|Birth name||Paul LeRoy Bustill Robeson|
|Born||April 9, 1898
Princeton, New Jersey, U.S.
|Died||January 23, 1976 (aged 77)
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.
|Occupations||Athlete, actor, orator, concert singer, lawyer, social activist|
Paul LeRoy Bustill Robeson (April 9, 1898 – January 23, 1976) was an internationally renowned American bass-baritone concert singer, actor of film and stage, All-American and professional athlete, writer, multi-lingual orator, scholar and lawyer who was also noted for his wide-ranging social justice activism. A forerunner of the civil rights movement, Robeson was a trade unionist, peace activist, Phi Beta Kappa Society laureate, and a recipient of the Spingarn Medal and Stalin Peace Prize. Robeson achieved worldwide fame during his life for his artistic accomplishments, and his outspoken, radical beliefs which largely clashed with the Jim Crow climate of the pre-civil rights United States. He became a prime target of the right during the McCarthyist era. Despite his being one of the most internationally famous cultural figures of the 20th century, persecution by the US government and media virtually erased Robeson from mainstream US culture and subsequent interpretations of US history, including civil rights and black history.
Robeson was the first major concert star to popularize the performance of Negro spirituals and was the first black actor of the 20th century to portray Shakespeare's Othello on Broadway. As of spring 2010 Robeson's run in the 1943–45 Othello production still holds the record for the longest running Shakespeare play on Broadway. In line with Robeson's dissatisfaction with movie stereotypes, his roles in both the US and British film industries were some of the first parts ever created that displayed dignity and respect for Black film actors, paving the way for Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte.
At the height of his fame, Paul Robeson chose to become a primarily political artist, speaking out against fascism and racism in the US and abroad as the United States government and many Western European powers failed after World War II to end racial segregation and guarantee civil rights for people of color. Robeson thus became a prime target of the Red Scare during the late 1940s through to the mid-1960s. His passport was revoked from 1950 to 1958 under the McCarran Act and he was under surveillance by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Central Intelligence Agency and by the British MI5 for well over three decades until his death in 1976. The reasoning behind his persecution centered not only on his beliefs in socialism and friendship with the Soviet peoples but also his tireless work towards the liberation of the colonised peoples of Africa, the Caribbean, Asia and the Australian aborigines, his support of the International Brigades, his efforts to push for anti-lynching legislation and the racial integration of major league baseball among many other causes that challenged white supremacism on six continents.
Condemnation of Robeson and his beliefs came swiftly from both the United States Congress and many mainstream black organizations including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). To this day, Paul Robeson's FBI file is one of the largest of any entertainer ever investigated by the United States Intelligence Community, requiring its own internal index and unique status of health file. Despite persecution and limited activity resulting from ailing health in his later years, Paul Robeson remained, throughout his life, committed to socialism and anti-colonialism as a means to world peace and was unapologetic about his political views. Present day advocates and historians of Paul Robeson's legacy have worked successfully to restore his name to many history books and sports records, while honoring his memory globally with posthumous awards and recognitions.
Robeson was born in Princeton, New Jersey, where his family bought a house on 11 Quarry St. His father, William Drew Robeson I, a descendant of the Igbo people, escaped from a North Carolina plantation where he had been born a slave; William Drew Robeson I earned a degree from Lincoln University (Pennsylvania) and became a church minister. From 1881 until 1901, he was minister of the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church in Princeton. Rev. Robeson was ousted from the Princeton Pastorate after more than 20 years of service, with no clear explanation given. Rev. Robeson's own congregation had been a contributing factor to his dismissal at Witherspoon Church.
Testimony would later reveal that he had aligned himself "on the wrong side of a church fight," having apparently refused to bow to pressure from the "white residents of Princeton" that he cease his tendency to "speak out against social injustice." After his dismissal, Rev. William Drew Robeson bypassed any need "to recriminate and rebuke." He said, "As I review the past and think upon many scenes, my heart is filled with love." In closing his last address to his Princeton congregation, he implored them, "Do not be discouraged, do not think your past work is in vain."
Paul's four siblings included: William Drew Robeson II, a physician who practiced in Washington, D.C.; Benjamin Robeson, a minister; Reeve Robeson (called Reed); and Marian Robeson, who lived in Philadelphia. William Drew Robeson was a stern disciplinarian when it came to Paul's studies and citizenship. In 1910, when the family relocated to Somerville, New Jersey, he continued to impress upon Paul that he could achieve anything that whites could. In 1915, Paul graduated with honors from Somerville High School, where he excelled academically and participated in singing, acting, and athletics. He went on to win a full academic scholarship to Rutgers University.
Paul Robeson was only the third African-American student accepted at Rutgers University, and he was the only black student during his time on campus. Robeson was one of three classmates at Rutgers accepted into Phi Beta Kappa in his third year, and one of four students selected in 1919 to Cap and Skull, Rutgers' honor society. The class valedictorian, he exhorted his classmates to "catch a new vision", while the "class prophecy" envisioned that he would become a governor of New Jersey by 1940 and "leader of the colored race in America." A noted athlete, Robeson earned altogether 15 varsity letters in American football, baseball, basketball, and track and field. For his accomplishments as an end in football, he was named a first-team All-American in 1917 and 1918. During scrimmages while Robeson initially tried out for the football team, he faced savage physical punishment: for instance, when a senior member of the team crushed Robeson's hand with a cleated foot, tearing off fingernails. He bore the abuse to prove his worth, eventually becoming considered the greatest football player of his era. The football coach, Walter Camp, later described him as "the greatest to ever trot the gridiron." Later in his life, however, when the United States government stopped him from traveling outside the country, his name was retroactively struck from the roster of the 1918 college All-America football team. Eventually Robeson's name was fully restored to the Rutgers University sports records and in 1995, he was also officially inducted into The College Football Hall of Fame. Rutgers-Newark also honored him posthumously by naming their student-life campus center, and art gallery after him. The Rutgers University New Brunswick Campus named one of their cultural centers, The Paul Robeson Cultural Center, for him as well. In addition, the Rutgers-Camden campus named their library, the Paul Robeson Library, after him.
