Who resisted and campaigned for abolition?

Resistance and Paul Robeson

by Dr Emma Poulter

Paul Robeson: actor and activist

Robeson was born in Princeton New Jersey in 1898. His father was a former enslaved African who became a pastor. His mother was a teacher who died when he was five. Robeson's achievements and talents were phenomenal. He excelled both in his studies and as an athlete as a youth and received a scholarship to Rutgers College. He went on to obtain a law degree from Columbia University, supporting himself by playing professional football on the weekends. After graduation he procured a job with a New York law firm until a stenographer he was dictating to refused to write down a memo, saying ‘I never take dictation from a nigger', Robeson left the firm shortly afterwards.

Encouraged by his wife and friends, Robeson became involved in amateur theatrical productions. Appearing on the London stage in productions like Show Boat and Othello his reputation grew. Travels through Europe in the 1930s brought Robeson in contact with socialists and African nationalists. Singing to, and moving among, the disadvantaged, the underprivileged and the working classes, Robeson saw himself as being involved in the struggle for racial justice for non-whites and economic justice for workers around the world.

A journey to the Soviet Union had an important effect on Robeson, seeing black Africans as having a common culture with Russian workers as descendants of serfs. Robeson became a vocal advocate of communism. When he returned to America in the late 1930s he became a strong opponent of racism, picketing the White House, refusing to sing before segregated audiences, starting a crusade against lynching and urging Congress to outlaw racial bars in baseball. He spoke of the rights of black Americans to:

'... be free to walk the good American Earth as equal citizens, to live without fear, to enjoy the fruits of our toil, to give our children every opportunity in life. That dream which we have held so long in our hearts is today the destiny we hold in our hands'.

However, his radical politics caused his popularity to fall, and in 1950 the US State Department revoked his passport to ensure that he would remain in the USA. In his autobiography Robeson recounts how during the McCarthy hearings, when he was asked by a Congressional committee about why he didn't stay in the Soviet Union, he replied:

‘Because my father was a slave, and my people died to build this country, and I am going to stay right here and have part of it like you. And no fascist-minded people will drive me from it. Is that clear?'

Although Robeson's passport was restored in 1958 it had affected his reputation, and when his autobiography was published in the same year leading literary journals, including the New York Times and the New York Herald Tribune refused to review it. Robeson travelled again to the Soviet Union where his health began to fail. He became depressed at the loss of contact with audiences and friends and suffered a series of breakdowns. Slowly deteriorating, he died after having a stroke in 1976.

‘The story of a man who did so much to break down the barriers of a racist society, only to be brought down by the controversies sparked by his own radical politics,' New York Times Book Review contributor Diggins pronounced, ‘is at once an American triumph and an American tragedy'.