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Paul Robeson (1898-1976)

Paul Robeson

Paul Robeson is a legendary African American singer, actor, writer, exceptional athlete, electrifying political activist, and multi-lingual advocate for the civil and labour rights of peoples around the world. In the 1940s, he was the second most famous American in the world only after president Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Paul was born on April 9th, in Princeton, New Jersey. His father William was an escape slave from a North Carolina plantation, who became a pastor in the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church for twenty years, but in 1901, he was expelled from the church because he made speeches against social injustice. Their family experienced poverty, discrimination and segregation since his childhood. These calamities had great impacts on his life and drove him to find the way for a better future for all human beings.

In 1915, Robeson graduated with honours from Somerville High School, and in 1917, from Rutgers College with an academic scholarship. In 1923, he finished at Colombia University Law School and worked as a lawyer. But he quit soon after from the law firm due to widespread racism there and among its white clients. Later he studied at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, England.

He was six feet two, and almost 200 pounds, twice winner of all-American football honours at Rutgers College in 1918 and 1919. Paul also starred in baseball, basketball, and track & field, and he earned fifteen varsity letters in four sports.

In 1921, during his studies at Colombia University Law School, he met his wife Eslanda Cardozo Goode, first African American histological chemist, and political activist. They had profound positive influence on each others careers.

After quitting the law firm, Paul decided to pursue a singing and acting career, which gave him international fame and popularity. He used his deep baritone voice in 25 languages to promote peace, equality and justices around the world. He spoke and performed at labour festivals, conferences and strike rallies worldwide.

In November 1939, he introduced, on CBS Radio, the Ballad for Americans which received such an enthusiastic response that for many years it was considered as the second national anthem. In 1940, the Ballad was sung at the conventions of the Republicans, Democratic and Communist Parties. In 1952 and 1953, defying his revoked passport, he held two concerts at Peace Arch Park on the US-Canadian border, singing to about 40,000 people from both countries, in two major labour-related events.

As an actor he played in Eugene O’ Neill’s “All God’s Chillun Got Wings” (1925) and “The Emperor Jones” (1928). Amongst others, he also acted in “Show Boat” (1928) and “Shakespeare’s Othello” (1930). In 1943, Othello was seen by over half a million viewers on Broadway or on tours. In addition, he received the Donaldson Broadway Award for best acting performance in “Othello” (1944). Robeson, all in all, played in eleven films in the UK and US, which are:

  • “Body and Soul” (1924),

  • “Camille”, a film also starring Charles Chaplin, Theodore Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis (1926),

  • “The Emperor Jones” (1933),

  • “Sanders of the River” (1935),

  • “Show Boat” (1936),

  • “Song of Freedom” (1936),

  • “Big Fella” (1937),

  • “Jericho” (1937),

  • “The Proud Valley” (1940),

  • “Native Land” (1942),

  • “Tales of Manhattan” (1942).

In 1935, Robeson accompanied by his wife Eslanda, visited the Soviet Union; they were impressed by what they saw as regards to human achievements. In 1949, again he was invited to the Soviet Union and sang in a concert for the 150th anniversary of the birth of the great Russian poet Pushkin. In 1952, Paul received the International Lenin Peace Prize for his unwavering struggle for peace, equality, and justice worldwide.

In 1938, Robesons went to the Spanish Front to show their solidarity with the freedom fighters against Franco’s fascists. In the early 1940s, he helped to organize black workers into the Congress of Industrial Organizations. In 1943, he tried hard to end segregation in the U.S. sporting events, especially in baseball.

During WWII, Robeson became a national symbol of unity in the fight against fascism abroad and racism at home. He received medals and awarded honorary lifetime membership in many unions of his time due to his tireless efforts. It was his hard struggles that paved the way for the great civil rights achievements in 1960s. He fought to breakdown barriers of class, gender, nationality and race in the U.S. and around the world. For the freedom of colonial people especially the African peoples, he founded and later chaired the Council on African Affairs, which membered many of the future African leaders. In 1950s, and with the start of the Korean War, he worked closely with Albert Einstein, Howard Fast and other famous international figures; to halt the war, as well as imperialist aggressions around the world and to promote peace and justice worldwide. Robeson achieved all of this during an era when doors were closed tight to African Americans.

His fiery struggle against class exploitation and his unwavering defence of the Soviet Union especially during the Cold War subjected him and his wife to the interrogations of the House of Un-American Activities Committee. In 1955, he appeared before this committee and denied being a member of the American Communist Party, but praised its policy of being in favour of racial equality. In 1950, prior to this interrogation, he had been black-listed and his passport had been revoked. His heroic stands for the democratic rights of the people angered the members of Committee and the whole capitalist establishment. As a result, about eighty of his concerts were cancelled, was marginalized, ostracized and exiled in his country, and these crimes were committed in the name of democracy.

Eventually in 1958, Robeson again obtained his passport in order to leave the country. He moved to Europe for five years, fluent in twelve languages, and familiar with the cultures of different continents, travelled extensively, gave public lectures and spent his time to read and write. His autobiography, “Here I Stand”, was published in 1958.

According to his son Paul Robeson II, in 1961, while his father was in a Moscow hotel room, he was poisoned by a CIA agent with a synthetic hallucinogen placed in his drink under a covert program called MK Ultra. After that he never gained his complete health.

In his 75th birthday anniversary, over 3000 people gathered in the Carnegie Hall to salute him. Many famous figures attended the ceremony, and birth day greetings arrived from Indira Gandhi, Julius Nyerere, Cheddi Jagan, Kenneth Kaunda, Michael Manley, the prime minister, and presidents of India, Tanzania, Guyana, Zambia and Jamaica, and also from the African National Congress. Due to ill health, Robeson was unable to attend the event. A tape message from him was played which said in part, “Though I have not been able to be active for several years, I want you to know that I am the same Paul, dedicated as ever to the worldwide cause of humanity for freedom, peace and brotherhood.”

This renowned citizen of the world and legendary figure, died on January 23rd 1976 at the age of 78, apparently due to a stroke, while shadows of conspiracy of silence were creeping over his incredible accomplishments. But one cannot cover the sun with the mud. In 1978, the U.N. honoured Robeson for speaking out against apartheid in South Africa. In 1995, he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. In 1998, Robeson received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Paul Robeson is buried in Ferncliff Cemetery, Hartsdale, NY.


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