After graduation from Rutgers, Robeson moved to Harlem and entered Columbia Law School. Between 1920 and 1923, Robeson helped pay his way through law school by working as an athlete and a performer. He played professional football in the American Professional Football Association (later called the National Football League) with the Akron Pros and Milwaukee Badgers. He served as assistant football coach at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, where he was initiated into the Nu Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha, the oldest intercollegiate Greek-letter fraternity for African Americans.32 He also played for the St. Christopher Club traveling basketball team during their 1918–19 season, alongside future Basketball Hall of Fame members Clarence "Fats" Jenkins and James –Pappy– Ricks, and former Hampton Institute star center Charles Bradford. In 1922, he starred in the play Taboo, written by Mary Hoyt Wiborg, in New York and in London. He graduated from Columbia in 1923, in the same law school class as William O. Douglas–later a United States Supreme Court Justice–and was hired at the law firm of Stotesbury and Miner in New York City; Robeson quit after a white secretary refused to take dictation from him because of the color of his skin.
Robeson married Eslanda Cardozo Goode in August 1921. She headed the pathology laboratory at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York City and came from a distinguished family of a mixed race background. Her father Cardozo Goode was related to the U.S. Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo. Essie encouraged Robeson in his career and became his business manager. Early in their marriage, she understood that her husband was not dedicated to monogamy and domesticity. Wanting to remain Mrs. Robeson, she made her peace with his extramarital affairs. Paul Robeson and Eslanda seriously considered divorce in the 1930s when Robeson fell deeply in love with a British woman, Yolanda Jackson. However, the relationship with Jackson ended abruptly, and Eslanda and Robeson stayed together, agreeing to an open marriage until her death on December 23, 1965.
The Robesons had one child, Paul Robeson, Jr., born November 2, 1927. Paul Robeson Jr., who is multi-lingual like his father, lives in New York and has spent much of his life safeguarding his father's memory and restoring his father's legacy by founding The Robeson Family Archives and The Paul Robeson Foundation. Paul Robeson had two grandchildren, David Robeson (1951–1998) and Susan Robeson (born in 1953).
In 1980, Susan Robeson published a pictorial biography of her grandfather titled The Whole World in His Hands.
In the 1920s, Robeson found fame as an actor and singing star of both stage and radio with his bass voice and commanding presence. His rich vocal instrument descended as low as C below the bass clef. In addition to his celebrated stage performances, his renditions of old spirituals were acclaimed; Robeson and his accompanist and arranger Lawrence Brown were the first to bring them to the concert stage. Paul Robeson also acted in or narrated over a dozen films, in the United States and overseas. His growing political and racial consciousness saw him become one of the first actors of any race to demand (and receive) final cut approval on a film, making him the first black actor to act in roles that had both dignity and emphasized pride in African heritage.
His first roles were in 1922 playing Simon in Simon the Cyrenian at the Harlem YMCA and Jim in Taboo at the Sam Harris Theater in Harlem. Taboo was later re-named Vodoo. Robeson was acclaimed for his 1924 performance in the title role of Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones–originally performed, also with great success, by Charles Gilpin in 1920. Robeson gained fame in his early career for his performance in All God's Chillun Got Wings in which he portrayed the black husband of an abusive white woman who, resenting her husband's skin color, destroys his promising career as a lawyer. He next played Crown in the stage version of DuBose Heyward's novel Porgy, which provided the basis for George and Ira Gershwin's opera Porgy and Bess.
In 1930, Robeson starred in the title role in William Shakespeare's Othello in England, when no U.S. company would employ him for the part. Peggy Ashcroft, with whom he had a brief affair, co-starred as Desdemona. He would reprise the role in New York in 1943, and tour the U.S. with it until 1945. His Broadway run of Othello is still, as of 2009, the longest of any Shakespeare play. He won the Spingarn Medal in 1945 for his portrayal of Othello. For the Broadway production Uta Hagen played Desdemona, and Jos Ferrer played Iago. Robeson's final portrayal of Othello in 1959 at The Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon was directed by Tony Richardson and also proved to be his theatrical swan song.
Robeson also played the role of Joe, which was written for him, in the 1928 London production of Show Boat, and repeated his performance in the 1932 Broadway revival of the show, the 1936 film version, and a 1940 Los Angeles stage production. His rendition of "Ol' Man River" is widely considered the definitive version of the song. Robeson sang the song as written whenever he appeared in a production of Show Boat, but in later recitals he made alterations to the lyrics to transform it from a song of black lament to one of defiance and perseverance.
While Show Boat was immensely popular with white audiences, black theater reviewers were less than impressed. J.A Rodgers of The Amsterdam News wrote in 1928 that he had spoken to "fully some thirty Negros of intelligence and self respect" who urged "their disapprobation of the play" and he had "heard many harsh things said against Robeson... if anyone had called him (Robeson) a 'nigger', he'd be the first to get offended and there he is singing 'nigger, nigger' before all these white people." He also played the role of Toussaint L'Ouverture in a 1936 play by C.L.R. James alongside the actor Robert Adams.
During his days at Columbia Law School during the Harlem Renaissance Paul Robeson sang professionally but with little thought of pursuing a career in song. In 1922, Eubie Blake heard Robeson sing casually and encouraged him to appear in Blake's production of Shuffle Along. In 1924 when Robeson was unable to whistle for a performance in Taboo, he sang a spiritual instead pleasing both the cast and audiences. After briefly meeting accompanist and arranger Lawrence Brown in England during 1922, the two reconnected in 1924 and rapidly established a successful musical partnership. Robeson would credit Brown guiding him "...to the beauty of my own folk music and to the music of all other Peoples so like our own."
Lawrence Brown, who had previously worked with the gospel singer Roland Hayes, had an extensive repertoire of African-American folk songs. Both he and Robeson helped bring these to much wider attention both inside the U.S. and abroad. With Robeson's wife Eslanda arranging concert venues, Paul Robeson became a hugely popular concert draw in New York City with Carl Sandburg drawing a distinction between his interpretations of spirituals and Roland Hayes' stating that "Hayes imitates white culture... Robeson is the real thing... ." Robeson also became interested in the folk music of the world; he came to be conversant with 20 languages, fluent or near fluent in 12. His standard repertoire after the 1920s included songs in many languages including languages as diverse as Chinese, Russian, Yiddish and German.
Through his renowned singing and his work with Lawrence Brown, Alan Booth and other accompanists, arrangers and producers, Paul Robeson went on to a lucrative concert, radio and recording career. But the Red Scare in 1949 brought his career to a halt. He was unable to perform in the U.S.; and his passport was revoked from 1950 to 1958 under the McCarran Act, which left him unable to travel overseas to perform. His 1958 concert at Carnegie Hall would prove his comeback. And, despite very ill heath, he sang the spiritual "We Are Climbing Jacob's Ladder" during his last major public appearance, which took place in April 1965, for a Freedomways Quarterly birthday celebration in his honor. From 1961 to 1985, a period of massive social change for African Americans, Freedomways Quarterly published the leaders and artists of the black freedom movement. Figures of towering historical stature wrote for Freedomways Quarterly, and Robeson was among them.
