Opinion: Remembering Paul Robeson

Singer Paul Robeson and his wife, Eslanda, are shown at they arrived at Southampton, England, July 10, 1939.

Singer Paul Robeson and his wife, Eslanda, are shown at they arrived at Southampton, England, July 10, 1939. AP file


Published: 01-15-2024 6:00 AM

Jonathan P. Baird lives in Wilmot.

Part of the legacy of racism and white supremacy in America is the failure to recognize and acknowledge key Black leaders in the Black freedom struggle. Paul Robeson is one such leader. In my own informal poll of friends, I have found many people have not heard of him.

A powerful singer, an accomplished actor, an extremely versatile athlete and a hardcore activist, Robeson was all of those. In the 1930s-1940s he was a central figure standing up for multi-racial democracy and opposing fascism. His story is very well told in a new graphic biography, “Ballad of an American.” The superb artwork and text are done by Sharon Rudahl and Paul Buhle and Lawrence Ware did the editing.

Robeson was a lion of the left, defending the interests of working people nationally and internationally. His activism spanned diverse causes. He was intensely committed to civil rights at home. He supported Spanish Republicans in the Spanish Civil War as well as Welsh miners in England. He spoke at innumerable benefits and rallies.

From the very beginning, his story was remarkable. He was born in 1898 in Princeton, New Jersey. His father William was a slave and fled north on the Underground Railroad. He later became pastor of a Black Presbyterian church in Princeton. William Robeson lost his job for speaking out about lynching and the family had to move to Somerville, New Jersey, then a less prosperous, more working-class community.

When he was six, his mother died tragically in a house fire. After working as a coachman and an ash hauler, William secured a new parish. Paul received much help growing up from friends connected to his father’s church. He grew up in the church, assisting his father and even giving sermons when his father was away.

Paul was an outstanding student in high school. He excelled in everything he tried. He was a soloist in his high school glee club. He played Othello in a class parody of Shakespeare’s play. He played baseball, basketball and football. He was especially talented at football, playing fullback.

Robeson won a four-year full scholarship to Rutgers University. He was able to win the scholarship because he achieved the highest score on a competitive state-wide exam. He went on to become valedictorian at Rutgers and he made Phi Beta Kappa. He was one of two Black students on campus.

He played college football at Rutgers. He faced intense racism from fans and opposing players who frequently tried to hurt him. Some Southern colleges refused to play a team with a Black athlete. When Rutgers played in the South, he had to house and eat apart from the rest of the team because of segregation. Paul played four sports in college, winning 15 varsity letters.

Paul wrote his senior thesis on the unrealized promise of the 14th Amendment. He wrote, “We of the less favored race realize that our future lies chiefly in our own hands. Virtues of self-reliance, self-respect, perseverance and industry…Black and white shall clasp friendly hands in consciousness of the fact that we are brethren and that God is the father of us all.”

After college, Paul attended Columbia Law School. To earn money, he played pro football in the newly formed National Football League. Both his football career and his law career were cut short because he started acting and singing.

He got a stage opportunity to perform in two Eugene O’Neill plays for the Provincetown Players. He got rave reviews for his roles in All God’s Chillun Got Wings and The Emperor Jones. He also started performing solo concerts singing spirituals. For anyone who has never heard Robeson sing, his songs are easily accessible on the internet. I would recommend ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’ and ‘Ole Man River.’

Robeson also performed in Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern’s Showboat. He had a beautiful voice. Showboat was such a success that it led to other opportunities. He again played Othello. He started recording songs and he played in movies.

In that era, Black performers’ opportunities were narrowly circumscribed because of racism. Blackface minstrel shows were the norm and had been the norm for a long time. Robeson broke out of that racist framework to become widely popular. In that endeavor, he got great support from his wife, Eslanda, and his accompanist for four decades, Lawrence Brown.

It was during the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt that Robeson achieved his greatest popularity. In the aftermath of the Great Depression, the world faced the threat of looming fascism. Americans of almost all political stripes formed a Popular Front to oppose fascism. Many people came to recognize the danger fascism represented. Robeson performed a song, Ballad for Americans, that became an anthem for these Americans.

The song was written for the government’s Works Progress Administration. Robeson sang it in November 1939 on a national radio broadcast. It was listened to widely. Robeson toured the country, finishing with a performance at the Hollywood Bowl. His performance garnered the largest crowd ever at that venue.

I think Robeson’s example is directly relevant to our time. We now face a fascist threat from the candidacy of Donald Trump and his MAGA movement. All Americans, whether conservative, moderate, liberal, or progressive need to unite to protect our democracy and the rule of law. The example of the Popular Front that existed during FDR’s time is a good model to emulate.

After World War II, Robeson met with President Harry Truman and urged Truman to pass anti-lynching legislation. Truman told Robeson it was not the time. The racism in America was so deep-seated that Truman could not break with Southern Democrats who remained segregationist.

After that, Robeson experienced reversals of fortune. During the McCarthy period, Robeson was redbaited, blacklisted and the government revoked his passport. He remained widely popular in Europe but he was not allowed to leave the United States. The House Un-American Activities Committee or HUAC called Robeson and his wife to testify.

In May 1956, Robeson told HUAC, “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 in it just like you. And no fascist-minded people will drive me from it. Is that clear?”

In June 1958, the Supreme Court restored Robeson’s passport. Justice William O. Douglas wrote, “the right to travel is one of a citizen’s inalienable rights.”

Paul Robeson opened the door for later generations of African American artists. He boldly and bravely opposed racism in a time before there was a mass civil rights movement. Robeson was a symbol of hope and a bulwark for the ideal of racial egalitarianism.