Humanity Defends Robeson
As a result of his uncompromising activism, Paul Robeson faced enormous persecution from the fascist wings of the American government. In 1950, the State Department revoked his passport because it was "contrary to the best interests of the United States". The government admitted that it was embarrassed by his uncompromising support for the colonial people of Africa. Robeson responded in his autobiography:
"Yes, I have been active for African freedom for many years and I will never cease that activity what the State Department or anybody else thinks about it. This is my right--as a Negro, as an American, as a man! Not only do I deny that this activity makes me "un-American" but I say this: Those who oppose independence for the colonial peoples of Africa are the real un-Americans!"
Robeson was as beloved by the people of the world as he was persecuted by his own government. The images below show some of his connections with world revolutionary movements that celebrated and defended Paul Robeson.
Right: A woman carrying a sign in support of Paul Robeson (Source: Getty Images)
Progressive America defends Robeson
The U.S. government repeatedly attempted to isolate Robeson from the American people and people around the World. However, people rallied in support of Robeson standing up against their own government.
In 1952, Robeson was not allowed to cross the U.S.-Canada border to perform for Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers Union in Vancouver, British Columbia. Members of the Union planned a concert at Peace Arch Park on the international border where Robeson addressed the meeting and performed for an audience of approximately 25,000 people (estimates range as high as 45,000) gathered on both sides of the border.
Robeson's message of peace and freedom continued to spread across the world despite the efforts to repress him. His iconic Trans-Atlantic Concert for audiences in London and Wales on a telephone connection between New York and London on 26 May 1957.
“No barriers can stand against the mightiest river of all–the people’s will for peace and freedom now surging in floodtide throughout the world!”
Paul Robeson at the World Federation of Trade Unions (1954)
Members of labour unions and war veterans make a human barricade to protect Robeson during the Peekskill concert in 1949.
Relentless persecution of Robeson during the McCarthy era led to increased anti-communist paranoia resulting in a violent mob at a concert where Robeson was performing at Peekskill in New York in 1949. A group of representatives from different labour unions and war veterans set up a human barricade around Robeson to protect him from the mob (see picture on the left).
Speaking of this incident, Robeson said "I will be loyal to America of true traditions; to the America of the abolitionists, of Harriet Tubman, of Thaddeus Stevens, of those who fought for my people's freedom, not of those who tried to enslave them. And I will have no loyalty to the Forrestals, to the Harrimans, to the WallStreeters... the surest way to get police protection is to have it very clear that we'll protect ourselves, and good!... I'll be back with my friends in Peekskill..."
Paul Robeson and Africa
Robeson was closely connected to movements for African liberation. As a founder of the Council of African Affairs alongside W. Alphaeus Hunton, exposed US control of Ethiopia, the presence of US military bases in Morocco, the jailing of nationalists in Kenya, the annexation of Namibia by South Africa, and most momentously, the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. As Mr. Mfanafuthi Makatini, Reprsentative of the ANC in Congress said in tribute to him in 1978
"In his extensive travels and professional performances abroad, Paul Robeson won himself unparalleled fame, respect, and influence. If he had sought personal growth and wealth, if he had remained unconcerned and silent over the sequels of slavery and the plight of the Blacks in the United States, the plight of the colonized people in Africa and the world, he would have been acclaimed by the dominant group in this country, through its powerful media which it owns and controls, the greatest roving American ambassador of the time. But Paul Robeson was made of finer and sterner stuff. He spoke out. He clearly and unequivocally declared his stand, and the virulent campaign conducted against him only served to temper and steel his commitment and immensely increased his fame and prestige"
Robeson and the Soviet Union
Robeson being greeted by people in Moscow upon his first visit to the Soviet Union in 1958 after his passport was returned.
Robeson performing at his 60th birthday celebrations held in Moscow in 1958.
Paul Robeson was an unapologetic supporter of the Soviet Union. He became interested in the Soviet Union during his time in London, where his African friend turned his attention to the Soviet model of racial and economic democracy. He traveled to Moscow in 1934, and said "Here I am not a Negro, but a human being for the first time in my life."
Robeson deeply respected the Soviet Union for abolishing racism within the Soviet Union, developing so-called backwards people, standing firmly with the world anti-colonial movement, and taking a stance against imperialist domination of Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. Robeson sent his own son to attend public school in the Soviet Union, and visited many times where he was received with great love. The Socialist Republic of Kazakhstan named a mountain after him, and Soviet farmers named a tomato after him.