Between 1925 and 1942 Robeson appeared in eleven films, all but four of them British productions–after he and his wife moved to England in the late 1920s. For a total of nearly eleven years, he lived in the United Kingdom and paid taxes, with long periods away on singing tours, until the outbreak of World War II.
Robeson's earliest surviving film is 1924's Body and Soul a silent American race film (made for all-black audiences) directed by Oscar Micheaux in which Robeson played a preacher with a split personality. Robeson's second film was the experimental classic Borderline. Shot in Switzerland in 1930 by a trio of avant garde artists known as the Pool Group, and co-starring his wife, Eslanda, the film chronicles race relations in a small European village.
In 1933, he returned briefly to the U.S. where he reprised his title role in Dudley Murphy's film version of Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones. The American version of The Emperor Jones was censored to leave out a dramatic scene featuring Robeson killing a white prison guard who had ordered his character to beat a fellow prisoner who had been caught escaping. It was the first time a black man was shown killing a white man on the big screen–and audiences in the U.S. were not permitted to see it. The 1936 Universal Pictures film Show Boat was a box office hit for Robeson, and the most frequently shown and highly acclaimed of all his films, and his performance of "Ol' Man River" was particularly notable.
At the height of his popularity in the 1930s, Robeson became a major box office attraction in British films such as Song of Freedom (1936) and The Proud Valley (1940). He was also King Umbopa in the 1937 version of King Solomon's Mines (1937). In films such as Jericho and Proud Valley, he portrayed strong black American male leading roles.
Robeson left Britain during the Second World War. It was later discovered that his name was in The Black Book, a Nazi document listing thousands of people living in Britain who were to be arrested following the successful completion of Operation Sealion.
After a return from Europe in 1939, Robeson quickly became the voice of the nation when he performed Ballad for Americans, an American patriotic cantata with lyrics by John La Touche and music by Earl Robinson. Originally titled The Ballad for Uncle Sam, it was written for a Works Progress Administration theatre project called Sing for Your Supper. Robeson performed "Ballad" on the CBS radio network in 1943, accompanied by chorus and orchestra. Bing Crosby would also record a commercially successful recording of the piece but the song is almost always associated with Robeson as it represents the pinnacle of his music and radio career prior to the Cold War. He sang Ballad for Americans at The Hollywood Bowl to the largest sold-out crowd in its history.
Paul Robeson spent many years abroad during his early career on stage and in concert. Eager to understand their struggle against poverty and harsh working conditions, he met with Welsh coal miners in the late 1920s who were protesting unfair labor practices by colliery owners. This led him to a greater political awareness transcending race and showing him that, ultimately, the struggles of oppressed people are due to inequities in the class structure of capitalism rather than racial divisions. In London, he became aware of the large body of knowledge on African history and culture that was not available in the United States. As his political consciousness grew, Robeson became an unwavering supporter of the International Brigades and their struggle to liberate Spain from the fascist government of General Francisco Franco. He also supported the cause of Jewish refugees from Nazism.
Robeson's association with Wales began in 1928 while he was performing in London in the musical Show Boat. There, he met a group of unemployed miners who had taken part in a "hunger march" from South Wales to protest their situation. During the 1930s, Robeson made several visits to Welsh coal mining regions to perform in Cardiff, Neath and Aberdare. In 1934, he performed in Caernarfon to benefit the victims of a major disaster at Gresford Colliery, near Wrexham, where 264 miners died. In 1940, Robeson appeared in The Proud Valley, playing a black laborer who arrives in the Rhondda and wins the hearts of the local people. In 1958 Robeson visited the National Eisteddfod in Ebbw Vale
Robeson remains a celebrated figure in Wales. The exhibit Let Paul Robeson Sing! was unveiled in Cardiff in 2001, then toured several Welsh towns and cities. A number of Welsh artists have celebrated Robeson's life: the Manic Street Preachers' song "Let Robeson Sing" appears on the album Know Your Enemy. The band also covered "Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel?"– the spiritual sung by Robeson as part of his 1957 telephone performance to the Miners' Eisteddfod in Porthcawl during the eight year period from 1950 through 1958 when the U.S. government revoked his passport, which stopped him from traveling or performing overseas. The play Paul Robeson Knew My Father by Greg Cullen, set in the Rhondda during the 1950s, features a character with a childhood obsession for Robeson's music and films. Martyn Joseph's song "Proud Valley Boy" on his 2005 album Deep Blue is also based on Robeson's Welsh connections.
Robeson toured Republican Spain during the Spanish Civil War and was photographed with members of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, including its black commander Oliver Law. His repertoire included "Peat Bog Soldiers", which was popular with International Brigade volunteers and veterans alike. Robeson was among the first performers to sing in concert to U.S. troops during World War II. In 1938, he performed in front of an audience of 7,000 at the Welsh International Brigades National Memorial in Mountain Ash, to commemorate the 33 men from Wales killed while fighting on the side of the Republic in the Spanish Civil War. Paul Robeson's image is featured prominently in the only national historical monument dedicated to the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. The monument was unveiled on The Embarcadero in San Francisco in 2008.
In London during the 1930s he met with African students, who urged him to travel to the Soviet Union. Paul and Eslanda Robeson Eslanda were named honorary members of the West African Students' Union in London where they became acquainted with African students Kwame Nkrumah and Jomo Kenyatta, future presidents of Ghana and Kenya, respectively. In 1934 Robeson wrote of his desire to "be Africa" and continued to draw comparisons between oppressed peoples exploited in the colonial possessions of Western Europe and blacks in the United States abused by segregation and lynching. He was a prolific writer for leftist and progressive periodicals such as Freedomways Quarterly for whom Nkrumah, Kenyatta, W. E. B. Du Bois and Martin Luther King Jr. also contributed.
In 1937, with Max Yergan, Paul Robeson founded the Council on African Affairs (CAA), the first major U.S. organization whose focus was on providing pertinent and up-to-date information about Africa across the U.S., particularly to African Americans. During World War II, the Council functioned as a broad-based coalition that included a variety of activists, some of whom were associated with the Communist Party. Probably the most successful campaign of the Council was for South African famine relief in 1946.
Members of the CAA were hopeful that following World War II, when Western Powers adopted new resolutions on the issue of colonialism, there would be a move towards Third World independence under the trusteeship of the United Nations. To the CAA's dismay, the United States introduced a series of proposals at the April–May 1945 conference that set no clear limits on the length of colonialist occupation and no motions towards allowing territorial possessions to move towards self government.
