Paul Robeson (1898-1976) was an African-American athlete, singer, actor,
and advocate for the civil rights of people around the world. He rose to
prominence in a time when segregation was legal in the United States,
and Black people were being lynched by racist mobs, especially in the South.
In 1915, Paul Robeson won a four-year academic
scholarship to Rutgers University. Despite violence and racism from team mates, he won 15 varsity letters
in sports (baseball, basketball, track) and was twice
named to the All-American Football Team.
At Columbia Law School (1919-1923), Robeson met and married Eslanda Cordoza Goode, who was to become the first Black woman to
head a pathology laboratory. He took a job with a law firm, but left when a
white secretary refused to take dictation from him. He left the practice of law
to use his artistic talents in theatre and music to promote African and
African-American history and culture.
In London, Robeson earned international acclaim for his lead role in Othello,
and performed in Eugene O'Neill's Emperor Jones and All God's Chillun Got Wings. His 11 films included Body and
Soul (1924), Jericho (1937) and Proud Valley (1939). Robeson's travels taught him that racism was not as virulent in Europe as in the United States.
At home, it was difficult to find restaurants that would serve him, theatres in
New York would only seat Blacks in the upper balconies, and his performances
were often surrounded with threats or outright harassment. In London, on the other hand,
Robeson's opening night performance of Emperor Jones brought the
audience to its feet with cheers for twelve encores.
Paul Robeson used his deep baritone voice to promote Black spirituals,
to share the cultures of other countries, and to benefit the labour and social
movements of his time. He sang for peace and justice in 25 languages throughout
the United States, Europe, the Soviet Union and Africa. Robeson became known as a citizen of the world, equally comfortable
with the people of Moscow, Nairobi, and Harlem. Among his friends were future African leader Jomo Kenyatta, India's
Nehru, historian Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois, anarchist Emma
Goldman, and writers James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway. In 1933, Robeson donated
the proceeds of All God's Chillun to Jewish refugees
fleeing Hitler's Germany. At a 1934 rally for the anti-fascist forces in the Spanish Civil War,
he declared, "The artist must elect to fight for Freedom or for Slavery. I
have made my choice. I had no alternative." In New York in
1939, he premiered in Earl Robinson's Ballad for Americans, a cantata
celebrating the multi-ethnic, multi-racial face of America.
It was greeted with the largest audience response since Orson Welles' famous "War of the Worlds."
the 1940s, Robeson continued to perform and to speak out against racism, in
support of labour, and for peace. He was a champion of working people and
organized labour. He spoke and performed at strike rallies, conferences, and
labour festivals worldwide. As a passionate believer in international
cooperation, Robeson protested the growing Cold War and worked tirelessly for
friendship and respect between the United States
and the USSR. In 1945, he headed an organization that challenged President Truman to
support an anti-lynching law.
In the late 1940s, when dissent was scarcely tolerated
in the United States, Robeson openly questioned why African Americans should fight in the
army of a government that tolerated racism. Because of his outspokenness, he
was accused by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) of being a
Communist. Robeson saw this as an attack on the democratic rights of everyone
who worked for international friendship and for equality. The accusation nearly
ended his career. Eighty of his concerts were cancelled, and in 1949 two
interracial outdoor concerts in Peekskill, N.Y. were attacked by racist mobs while state police stood by. Robeson
responded, "I'm going to sing wherever the people want me to sing... and I
won't be frightened by crosses burning in Peekskill or
In 1950, the United States
revoked Robeson's passport, leading to an eight-year battle to resecure it and to travel again. During those years,
Robeson studied Chinese, met with Albert Einstein to discuss the prospects for
world peace, published his autobiography, Here I Stand, and sang at
Carnegie Hall. Two major labour-related events took place during this time. In
1952 and 1953, he held two concerts at Peace Arch Park on
the United States-Canadian border, singing to 30.000 to 40.000 people in both
countries. In 1957, he made a transatlantic radiophone broadcast from New York to
coal miners in Wales.
In 1960, Robeson made his last concert tour to New Zealand
and Australia. In ill health, Paul Robeson retired from public life in 1963. He died
in 1976, at age 77, in Philadelphia.
Robeson was posthumously
awarded a gold medal by the United Nations on 11 October 1978, in recognition of his contribution to the
international campaign against apartheid.
Statement by Leslie O
Harriman at a special meeting of the Special Committee against Apartheid
to pay tribute to Paul Robeson on his 80th birthday, 10
Republic 22 March 1983
last revised: 28 March 2010