Robeson wrote a pamphlet as part of the Council on African Affairs in 1950 entitled "The Negro People and the Soviet Union" in which he explained what the Soviet Union meant to the darker nations. He counterposed the Soviet Socialist program of ethnic and national democracy against the Nazi, fascist, South African, and Dixiecrat program of racial superiority. As he wrote:
“I feel that I go beyond my own personal feelings and put my finger on the very crux of what the Soviet Union means to me — a Negro and an American. For the answer is very simple and very clear: ...the Soviet Union’s very existence, its example before the world of abolishing all discrimination based on color or nationality, its fight in every arena of world conflict for genuine democracy and for peace, this has given us Negroes the chance of achieving our complete liberation within our own time, within this generation.”
Robeson's views earned him enormous hatred from the American ruling elite. Yet Robeson never apologized for his convictions, and continued to push for peace. As Robeson said, "I shall not retreat one thousandth part of an inch".
Robeson and the Indian People
Paul Robeson was a dear friend of India's first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and ally of the Indian Freedom Struggle. In 1942, when the Indian National Congress leadership was in jail following the Quit India Movement, the Council on African Affairs organized a Free India rally where Robeson spoke.
In April 1958, the Indian government under the leadership of future prime minister Indira Gandhi and MC Chagla organized celebrations of Robeson's 60th birthday. These celebrations were organized in solidarity with the struggle to get Robeson's passport reinstated. The American government pressured the Indian government to stop these celebrations, but the Indian committee refused.
Paul Robeson in New York with Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, 1957.
Robeson was immensely loved by the people of India. Hemanga Biswas, an artist of Indian People's Theatre Association, sang the song "Negro Bhai Amar Paul Robeson" which translates to "My negro brother Paul Robeson". The song is composed by Kamal Sarkar based on a translation of Nazim Hikmet's poem on Robeson by Subhash Mukhopadhyay.
"Ol' Man River", one of the most iconic songs of Robeson, was also adapted and performed by Bhupen Hazarika as ‘Bistirna Parore’ and ‘Ganga Behti Ho Kyun’ in several Indian languages.
My negro brother Paul Robeson
My negro brother Paul Robeson!
They don’t let us sing our song, my negro brother Paul Robeson!
They cannot let us sing our song because they are afraid.
Afraid of our bloodshot eyes, afraid of our resolute voices, scared by our unstoppable march.
The clarion call of revolution has them shaking in fear, Robseon!
They fear living just as much as they fear dying.
They are afraid of the memory of the people and are plagued by nightmares.
They are afraid Robeson.
Afraid of the voice of the people rising in unison, scared by their unconquerable unity,
afraid of the strength of their fearless resistance.
They cower under the towering figure of retribution, Robeson!
My negro brother Paul Robeson! That is why they don’t let us sing our song!
The All India Peace Council along with the World Peace Council campaigned extensively for restoring Paul Robeson's passport and his right to travel. Many major Indian artists appealed to “all lovers of art in the country” to protest against Robeson's travel ban and several public meetings were held in solidarity with Robeson.
Support for Paul Robeson: All India Peace Council's campaign for restoring Robeson passport published in the World Peace Bulletin in January 1957.
India: Protest against Restrictions on Paul Robeson and Charlie Chaplin: Report on All India Peace Council's protest against Robeson's travel ban published in the World Peace Bulletin in January 1957.
Robeson and the Chinese Revolution
Robeson developed close friendships with Chinese revolutionaries including patriotic singer Liu Liangmo, Chinese American actress Anna May Wong, and Madame Sun Yat-Sen. He famously sang the March of the Volunteers, which would become the official anthem of the People's Republic of China. He defended China's involvement in the Korean War in support of the Korean people against American imperialism. The Chinese sent their support to Robeson in the wake of the Peekskill riots and promoted him as a model for a new kind of citizen. Shirley Graham Du Bois's biography of Robeson was translated into Chinese, and the Chinese government promoted his music and messages about his life in Chinese publications.
Liu Liangmo, Paul Robeson, and others in attendance at the ‘Stars for China’ war relief benefit in Philadelphia, 1941.(Source: https://aeon.co/essays/why-the-peoples-republic-of-china-embraced-paul-robeson)
Cover album of Chee Lai! Songs of New China recorded in 1941 by Robeson, Liu Liangmo, and the Chinese People's Chorus, which was composed of people from the labor union Chinese Hand Laundry Alliance.
Page from 1949 children's biographical cartoon series "Today's Hero: Black Singer Robeson". Robeson says he salutes the democratic revolution in China.(Source: https://aeon.co/essays/why-the-peoples-republic-of-china-embraced-paul-robeson)