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The Radical Paul Robeson

Paul Robeson was born on this day in 1898. A pioneering black singer and actor, he was also a lifelong radical – and committed his life to the struggle against oppression and exploitation across the globe.

Paul Robeson was born on 9 April, 1898. 13 years ago, while visiting the city of San Francisco, I learned that throughout the month of April 2008, there was a Paul Robeson exhibition running in the nearby city of Oakland to mark the 110th anniversary of his birth. The persistent campaigning by the Bay Area Paul Robeson Centennial Committee had finally borne fruit.

That 1 April I entered through the doors of Oakland City Hall not quite knowing what to expect. At the top of the splendid rotunda staircase, and alongside the Stars and Stripes, a large portrait of Robeson gazed down on all who entered. Almost six decades after being deprived of his US passport in 1950, there was at least one US city finally prepared to honour this world-renowned singer and pioneer of the Civil Rights Movement.

The reason I had the good fortune to see that exhibition was that two days previously, as Ireland Secretary of the International Brigade Memorial Trust, I was present for the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Monument unveiling ceremony, where I witnessed surviving Brigade veterans of the Spanish anti-fascist war being honoured by the city of San Francisco. As far as I was concerned, the Oakland and San Francisco experiences were two of a kind, since Robeson was an internationalist, whose most outstanding campaign of solidarity had been on behalf of the besieged Spanish Republic.

Paul Robeson in Republican Madrid, 1938.

At a London rally in June 1937 Robeson would proclaim: ‘The artist must elect to fight for freedom or for slavery. I have made my choice… I stand with you in unalterable support of the government of Spain, duly and regularly chosen by its lawful sons and daughters.’ In the course of that campaign he would add a new song to his repertoire, the bitterly anti-Franco ‘The Four Insurgent Generals’, where the expressed his wish was that the tears of sorrow of a Madrid bombed by the fascists should be avenged. This solidarity campaign would also see Robeson radically alter the lyrics of that song so closely associated with him, ‘Ol’ Man River’.

Paul Robeson also believed in an internationalism of song itself. He familiarised himself with over twenty languages, and in the recording of his famous 1949 Moscow concert, one can hear him sing in seven of them – English, Russian, French, Italian, Spanish, Chinese, and Yiddish. Welsh, the language of that Western European country closest to his heart, was not one he ever learned, but he did sing the English language translations of its national anthem, ‘Land Of My Fathers’, as well as ‘All Through The Night’. A similar place in his English language repertoire was held by a number of songs in the Gaelic musical idiom, such as ‘The Castle of Dromore’ from Ireland, and ‘The Erriskay Love Song’ from Scotland.

In his 1958 autobiography, Here I Stand, Robeson wrote of how it had been when residing in Britain from 1927 to 1939 that he began to broaden his repertoire. He had come to be of the similar mind as the escaped slave and pioneering abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who had visited Ireland in 1847 during the Great Famine under British rule:

Our music—Negro music of African and American derivation—was in the tradition of the world’s great folk music. And so for my first five years as a singer my repertoire consisted entirely of my people’s songs. Then I went on to learn the songs of other peoples, and in Britain there was at hand the riches of English, Welsh, and Gaelic folk-songs. And as I sang these lovely melodies I felt that they, too, were close to my heart and expressed the same soulful quality that I knew in Negro music. Others had noted this kinship before me, and in his autobiography Frederick Douglass, recalling the songs ‘both merry and sad’ that he had heard as a plantation slave, wrote: “Child as I was, these wild songs depressed my spirit. Nowhere outside of dear old Ireland, in the days of want and famine, have I heard songs so mournful.”

This resonated with Robeson in more ways than one. His own father, the Reverend William Drew Robeson, had been born a slave in North Carolina in 1845, escaping North in 1860. No wonder he gave such a powerful rendition of Thomas Moore’s ‘Minstrel Boy’:

And said,
No chains shall sully thee
Thou soul of love and brav’ry
Thy songs were made for the pure and free
They shall never sound in slavery

The Power of Solidarity

Before he became famous as a singer and actor, Robeson had already broken racial barriers in his personal life. He won a scholarship to Rutgers University, only the third black American to graduate from the university in 1919, although he was initially denied permission to live on campus.