Liberal supporters abandoned the CAA, and the federal government cracked down on its operations. In 1953 the CAA was charged with subversion under the McCarran Act. Its principal leaders, including Robeson, Du Bois, and Hunton, were subjected to harassment, indictments, and in the case of Hunton, imprisonment. Under the weight of internal disputes, government repression, and financial hardships, the Council on African Affairs disbanded in 1955. Ardent involvement in the liberation of colonialist Africa was considered a threat to the US government.
The vilification of Robeson's work for African liberation reached its zenith when J. Edgar Hoover, with the help of the NAACP (and Roy Wilkins, editor of The Crisis, the official magazine of the NAACP), arranged for a ghost-written leaflet to be printed and distributed in Africa; it was called Paul Robeson: Lost Shepherd, and was penned under the false name of "Robert Alan", whom the NAACP claimed was a "well known New York journalist." Another article by Roy Wilkins, called "Stalin's Greatest Defeat", denounced Robeson as well as the Communist Party of the USA in terms consistent with the FBI's information.
At the time of Robeson's widely misquoted declaration at The Paris Peace Conference in 1949, that African Americans would not support the United States in a war with the Soviet Union because of their continued lynchings and second-class citizen status under law following World War II, Roy Wilkins stated that regardless of the number of lynchings that were occurring or would occur, Black America would always serve in the armed forces.
In 1952, Robeson wrote of "... the Union of South Africa and the savage racist oppression." Referencing the "... eight and a half million African victims, a million Cape Coloured, and a third of a million Indians who have solemnly determined that only by establishing a common front of united and resolute resistance can they escape enslavement by the fascist Malan regime."
In July 1953, the Council on African Affairs drew up and forwarded a memorandum as an appeal to the UN Commission on Racial Discrimination in South Africa which had been set up in 1952 by the UN General Assembly. The long detailed memo attacked a spate of Malan-sponsored apartheid legislation including the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act, the Bantu Authorities Act which created the legal basis for the deportation of blacks into designated homeland reserve areas, and the Asiatic Laws which repealed the already limited ability for Indians to own franchises, among many other acts that suppressed or eliminated minority rights. Robeson drew a comparison between apartheid in South Africa and Jim Crow in the southern United States.
In 1954, Paul Robeson contributed an article about Ho Chi Minh to the progressive journal Freedom, a periodical that first appeared in 1950 and which was promptly labeled a "Communist Front organization" by the FBI. In the piece entitled "Ho Chi Minh is the Toussaint Louverture of Indo-China", Robeson wrote that "Vast quantities of U.S. bombers, tanks and guns have been sent against Ho Chi Minh and his freedom-fighters; and now we are told that soon it will be 'advisable' to send America GI's into Indo-China in order that the tin, rubber and tungsten of Southeast Asia be kept by the 'free world' - meaning white Imperialism." Robeson also accused the black community's leaders of staying "too silent", and urged that blacks had a specific need to understand the crucial parallels between the previous French colonial empire domination of Haiti, and France's current inability to retain colonial domination over Vietnam. One of his last public statements in the mid-1970s would congratulate the peoples of Vietnam for once again "turning back an Imperialist aggressor."
From 1927 to 1939, while continuing his professional singing and acting career, Robeson was active in the British Labor Movement, and was involved with the struggles of the workers of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales. He performed for them on numerous occasions, going down into the pits with the miners to see their working conditions and breaking bread with them and their families. Returning to England in 1949, he stated that his earlier time there had a profound influence on his political development:
In the United States as in England, Robeson would enjoy long friendship and honorary status with many unions, for his devotion to their causes and his ability to be on the picket lines showing support. He was given honorary memberships in United Auto Workers Local 453, Fur and Leather Workers Union, and the Transport Workers Union. His belief that the Labor Movement and trade unionism were crucial to the civil rights of oppressed people everywhere was challenged by some discouraging realities: many unions at the time were still characterized by racism. Robeson's close friend, the union activist Revels Cayton, would play a central role in pressing for "black caucuses" within in each union, with Robeson's encouragement and involvement.
At an international student peace conference held in Paris on April 20, 1949, Robeson made widely-referenced and controversial comments to the effect that American blacks would not support the United States in a post-World War II Cold War with the Soviet Union, due to continued second-class citizen status under United States law. This subsequent controversy caused the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) to investigate Robeson and his alleged Communist sympathies.
HUAC sought Jackie Robinson's testimony on the subject. Robinson was reluctant to testify to HUAC on these matters, in part because of Robeson's prior advocacy on behalf of integration in professional baseball. Among other things, at the annual winter meeting of baseball owners in December 1943, Robeson became the first black man to address baseball owners on the subject of integration. As such, Robeson had done much to pave the way for Jackie Robinson's entry into major league baseball just over four years later.
In July 1949, Robinson eventually agreed to testify before HUAC, fearing that declining to do so might negatively and permanently damage his career. His testimony was a major media event, with Robinson's carefully-worded statement appearing on the front page of The New York Times the following day.
While Robeson considered Robinson's testimony a "disservice" to the black community, he declined to comment on Robinson personally: "I am not going to permit the issue to boil down to a personal feud between me and Jackie. To do that, would be to do exactly what the other group wants us to do." Jackie Robinson appreciated Robeson's restraint, and eventually grew in greater admiration for Robeson. Near the end of his life, Robinson wrote in his autobiography about the incident:
However, in those days I had much more faith in the ultimate justice of the American white man than I have today. 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 people.
A large aspect of Robeson's persecution by J. Edgar Hoover's FBI and the political right in the U.S. was, in part, due to his support for the Soviet Union, which was a cause clbre for a few well-known artists and scientists during the 1930s and the early 1940s. As soon as the war ended, the U.S. and Soviet Union became fierce competitors and the period of the Cold War between the two superpowers began. In the 1950s, McCarthyism and the Red Scare dominated the headlines, and any artist, scientist or academic who failed to denounce communism became suspect.
Following Paul Robeson's first trip to Russia in late 1934, he became a lover and advocate of not just the Soviet Union's socialist experiment and its culture and history, but of the Russian peoples. Robeson became fluent in Russian, studied Russian history in depth, learned about the many national minorities (e.g.: Yakuts, Uzbeks and Tatars) and wrote numerous essays and articles demonstrating his deeply held beliefs that the US should seek peace and understanding with Soviet Russia. He also felt African-Americans showed many similarities to Soviet national minorities.
White supremacist and anti-civil rights members of the US Government (e.g., Martin Dies and Theodore Bilbo) and anti-Communist members of the US intelligence community, especially J. Edgar Hoover, were able to take Robeson's unwavering devotion to the people of the Soviet Union and Russian culture and attach it to his other causes. Anti-lynching legislation and African independence were already being given a Pinko label. The US government was able to attach Robeson's socialist views to these civil rights causes, effectively frightening many of the trade unions and mainstream African American political community, including the NAACP, away from him.
