaves and attempting to sing the lyrics Robeson made so famous (which usually sends my daughter running out of the room with her hands over her ears).
Ol' man river,
Dat ol' man river
He mus' know sumpin'
But don't say nuthin',
He jes' keeps rollin'
He keeps on rollin' along.
Later on Robeson adapted Hammerstein’s lyrics, turning it into an ode to civil rights rather than a slave lament. Instead of “I gits weary and sick of tryin’, I’m tired of livin’ and skeered of dyin’” Robeson sang “I keeps laughin’ instead of cryin’, I must keep fightin’ until I’m dyin’.”
Paul Robeson always had a strong relationship with the Jewish community. In the early 30s he fought to help Jews who were trying to flee Nazi Germany. He did many concerts for Jewish organizations and even performed a Chasidic chant in his famous appearance at Carnegie Hall.
But back to Robeson’s best performance—his unapologetic and hard-hitting exchange with the bigoted members of HUAC. Robeson’s passport had been revoked because of his refusal to sign an affidavit swearing he was not a Communist. He also infuriated the committee by stating that black people in this country would not fight in any kind of “imperialist war." HUAC Chairman Francis Walter, Congressman Gordon Scherer, and HUAC’s counsel Richard Arens tried their best to intimidate him as they had so many others, but Paul Robeson stood his ground and never wavered in his resolve. Here is just a small taste from the June 12, 1956 proceedings:
THE CHAIRMAN: The Committee will be in order. This morning the Committee resumes its series of hearings on the vital issue of the use of American passports as travel documents in furtherance of the objectives of the Communist conspiracy. . . .
Mr. ARENS: Now, during the course of the process in which you were applying for this passport, in July of 1954, were you requested to submit a non-Communist affidavit?
Mr. ROBESON: We had a long discussion—with my counsel, who is in the room, Mr. [Leonard B.] Boudin—with the State Department, about just such an affidavit and I was very precise not only in the application but with the State Department, headed by Mr. Henderson and Mr. McLeod, that under no conditions would I think of signing any such affidavit, that it is a complete contradiction of the rights of American citizens.
Mr. ARENS: Did you comply with the requests?
Mr. ROBESON: I certainly did not and I will not.
Mr. ARENS: Are you now a member of the Communist Party?
Mr. ROBESON: Oh please, please, please.
Mr. SCHERER: Please answer, will you, Mr. Robeson?
Mr. ROBESON: What is the Communist Party? What do you mean by that?
Mr. SCHERER: I ask that you direct the witness to answer the question.
Mr. ROBESON: What do you mean by the Communist Party? As far as I know it is a legal party like the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. Do you mean a party of people who have sacrificed for my people, and for all Americans and workers, that they can live in dignity? Do you mean that party?
Mr. ARENS: Are you now a member of the Communist Party?
Mr. ROBESON: Would you like to come to the ballot box when I vote and take out the ballot and see?
Mr. ARENS: Mr. Chairman, I respectfully suggest that the witness be ordered and directed to answer that question.
THE CHAIRMAN: You are directed to answer the question.
(The witness consulted with his counsel.)
Mr. ROBESON: I stand upon the Fifth Amendment of the American Constitution.
Mr. ARENS: Do you mean you invoke the Fifth Amendment?
Mr. ROBESON: I invoke the Fifth Amendment.
Mr. ARENS: Do you honestly apprehend that if you told this Committee truthfully—
Mr. ROBESON: I have no desire to consider anything. I invoke the Fifth Amendment, and it is none of your business what I would like to do, and I invoke the Fifth Amendment. And forget it.
THE CHAIRMAN: You are directed to answer that question.
MR, ROBESON: I invoke the Fifth Amendment, and so I am answering it, am I not?
• • • • •
Mr. ROBESON: In Russia I felt for the first time like a full human being. No color prejudice like in Mississippi, no color prejudice like in Washington. It was the first time I felt like a human being. Where I did not feel the pressure of color as I feel [it] in this Committee today.
Mr. SCHERER: Why do you not stay in Russia?
Mr. ROBESON: 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 with the Soviet Union, and I am for peace with China, and I am not for peace or friendship with the Fascist Franco, and I am not for peace with Fascist Nazi Germans. I am for peace with decent people.
Mr. SCHERER: You are here because you are promoting the Communist cause.
Mr. ROBESON: I am here because I am opposing the neo-Fascist cause which I see arising in these committees. You are like the Alien [and] Sedition Act, and Jefferson could be sitting here, and Frederick Douglass could be sitting here, and Eugene Debs could be here.