He excelled academically, but also in sports—baseball, basketball, and track—and most notably, he was the first black American to be named all-American in college football, and was hailed by many as the best American footballer of his generation. Winning yet another scholarship, he went on to become the third black American to graduate from Columbia Law School.

Paul Robeson in the 1933 film adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s ‘Emperor Jones’.

Due to prevailing racism in the practice of law, Robeson opted instead for a career as a singer and actor. In 1928 he accepted an invitation to play the role of Joe in the London production of Showboat. There was criticism, however, from the black community in both the UK and USA of Robeson being willing to sing the original opening line of ‘Ol’ Man River,’ which included the n-word. For the the 1932 Broadway revival, Robeson insisted that the word ‘Darkies’ be substituted, and by the time the movie version was in production in 1935, he further insisted that those lines should be dropped altogether and substituted by ‘Dere’s an ol’ man called the Mississippi, / Dat’s de ol’ man that I’d like to be’.

It was at a London rally for Republican Spain in December 1937 that Robeson first sang his most radically altered version of the song. Robeson’s changes to the lyrics were as follows:

Instead of ‘Dere’s an ol’ man called de Mississippi, / Dat’s de ol’ man that I’d like to be’, Robeson sang ‘There’s an ol’ man called the Mississippi, / That’s the ol’ man I DON’T like to be’.

Instead of ‘Tote that barge! / Lift that bale! / Git a little drunk, / An’ you land in jail’, Robeson sang ‘Tote that barge and lift dat bale!/ YOU SHOW A LITTLE GRIT / And you lands in jail’.

And instead of ‘Ah gits weary / An’ sick of tryin’; / Ah’m tired of livin’ / An skeered of dyin’, / But Ol’ Man River, / He jes’ keeps rolling along!’, Robeson sang ‘But I keeps laffin’/ Instead of cryin’ / I MUST KEEP FIGHTIN’; / Until I’m dyin’, / And Ol’ Man River, / He’ll just keep rollin’ along!’

The Albert Hall rally erupted in wild enthusiasm. Robeson’s altered lyrics resonated not only with the struggle for racial equality but also with class struggle. As he would write in Here I Stand:

I went to Spain in 1938, and that was a major turning point in my life. There I saw that it was the working men and women of Spain who were heroically giving ‘their last full measure of devotion’ to the cause of democracy in that bloody conflict, and that it was the upper class—the landed gentry, the bankers and industrialists—who had unleashed the fascist beast against their own people. From the ranks of the workers of other lands volunteers had come to help in the epic defence of Madrid, and in Spain I sang with my whole heart and soul for these gallant fighters of the International Brigade.

It was in London in 1929 that Robeson’s radical education on class struggle had begun. Emerging from one of his performances in Showboat, Robeson came across a Welsh male voice choir busking on the street. These were Rhondda Valley coal miners who had been blacklisted ever since the collapse of the 1926 General Strike, and they had marched in their working clothes all the way to London, hoping to feed their families by busking en route.

He joined them on part of their protest march, sang for them, and not only paid their train fares back to Wales, but also paid for food and clothing to bring back home. He donated the proceeds of a subsequent concert to the Miners’ Relief Fund. Likewise, when on concert tour of Wales itself in 1934, he donated the proceeds of his Caernarfon concert to a fund for the families of the more than 200 miners who had perished and remained buried underground in the Gresford colliery inferno.

In December 1938, Robeson would be back in Wales to speak and sing at a commemoration of 33 Welshmen who had given their lives in Spain, with International Brigade veterans marching behind the flags of Wales and the Spanish Republic onto a platform alongside a group of Basque refugee children as well as one hundred black citizens of Cardiff. And in August and September 1939, he was filming in Wales as the star of The Proud Valley, which told the story of a black American sailor who jumps ship to work in a South Wales colliery.

This was a film of which Robeson himself was so proud, saying that it allowed him to ‘depict the Negro as he really is, not the caricature he is always represented to be on the screen’. The Proud Valley was released in 1940, but film critic Matthew Sweet was of the opinion in 2005 that if the film had been completed before the outbreak of war ‘it would have been the most uncompromisingly Marxist picture ever produced in Anglophone cinema’.

Paul Robeson sings during the choir scene of ‘The Proud Valley’.