On October 7, 1946, Robeson testified before the Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities in California (Tenney Committee) that he was not a Communist Party member. Contrary to popular belief, he has never been identified as a card-carrying or official member of any Communist organization, despite his unwavering support of socialism, domestically and internationally.
Ten years later, in 1956, Robeson was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) after he refused to sign an affidavit affirming that he was not a Communist. In response to questions concerning his alleged Communist Party membership, Robeson reminded the Committee that the Communist Party was a legal party and invited its members to join him in the voting booth before he invoked the Fifth Amendment and refused to respond. Robeson lambasted Committee members on civil rights issues concerning African-Americans. When one senator asked him why he hadn't remained 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 here, and have a part of it just like you. And no Fascist-minded people will drive me from it. Is that clear? I am for peace with the Soviet Union, and I am for peace with China, and I am not for peace or friendship with the Fascist Franco, and I am not for peace with Fascist Nazi Germans. I am for peace with decent people."
Robeson is often criticized for accepting the Stalin Peace Prize, eulogizing Stalin, and continuing to support the Soviet Union and not formally denouncing the regime, despite conflicting accounts that show his awareness of state-sponsored intimidation and murder. In his testimony to HUAC, he stated that,
"I have told you, mister, that I would not discuss anything with the people who have murdered sixty million of my people, and I will not discuss Stalin with you." And "I will discuss Stalin when I may be among the Russian people some day, singing for them, I will discuss it there. It is their problem." Asked if he had praised Stalin during his previous trip to the Soviet Union, Robeson replied, "I do not know." When asked outright if he had changed his mind about Stalin he implored,
"Whatever has happened to Stalin, gentlemen, is a question for the Soviet Union, and I would not argue with a representative of the people who, in building America, wasted sixty to a hundred million lives of my people, black people drawn from Africa on the plantations. You are responsible, and your forebears, for sixty million to one hundred million black people dying in the slave ships and on the plantations, and don–t ask me about anybody, please."
When Robeson was given the news of Stalin's 1939 pact with Hitler, he saw the agreement as having been forced on Russia by the unwillingness of the French and British forces "to collaborate with the Soviet Union in a real policy of collective security"-personally writing in his journal that an Anglo-Russian pact "would have stopped Nazi aggression"-thus leaving the USSR with no alternative choices in shoring up its borders.
Having experienced first hand during the 1930s a climate in Russia that he perceived as free from racial prejudice and then to see no western country or superpower actively attempt any comparable commitment to the rights of minorities or blacks, Robeson refused pressure to publicly censure the Soviet experiment. In his opinion, the existence of the USSR was the guarantee of political balance in the world. A large number of Robeson biographers, including Martin Duberman, Philip S Foner, Marie Seton, Paul Robeson Jr and Lloyd Brown argue that he felt that criticism of the Soviet Union by someone of his international standing would only serve to shore up reactionary elements in the U.S. Robeson is on record many times as stating that he felt the existence of a major socialist power like the USSR was a bulwark against Western European capitalist domination of Africa, Asia and the Caribbean.
At no time during his retirement (or his life) is Paul Robeson on record of mentioning any unhappiness or regrets about his unwavering devotion for the Soviet Union and his hopes for a socialist Africa and Asia. Paul Robeson's experiences in the USSR continue to cause controversy among historians and scholars as well as fans and journalists.
Robeson spoke out against racist conditions experienced by Asian and Black Americans; he condemned segregation in both the North and the South. In particular, Robeson spoke out against Lynching in the United States and, in 1946, he founded the American Crusade Against Lynching, supported by Albert Einstein.
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Robeson worked tirelessly for civil rights within the confines of the US despite being barred from traveling internationally, including the bringing to the United Nations in 1951 the document "We Charge Genocide". The document asserted that the U.S. federal government, by its failure to act against lynching in the United States, was guilty of genocide under Article II of the UN Genocide Convention. Hundreds of executions were documented in the petition in the section Evidence. (Although the petition states that there were at least 10,000 African Americans who had been executed, the real number will never be known because these incidents were never properly documented or recorded.) The petition also describes conspiracy against African Americans by inhibiting their ability to vote through poll taxes and literacy tests.
In 1948, Robeson was active in the presidential campaign to elect Progressive Party candidate Henry A. Wallace, who had served as Secretary of Agriculture, Vice President, and Secretary of Commerce in the administrations of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. On the campaign trail in June of that year, Robeson went to Georgia, where he sang before "overflow audiences... in Negro churches in Atlanta and Macon."
Paul Robeson's staunch support of the Soviet Union also saw him on at least one occasion speak out harshly against the civil liberties of international socialists. At a Bill of Rights Conference in New York City in July 1949, a resolution was introduced calling for the freeing of 19 Trotskyists convicted in 1941 under the provisions of the Smith Act, being used at that time against the leaders of the CPUSA. Robeson gave a speech denouncing this idea, saying that the imprisoned Socialist Workers Party members were –the allies of Fascism who want to destroy the new democracies of the world. Let–s not get confused, they are the enemies of the working class. Would you give civil rights to the Ku Klux Klan?"
In 1949, a popular concert by Robeson in Peekskill, New York, to benefit the Civil Rights Congress resulted in the Peekskill Riots caused by anti-Communist and anti-civil rights members of local Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion chapters and also by local residents. The concert, organized as a benefit for the Civil Rights Congress, was scheduled to take place on August 27 in Lakeland Acres, just north of Peekskill. Before Robeson arrived, a mob of locals attacked concert-goers with baseball bats and rocks. Thirteen people were seriously injured before the police intervened. The concert was postponed until September 4.
Robeson drove with longtime friend and Peekskill resident Rosen and two others to the concert site and saw marauding groups of protesters, a burning cross on a nearby hill and a jeering crowd throwing rocks and chanting "Dirty Commie" and "Dirty Kikes." Robeson made more than one attempt to get out of the car and confront the mob but was restrained by his friends. Following a very large meeting of local citizens, union members and Robeson supporters who formed "The Westchester Committee for Law and Order", it was unanimously determined that Robeson should be invited back to perform at Peekskill. Representatives from various left wing unions-the Fur and leather workers, the Longshoremen and the United Electrical Workers – all agreed to converge and serve as a wall of defense around the concert grounds.
