[Marxism] What Paul Robeson said

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Sep 15 07:07:14 MDT 2011


September 13, 2011
What Paul Robeson Said

Paul Robeson, in 1942, leads Oakland shipyard workers in the 
singing of the National Anthem. Photo: National Archives

In April 1949, just as the Cold War was beginning to intensify, 
actor, singer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson traveled to 
France to attend the Soviet Union-sponsored Paris Peace 
Conference. After singing “Joe Hill,” the famous ballad about a 
Swedish-born union activist falsely accused and convicted of 
murder and executed in Utah in 1915, Robeson addressed the 
audience and began speaking extemporaneously, as he often did, 
about the lives of black people in the United States. Robeson’s 
main point was that World War III was not inevitable, as many 
Americans did not want war with the Soviet Union.

Before he took the stage, however, his speech had somehow already 
been transcribed and dispatched back to the United States by the 
Associated Press. By the following day, editorialists and 
politicians had branded Robeson a communist traitor for 
insinuating that black Americans would not fight in a war against 
the Soviet Union. Historians would later discover that Robeson had 
been misquoted, but the damage had been almost instantly done. And 
because he was out of the country, the singer was unaware of the 
firestorm brewing back home over the speech. It was the beginning 
of the end for Robeson, who would soon be declared “the Kremlin’s 
voice of America” by a witness at hearings by the House 
Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Committee chair John 
Wood, a Georgia Democrat, summoned baseball great Jackie Robinson 
to Washington. Robinson, appearing reluctantly, denounced 
Robeson’s views and assured the country that the singer did not 
speak on behalf of black Americans. Robeson’s passport was soon 
revoked, and 85 of his planned concerts in the United States were 
  canceled. Some in the press were calling for his execution. 
Later that summer, in civil rights-friendly Westchester County, 
New York, at the one concert that was not canceled, anti-communist 
groups and Ku Klux Klan types hurled racial epithets, attacked 
concertgoers with baseball bats and rocks and burned Robeson in 
effigy. A man who had exemplified American upward mobility had 
suddenly become public enemy number one. Not even the leading 
black spokesmen of the day, whose causes Robeson had championed at 
great personal cost, felt safe enough to stand by the man dubbed 
as the “Black Stalin” during the Red Scare of the late 1940s and ’50s.

Paul Leroy Robeson was born in 1898, the son of a runaway slave, 
William Drew Robeson. He grew up in Princeton, New Jersey, where 
he gained fame as one of the greatest football players ever, 
earning back-to-back first-team All-America honors in 1917 and 
1918 at Rutgers University. But Robeson was a scholar as well. A 
member of the Rutgers honor society, Cap and Skull, he was chosen 
as valedictorian of his class, and after earning his bachelor’s 
degree, he worked his way through Columbia Law School while 
playing professional football. Although he had a brief stint at a 
New York law firm after graduating, Robeson’s voice brought him 
public acclaim. Soon he was starring on Broadway, as well as on 
the greatest stages around the world, in plays such as 
Shakespeare’s Othello and the Gershwin brothers’ Porgy and Bess. 
His resonant bass-baritone voice made him a recording star as 
well, and by the 1930s, he became a box office sensation in the 
film Show Boat with his stirring rendition of “Ol Man River.”

Yet Robeson, who traveled the world and was purported to speak 
more than a dozen languages, became increasingly active in the 
rights of exploited workers, particularly blacks in the South, and 
he associated himself with communist causes from Africa to the 
Soviet Union. After a visit to Eastern Europe in 1934, where he 
was nearly attacked by Nazis in Germany, Robeson experienced 
nothing but adulation and respect in the USSR—a nation he believed 
did not harbor any resentment or racial animosity toward blacks. 
“Here, I am not a Negro but a human being for the first time in my 
life,” he said. “I walk in full human dignity.”

When communists invited him to the stage at the Paris Peace 
Congress, Robeson was urged to say a few words after an 
enthusiastic crowd heard him sing. French transcripts of the 
speech obtained by Robeson’s biographer Martin Duberman indicate 
that Robeson said, ”We in America do not forget that it is on the 
backs of the poor whites of Europe…and on the backs of millions of 
black people the wealth of America has been acquired. And we are 
resolved that it shall be distributed in an equitable manner among 
all of our children and we don’t want any hysterical stupidity 
about our participating in a war against anybody no matter whom. 
We are determined to fight for peace. [Applause] We do not wish to 
fight the Soviet Union. [Applause]”

Lansing Warren, a correspondent covering the conference for the 
New York Times, reported a similar promise for peace in his 
dispatch for the newspaper, relegating Robeson’s comments toward 
the end of his story. But the Associated Press’s version of 
Robeson’s remarks read: “It is unthinkable that American Negros 
would go to war on behalf of those who have oppressed us for 
generations against the Soviet Union which in one generation has 
lifted our people to full human dignity.” (The source of that 
transcript remains unknown; the singer’s son Paul Robeson Jr. has 
said that because it was filed before his father actually spoke, 
the anonymous AP correspondent might have cobbled it together from 
remarks his father had previously made in Europe.)

By the next day, the press was reporting that Robeson was a 
traitor. According to Robeson Jr., his father had “no idea really 
that this was going on till they called him from New York and 
said, hey, you’d better say something, that you’re in immense 
trouble here in the United States.” Instead, Robeson continued his 
tour, deciding to address the “out of context” quotes when he 
returned, unaware of how much damage the AP account was doing to 
his reputation.