• • • • •
Mr. ARENS: Now I would invite your attention, if you please, to the Daily Worker of June 29, 1949, with reference to a get-together with you and Ben Davis. Do you know Ben Davis (New York Councilman and former secretary of the Harlem Division of the Communist Party)?
Mr. ROBESON: One of my dearest friends, one of the finest Americans you can imagine, born of a fine family, who went to Amherst and was a great man.
THE CHAIRMAN: The answer is yes?
Mr. ROBESON: Nothing could make me prouder than to know him.
THE CHAIRMAN: That answers the question.
Mr. ARENS: Did I understand you to laud his patriotism?
Mr. ROBESON: I say that he is as patriotic an American as there can be, and you gentlemen belong with the Alien and Sedition Acts, and you are the nonpatriots, and you are the un-Americans, and you ought to be ashamed of yourselves.
THE CHAIRMAN: Just a minute, the hearing is now adjourned.
Mr. ROBESON: I should think it would be.
THE CHAIRMAN: I have endured all of this that I can.
Mr. ROBESON: Can I read my statement?
THE CHAIRMAN: No, you cannot read it. The meeting is adjourned.
Mr. ROBESON: I think it should be, and you should adjourn this forever, that is what I would say.
At a time when public lynchings were a common occurrence and racism was deeply entrenched in this country, Robeson’s defiance and refusal to buckle before the committee is nothing short of miraculous. Can you imagine today if all public officials and citizens expressed and stood by their beliefs so forcefully? As far as I’m concerned, the entirety of Robeson’s testimony should be as familiar to every American as the words of the Gettysburg Address.
Paul Robeson, who spoke 15 languages and was loved around the world, could not travel outside of the country for eight long years. Finally, in 1958, the Supreme Court ruled that a citizen’s right to travel could not be taken away without due process and his passport was returned.
Although today there are schools, theatres, and organizations named in his honor, it’s shocking that the average student does not know who Paul Robeson was. This is partly due to our government’s efforts to discredit him. Writer Lloyd Brown, a colleague of Robeson’s, has stated that “Paul Robeson was the most persecuted, the most ostracized, the most condemned black man in America, then or ever.” With the passing of time, a lot of the animosity towards him has faded. The U.S. postal service finally honored Robeson with his image on a stamp in 2004.
Robeson was a complex man and he did have some blind spots. Despite all the revelations about the tyranny of Joseph Stalin, including his murderous anti-Semitic campaigns of the early 1950s, Robeson refused to speak out against the Soviet leader, even penning a tribute to Stalin after his death called “To You Beloved Comrade.” It was only after Robeson’s death that his son, Paul Robeson, Jr., revealed that his father told him about troubling things he had seen in Russia but that he had vowed never to openly criticize the Soviet Union. The younger Robeson, now an expert in Russian studies, gave a speech at Dartmouth in 2003 in which he condemned the Bush administration. Robeson said that the Homeland Security Act was modeled after a collection of documents authored by Joseph Stalin and that President Bush “is part of a neo-Confederate government geared at destroying the Union.” I’m sure his father is proud.
Tonight I saw a moving documentary called “The Sons of Baraka” about a group of inner-city African-American boys in Baltimore who are chosen to attend 7th and 8th grade at the Baraka School in Kenya. Even 30 years after Paul Robeson’s death, the same message is clear—that for some disenfranchised people in this country, the only way for them to break free from the attitudes and harsh realities that are keeping them down is to leave the country and get a new perspective on what might be possible for them in their future. When the Chairman of HUAC tried to tell Robeson that with all he had achieved he must not have been a victim of prejudice, Robeson became agitated:
Mr. ROBESON: Just a moment. This is something that I challenge very deeply, and very sincerely: that the success of a few Negroes, including myself or Jackie Robinson can make up for seven hundred dollars a year for thousands of Negro families in the South. My father was a slave, and I have cousins who are sharecroppers, and I do not see my success in terms of myself.
I am not being tried for whether I am a Communist, I am being tried for fighting for the rights of my people, who are still second-class citizens in this United States of America. My mother was born in your state, Mr. Walter, and my mother was a Quaker, and my ancestors in the time of Washington baked bread for George Washington’s troops when they crossed the Delaware, and my own father was a slave. I stand here struggling for the rights of my people to be full citizens in this country. And they are not. They are not in Mississippi. And they are not in Montgomery, Alabama. And they are not in Washington. They are nowhere, and that is why I am here today. You want to shut up every Negro who has the courage to stand up and fight for the rights of his people, for the rights of workers, and I have been on many a picket line for the steelworkers too. And that is why I am here today.