The rescheduled event, on September 4, 1949, was attended by 20,000 people and went off without incident but, after the concert, a violent mob, caught on film by the press, chanting "Go back to Russia you white Niggers" and "Dirty Kikes", threw rocks through the windshields of cars and buses. Standing off the angry mob of rioters, some of the concertgoers, and union members, along with writer Howard Fast and others assembled a non-violent line of resistance, locked arms, and sang the song "We Shall Not Be Moved." Some people were reportedly dragged from their vehicles and beaten. Over 140 people were injured and numerous vehicles were severely damaged as police stood by. Following the riots, more than 300 Robeson supporters went to Albany to voice their indignation to Governor Thomas Dewey, who refused to meet with them, blaming "Communists for provoking the violence." Twenty-seven plaintiffs filed a civil suit against Westchester County and two veterans groups. The charges were dismissed three years later. Paul Robeson called the actions of the New York state troopers, who were caught on film beating concert goers, including World War I veteran and first decorated Black aviator, Eugene Bullard, as "Fascist stormtroopers who will knock down and club anyone who disagrees with them" Graphic photos of Eugene Bullard being beaten by two policeman, a state trooper and concert goer, were later published in Susan Robeson's pictorial biography of her grandfather, "The Whole World in His Hands: a Pictorial Biography of Paul Robeson".
In March 1950, NBC canceled Robeson–s scheduled appearance on former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt–s television program, Today with Mrs. Roosevelt. A spokesman for NBC declared that Robeson would "never appear on NBC." Press releases of the Civil Rights Congress objected that "censorship of Mr. Robeson's appearance on TV is a crude attempt to silence the outstanding spokesman for the Negro people in their fight for civil and human rights" and that our "basic democratic rights are under attack under the smoke-screen of anti-Communism." Protesters picketed NBC offices and protests arrived from numerous public figures, organizations and others. In 1976, following Robeson's death, NBC approched Paul Robeson, Jr. asking permission to create a three hour documentary on his father, an offer which was swiftly turned down. Robeson, Jr. felt that it was an offensive request given their previous treatment of his father during his lifetime.
Because of the controversy surrounding him, Paul Robeson's recordings and films lost mainstream distribution. During the height of the Cold War it became increasingly difficult in the United States to hear Robeson sing on commercial radio, or to see any of his films, including the acclaimed 1936 version of Show Boat.
In 1950, the State Department denied Robeson a passport and issued a "stop notice" at all ports, effectively confining him to the United States. When Robeson and his lawyers met with officials at the State Department on August 23, 1950 and asked why it was "detrimental to the interests of the United States Government" for him to travel abroad, they were told that "his frequent criticism of the treatment of blacks in the United States should not be aired in foreign countries"–it was a "family affair." When Robeson inquired about being re-issued a passport, the State Department declined, citing Robeson–s refusal to sign a statement guaranteeing not to give any speeches while outside the U.S. Robeson's passport revocation was similar to that of other individuals that the State Department deemed pro-Soviet, including the writers Howard Fast and Albert E. Kahn, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Richard Morford, who headed the National Council of America-Soviet Friendship.
In a symbolic act of defiance against the travel ban, labor unions in the U.S. and Canada organized a concert at the International Peace Arch on the border between Washington state and the Canadian province of British Columbia on May 18, 1952. Paul Robeson stood on the back of a flat bed truck on the American side of the U.S.-Canada border and performed a concert for a crowd on the Canadian side, variously estimated at between 20,000 and 40,000 people. Robeson returned to perform a second concert at the Peace Arch in 1953, and over the next two years two further concerts were scheduled. (Officially, the travel ban did not prevent Robeson from entering Canada, as travel across the Canada-United States border did not require a passport, but the State Department directly intervened to block Robeson from traveling to Canada.)
In 1956, Robeson left the United States for the first time since the travel ban was imposed, performing concerts in two Canadian cities, Sudbury and Toronto, in March of that year. The travel ban ended in 1958 when Robeson–s passport was returned to him.
Robeson's only book, Here I Stand, was published by a British publishing company in 1958. Later, in May 1958, his passport was finally restored and he was able to travel again, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in Kent vs. Dulles, that the Secretary of State had no right to deny a passport or require any citizen to sign an affidavit because of his political beliefs. Also that year, Robeson's 60th birthday was celebrated in several US cities and twenty-seven countries across Europe, Latin America, Asia and Africa, as well as in the Soviet Union. In particular, in the USSR he visited Young Pioneer camp Artek with his wife Eslanda and performed in concert there on September 6, 1958. As part of his "comeback", he gave two sold-out recitals that month in Carnegie Hall, which were released on LP and later on CD. They would be his only stereo recordings.
In the late 1950s, Robeson moved to the United Kingdom and traveled extensively. He spent five years touring the world, playing Othello again in Tony Richardson's 1959 production at Stratford-upon-Avon, and singing throughout Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. In New Zealand, apart from his public concerts, he also attended a lunch-time meeting of the watersiders (longshoremen) union. He spoke about unionism and then sang several numbers. On his visit to England he befriended actor Andrew Faulds and inspired him to take up a career in politics. He had health problems during his travels, and spent some time in Russian and East German hospitals.
Paul Robeson's severe health problems in later life have been a subject of much controversy and rumor. In 1955 at the age of fifty-eight, Robeson was hospitalized for a prostate operation. Prior to the operation he expressed to Paul Robeson Jr fear of what might "be done" to him by the US Government. Robeson's recovery would be a lengthy one and coupled with other setbacks. Robeson first became manic with energy, obsessing daily over the pentatonic scale and the connectedness of universal music theory lapsing eventually into a withdrawn depressive state where he saw virtually no one. Robeson's doctor felt there were deep psychological issues brought on by the combined stress of his prostate surgery and government harassment but also that there may have been the early onset of arteriosclerosis, a disease that would be a contributing factor to his retirement in 1963.
In regards to the rumors that the United States Intelligence Community was a contributing factor to his father's decline in health, Paul Robeson Jr argued over many decades that his father was "neutralized" by the CIA and MI5 during his last stay in Europe from 1961 to 1963. Martin Duberman, one of Robeson's premier biographers, does not wholly discount the claim, but was not able to obtain enough evidence to either prove or disprove Paul Robeson Jr's theory, concluding that the issue must remain unresolved until the release of all pertinent government material. However, this may never be possible as FBI lawyers told Duberman's attorney in the 1980s that "some 56 volumes (out of a probable 103) in the Robeson file of the New York Field Office had "unaccountably disappeared."