Unbeknownst to Robeson, Roy Wilkins and Walter White of the 
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) 
were pressured by the U.S. State Department to issue a formal 
response to the singer’s purported comments. The NAACP, always 
wary of being linked in any way to communists, dissociated itself 
from Robeson. Channing Tobias, a member of the NAACP board of 
directors, called him “an ingrate.” Three months later, on July 
18, 1949, Jackie Robinson was brought to Washington, D.C., to 
testify before HUAC for the purpose of obliterating Robeson’s 
leadership role in the American black community. The Brooklyn 
Dodgers’ second baseman assured Americans that Robeson did not 
speak for all blacks with his “silly” personal views. Everyone 
from conservatives to Eleanor Roosevelt criticized the singer. The 
former first lady and civil rights activist noted, “Mr. Robeson 
does his people great harm in trying to line them up on the 
Communist side of political picture. Jackie Robinson helps them 
greatly by his forthright statements.”

For Robeson, the criticism was piercing, especially coming from 
the baseball star. It was, after all, Robeson who was one of 
Jackie Robinson’s strongest advocates, and the singer once urged a 
boycott of Yankee Stadium because baseball was not integrated. 
Newspapers across the country praised Robinson’s testimony; one 
called it “four hits and no errors” for America. But lost in the 
reporting was the fact that Robinson did not pass up the chance to 
land a subtle dig at the communist hysteria that underlay the HUAC 
hearings. The committee chairs—including known Klan sympathizers 
Martin Dies Jr. of Texas and John Rankin of Mississippi—could not 
have been all smiles as Robinson finished speaking.

In a carefully worded statement, prepared with the help of 
Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey, Robinson said, 
“The fact that because it is a communist who denounces injustice 
in the courts, police brutality and lynching, when it happens, 
doesn’t change the truth of his charges.” Racial discrimination, 
Robinson said, is not “a creation of communist imagination.”

For his part, Robeson refused to be drawn into a personal feud 
with Robinson because “to do that, would be exactly what the other 
group wants us to do.” But the backlash against Robeson was 
immediate.  His blacklisting and the revocation of his passport 
rendered him unable to work or travel, and he saw his yearly 
income drop from more than $150,000 to less than $3,000. In August 
1949, he managed to book a concert in Peekskill, New York, but 
anti-civil rights factions within the American Legion and Veterans 
of Foreign Wars caused a riot, injuring hundreds, thirteen of them 
seriously. One famous photograph from the riot pictured a highly 
decorated black World War I aviator being beaten by police and a 
state trooper. The press largely blamed communist agitators for 
provoking anti-American fervor.

Robeson’s name was stricken from the college All-America football 
teams. Newsreel footage of him was destroyed, recordings were 
erased and there was a clear effort in the media to avoid any 
mention of his name. Years later, he was brought before HUAC and 
asked to identify members of the Communist Party and to admit to 
his own membership. Robeson reminded the committee that he was a 
lawyer and that the Communist Party was a legal party in the 
United States; then he invoked his Fifth Amendment rights. He 
closed his testimony by saying, “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.”

Toward the end of his life, Jackie Robinson had a chance to 
reflect on the incident and his invitation to testify before HUAC. 
He wrote in his autobiography, “I would reject such an invitation 
if offered now…. I have grown wiser and closer to the painful 
truths about America’s destructiveness. And I do have increased 
respect for Paul Robeson who, over the span of twenty years, 
sacrificed himself, his career and the wealth and comfort he once 
enjoyed because, I believe, he was sincerely trying to help his 


Books: Paul Robeson Jr. The Undiscovered Paul Robeson: Quest for 
Freedom, 1939-1976, John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 2010. Martin B. 
Duberman.  Paul Robeson, Knopf, 1988.  Paul Robeson, Edited with 
an Introduction by Philip S. Foner.  Paul Robeson Speaks, 
Kensington Publishing Corp. 1978. Jackie Robinson. I Never Had it 
Made: An Autobiography, Putnam, 1972. Penny M. Von Eschen.  Race 
Against Empire: Black Americans and Anticolonialism, 1937-1957, 
Cornell University, 1997.  Joseph Dorinson, Henry Foner, William 
Pencak. Paul Robeson: Essays on His Life and Legacy, McFarland & 
Company, Inc., 2002. Lindsey R. Swindall. Intersections in 
Theatrics and Politics: The Case of Paul Robeson and Othello, 
Dissertation, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 2007.

Articles: “Text of Jackie Robinson’s Testimony in DC: Famed 
Ballplayer Hits Discrimination In US.” The New Amsterdam News, 
July 23, 1949.  “‘Not Mad At Jackie’—Robeson Tells Press,” Chicago 
Defender, July 30, 1949. “Truman, Mrs. FDR Hit Robeson Riot” 
Chicago Defender, September 17, 1949. “Paul Robeson and Jackie 
Robinson: Athletes and Activists at Armageddon,” Joseph Dorinson, 
Pennsylvania History, Vol. 66, No. 1, Paul Robeson (1898-1976) –A 
Centennial Symposium (Winter 1999). “Testimony of Paul Robeson 
before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, June 12, 
1956.” http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/6440

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