In spring of 1961, Robeson attempted suicide in a Moscow hotel room during an uncharacteristically wild party. His son claims the suicide attempt was precipitated by a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) agent who placed some synthetic hallucinogens into his drink under a covert program called MK Ultra. Paul Robeson Jr. visited his father in the Moscow hospital three days after the suicide attempt. Robeson told his son that he felt extreme paranoia and thought that the walls of the room were moving. He said he had locked himself in his bedroom and was overcome by a powerful sense of emptiness and depression before he tried to take his own life. Paul Robeson Jr then hounded Soviet Officials to find out who had been present at the party, how near was Robeson to death and if the doctors had found any hallucinogenic drugs in his father's blood. Most of his questions would never be answered and nearly two weeks later Paul Robeson Jr found himself also feeling similar horrific hallucinogenic suicidal symptoms which he says have never repeated themselves before or since, leading him to believe that he too was drugged. Paul Robeson and his son recovered, with Paul Robeson staying at the Barvikha Sanatorium for a prolonged period of rest.
Paul Robeson Jr recalled the incident 38 years later:
My father manifested no depressive symptoms at the time, and when my mother and I spoke to him in the hospital soon after his –suicide– attempt, he was lucid and able to recount his experience clearly. The party in his suite had been imposed on him under false pretenses, by people he knew but without the knowledge of his official hosts. By the time he realized this, his suite had been invaded by a variety of anti-Soviet people whose behavior had become so raucous that he locked himself in his bedroom. His description of that setting, I later came to learn, matched the conditions prescribed by the CIA for drugging an unsuspecting victim, and the physical psychological symptoms he experienced matched those of an LSD trip."
Robeson recovered and left Moscow for London early September 1961, where he again became rapidly depressed and suicidal. He was immediately admitted to The Priory Hospital. There he was turned over to psychiatrists who started him on a course of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) 36 hours after his arrival without consulting his previous physicians in the USSR and without offering any combined psychotherapy or antidepressant drug therapy. The electro-shock treatments would eventually reach 54 rounds, a number his son called "criminal by any standards then or now." Doctors at the time felt his condition was too acute to risk waiting for treatment. According to The Priory doctors and close friends, the ECT treatments that Robeson was given did help in the short term but yielded no cumulative effects to his mental health.
Both the United States Intelligence Community and British Intelligence were well aware of Robeson's suicidal state of mind. In an FBI memo dated "April 7th, 1961", agents described Robeson's debilitated condition, remarking that his "death would be much publicized" and that his name would be "useful in propagandizing on behalf of the Intentional Communist community." They agreed to continue with their ceaseless surveillance. They also stated in numerous memos that Robeson should be denied a passport renewal which would ostensibly jeopardize his fragile health and the recovery process he was engaged in overseas. Duberman writes, "No evidence has come to light suggesting that the agencies of the US government were complicitous–as his son (Paul Robeson Jr) has long maintained was probable–in the breakdown of Robeson's health but once it did deteriorate, they proved perfectly willing to assist in its further decline."
According to Colonial Office files released on March 6, 2003, and additional material released on March 2, 2005, MI6 tracked Robeson, as a key figure in the negro political movement. Of particular interest was his appeal in May 1945 for $40,000 as chairman of the American Council on African Affairs. Colonel Valentine Vivian, the head of MI6, complained that the Council on African Affairs had Communist links and was constantly making ill-informed complaints about British administration. The released files also stated that Robeson was being monitored during his years in London, including during his treatment at The Priory.
Robeson's frequent trips to the Soviet Union led to his being investigated by the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover. Robeson was under surveillance by the FBI from 1941 to 1974, when the Bureau decided that "no further investigation [of Robeson] was warranted."
At the time of his hospitalization in 1961, electro-shock, in combination with psycho-active drugs, was a favored technique of CIA behavior modification. It eventually became public record that the doctors treating Robeson in London and, later, in New York were CIA contractors.
Another pressing concern for the U.S. government at the time was Robeson's announced intention to return to the United States and assume a role in the emerging civil rights movement. Like the family of Martin Luther King, Robeson had been under official surveillance for decades. As early as 1935, British intelligence had been looking at Robeson's activities. In 1943, the Office of Strategic Services, the World War II predecessor to the CIA, opened a file on him.
Robeson, Jr. has been attempting for over 30 years to have the U.S., Russia and United Kingdom release classified documents regarding his father. He feels his most illuminating discovery is an FBI "status of health" report on Robeson created in April 1961. "The fact that such a file was opened at all is sinister in itself," Robeson told the London Sunday Times in 1998. "It indicates a degree of prior knowledge that something was about to happen to him."
Robeson biographer Martin Duberman posits that given the most available evidence, Paul Robeson's health breakdown was brought on most likely by a combination of factors including but not limited to: extreme emotional and physical stress from being under intense surveillance for over twenty years; bipolar depression from being blacklisted and isolated from his friends and livelihood; extreme exhaustion; and the beginning of circulatory and heart problems. Duberman writes: "...even without an organic predisposition and accumulated pressures of government harassment he might have been susceptible to a breakdown..."
Disturbed over his treatment at The Priory, friends of Robeson had him transferred to The Buch Clinic in East Berlin. The physicians found him "completely without initiative" and they expressed "doubt and anger" about the "high level of barbiturates and ECT" that had been administered during his stay at The Priory. They also discovered that he had heart and liver problems consistent with his age and stopped the heavy doses of the sedatives prescribed at The Priory.
Robeson rapidly improved and was given intensive psychotherapy, though his doctor stressed that "what little is left of Paul's health must be quietly conserved." With the blessing of his doctors Paul Robeson eventually returned to the United States in 1963 to retire, but for the remainder of his life he would be plagued by ill health, nearly dying from double pneumonia and a kidney blockage in 1965.
After a few scattered public appearances, including a brief tour that saw him fall seriously ill from exhaustion, he went to live briefly at his home on Jumel Terrace in Harlem, and then in a large Upper West Side apartment with his son and daughter in-law (and their children) in New York City from 1966 to 1968. Eventually Robeson settled at his sister Marian Robeson's home in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He saw few visitors aside from very close friends and gave few statements apart from very short messages to support current civil rights and international movements, feeling that his record "spoke for itself." Contrary to many mainstream media rumors, numerous friends and biographers have reported that Robeson was not a "bitter recluse," he had simply decided to lead a very quiet life due to ailing health.
Despite Robeson's retirement from public life there were many accolades and celebrations in his honor both in the U.S. and internationally. Many awards and honors transpired in public arenas that had previously shunned him during the Cold War, including Rutgers University, which held a symposium on his life in 1975. Additionally, the Black Sports Hall of Fame cited him for his athletic record. Robeson also finally received praise from the next generation of civil rights activists via a dinner in his honor given by Freedomways, a progressive journal, in April 1965. It would be his last major public appearance. In 1974 Robeson was the first recipient of the Paul Robeson Award established by the Actors' Equity Association. Robeson was unable to attend and his message accepting the award was his final public statement.
Elaborate events were held all over the world in honor of Paul Robeson's 70th birthday including a three day celebration in East Germany. There was also an evening of music and poetry in London at the Royal Festival Hall featuring Mary Ure, Peggy Ashcroft, Peter O'Toole and Michael Redgrave. In Moscow, speakers included the writer Boris Nikolaevich Polevoy and the poet Mikhail Kotov. The black commission of the CPUSA celebration remarked that "the white power structure has generated a conspiracy of silence around Paul Robeson. It wants to blot out all knowledge of this pioneering Black American warrior..."
More than 3,000 people gathered in Carnegie Hall to salute Robeson's 75th birthday in 1973, including Attorney General Ramsey Clark, Pete Seeger, Angela Davis, Dolores Huerta, Dizzy Gillespie, Odetta, Leon Bibb, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte (who also produced the show), James Earl Jones, Zero Mostel, Roscoe Lee Browne, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, and Coretta Scott King; birthday greetings arrived from President Julius K. Nyerere of Tanzania, Prime Minister Michael Manley of Jamaica, President Cheddi Jagan of Guyana, President Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, Indira Gandhi, Arthur Ashe, Linus Pauling, Judge George W. Crockett, Leonard Bernstein and the African National Congress. Robeson was unable to attend because of illness, but a taped 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."
On January 23, 1976, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, at the age of 77, Paul Robeson died of a stroke following "complications from a 'severe cerebral vascular disorder.'" He lay in state for a viewing at Benta's Funeral Home in Harlem for two days. His granddaughter, Susan Robeson, recalled "...watching this parade of humanity who came to pay their respects...from the numbers runner on the corner to Gustaf VI Adolf, King of Sweden."
Condolences came from around the world, including Coretta Scott King, who deplored "America's inexcusable treatment" of a man who had had "the courage to point out her injustices." According to Robeson biographer, Martin Duberman:
"The white press, after decades of harassing Robeson, now tipped its hat to a 'great American,' paid its gingerly respect in editorials that ascribed the vituperation leveled at Robeson in his lifetime to the Bad Old Days of the Cold War, implied those days were forever gone, downplayed the racist component central to his persecution, and ignored the continuing inability of white America to tolerate a black maverick who refused to bend. The black press made no such mistakes. It had never, overall, been as hostile to Robeson as the white press, (though at some points in his career, nearly so)."
The black press universally celebrated Robeson, with The Amsterdam News eulogizing him as "Gulliver among the Lilliputians" and saying his life would "always be a challenge and a reproach to white and Black America."
On January 27, 1976, two thousand five hundred people attended Paul Robeson's funeral at Mother AME Zion Church in Harlem, where Robeson's brother Ben had been pastor for 27 years. Thousands more, mostly African Americans, stood outside in freezing rain throughout the service, listening on the public address system as speaker after speaker, including Harry Belafonte, paid tribute to Robeson for his integrity and tremendous courage in the face of extreme adversity. Also in attendance were Sidney Poitier, Uta Hagen, Betty Shabazz, Henry Winston of the Communist Party USA, Eubie Blake, and Paul Robeson Jr, who described his father as a "great and gentle warrior."
Robeson was cremated and his ashes were interred in the Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York with a grave marker that states, "The Artist Must Fight For Freedom Or Slavery. I Made My Choice. I Had No Alternative."
After his death, Paul Robeson has continued to be revered and celebrated throughout the world especially during his centennial year of 1998. Listings of Robeson posthumous recognitions and events from 1976 until the present day number in the thousands. The most recent major event was the January 2009, "50th Anniversary of Othello" at The Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon which featured a revival of Othello set in the 1950s, "A Slave's Son at Stratford", an exhibit on Robeson's work at RSC and "I have done the state some service: Othello, Robeson and the FBI", a panel discussion.
The first memorial following Robeson's 1976 funeral was a tribute held in US House of Representatives January 28, 1976. Throughout 1976 memorials were held at Rutgers; The World Peace Council in Athens, Greece; Columbia University, New York City; Toronto; Shiloh Baptist Church in Washington, D.C.; and by Actor's Equity in Los Angeles. On October 8, 1976, Artist's Tribute to the Life of Paul Robeson, was held at Carnegie Hall, as a benefit for the Paul Robeson Archive. Sidney Poitier proclaimed, "When Paul Robeson died, it marked the passing of a magnificent giant whose presence among us conferred nobility upon us all..."
Beginning in 1978, Paul Robeson's films were finally shown again on American television, with Show Boat making its cable television debut in 1983. In recent years, all of Robeson's films have appeared on Turner Classic Movies. In the 1970s and 1980s three buildings on the Rutgers University campus were named in his honor, including the library at Rutgers Camden Campus and the West Philadelphia house that he resided in for the last ten years of his life is now a museum and historical monument.
On January 18, 1995, after five decades of exclusion for political reasons, Paul Robeson was finally inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, in a step taken by the National Football Foundation which many called "long-overdue".
During the centenary of Paul Robeson's birth in 1998, around the world, over four hundred celebrations took place with over twenty Robeson centennial events held in the San Francisco Bay area alone. In the mass media there was broad recognition of Paul Robeson, through numerous film showings, musical and educational programs, art exhibitions, a two-hour PBS documentary, as well as the presentation of the Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award.
In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed Paul Robeson on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans. And in 2004, after nearly a decade of intense lobbying and petitioning of the United States Postal Services' citizens stamp advisory board, Paul Robeson was finally featured on a US postage stamp.The Paul Robeson Commemorative Postage Stamp is the 27th stamp in the Black Heritage Series.The national Stamp Unveiling Ceremony was held on January 20, 2004 at Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, Robeson–s birthplace, with Paul Robeson, Jr. participating.
On September 26, 2009, Edgecombe Avenue and 160th Street in Washington Heights, Manhattan, were renamed as Paul Robeson Boulevard and Count Basie Place. The corner is the location of 555 Edgecombe Avenue, also known as the Paul Robeson Home, a National Historic Landmarked building where Paul Robeson and Count Basie lived.
An Heirloom tomato (see List of heirloom tomato cultivars) has been named after Paul Robeson. It is of Russian-Siberian heritage. It is a black beefsteak tomato that is slightly flattened, round, and grows to four inches. Its deep, rich colors stand it apart from others–a dusky, dark-red, with dark-green shoulders, and red flesh in its center. Does well in northern climates.
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