Robeson returned to the USA in October 1942. The Second World War saw the largest voluntary westward migration of black Americans from the South to California in US history, with nearly 500,000 moving west between 1942 and 1945. There is a powerful photo of Robeson singing ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ in September 1942 with a racially integrated shipyards workforce in Oakland.

He was now adding songs of the US labour movement to his repertoire, most notably ‘Joe Hill’, with its lines ‘In San Diego up to Maine / In every mine and mill / Where working men defend their rights / It’s there you’ll find Joe Hill’. It was in 1943 that Robeson released his recording in ‘Songs of Free Men’, but in 1939 he had already informed the composer of its melody, Earl Robinson, ‘I know one of your songs.’ He had learned ‘Joe Hill’ in the Workers’ Theatre in England fewer than three years after it had been completed in 1936.

The post-war years saw Robeson and US reaction in direct confrontation with each other. In September 1946, as leader of the Anti-Lynching Crusade, he had a very stormy meeting with President Truman. He told the President that if the government did not do something to curb lynching, ‘Negroes would’. He asked the government to make a formal declaration of disapproval of lynching within 100 days.

The President, Robeson reported, said that this was not the time for him to act. Robeson responded that if this was the case, the Nuremberg war crimes trials were an exercise in hypocrisy. The USA could not take the lead in punishing the Nazis while the government permitted Negroes to be lynched and shot. A reporter asked, ‘Are you a communist?’, to which Robeson replied, ‘I am violently antifascist.’ Another asked if he believed in ‘turning the other cheek’. ‘If someone hit me on one cheek, I’d tear his head off before he could hit me on the other one,’ came the reply.

Robeson was touring Europe again in 1949. That May, the Scottish area of the National Union of Mineworkers booked Robeson to give a concert to hundreds of miners in Edinburgh. A newsreel report recorded how that afternoon Robeson had also visited Woolmet colliery and sang ‘Joe Hill’ for the miners in their canteen. But it was what Associated Press had misreported Robeson as saying that April at the World Peace Conference in Paris that finally cast the die.

The false report was that he had condemned the US government as Hitlerite. But what he had actually said was in itself sufficient to get him blacklisted: ‘Negroes would fight for peace, would become Partisans of peace rather than be dragged into a war against the Soviet Union and the East, where there is no prejudice. Take a questionnaire and give a Negro sharecropper an honest appraisal – peace with nations who are raising their former minorities, or war in the interest of those who just refused him his civil rights.’

On returning to the USA, Robeson proceeded to schedule outdoor concerts in Peekskill, New York, for August and September 1949. Spurred on by press incitement, rock-throwing racist mobs attacked concert goers. With reasonable fears of a possible assassination attempt, volunteers from the Fur and Leather Workers’ Union and the United Electrical Workers, as well as Longshoremen, formed a human shield around Robeson as he sang.

A year later, Robeson’s passport was withdrawn by the US State Department. Canada, however, permitted entry to US citizens without requiring presentation of a passport. But when the United Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers’ Union invited Robeson to give a concert in Vancouver, British Columbia, in January 1952, the State Department invoked World War emergency legislation to prevent Robeson crossing the border. The Union’s response was to organise a concert for May 1952, at the Peace Bridge Arch, on the border between Washington State and British Columbia. Robeson sang from the US side to an audience of 30,000 across on the Canadian side, and 5,000 on the US side.

Union internationalism was no less dramatically in evidence in October 1957. The President of the South Wales Miners, Will Painter, who had been an International Brigade commissar in Spain, invited Robeson to sing at the Union’s Eisteddfod in Porthcawl. Knowing full well that Robeson was forbidden to travel, Painter set up a trans-Atlantic telephone link to the Eisteddfod.

Robeson’s voice resounded through its speakers with a set from his repertoire, while the Treorchy Male Choir replied in kind. And after Robeson had joined with the choir in singing the Welsh anthem ‘Land of My Fathers’, the whole audience of 5,000 responded by singing back ‘We’ll keep a welcome in the hillside / We’ll keep a welcome in the Vales / This land you knew will still be singing / When you come home again to Wales’.

Meanwhile, in June 1956, Robeson had been summoned to Washington to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). He remained steadfast and defiant, declaring: ‘I stand here struggling for the rights of my people to be full citizens in this country and they are not. They are not in Mississippi and they are not… in Washington… You want to shut up every Negro who has the courage to stand up and fight for the rights of his people… That is why I am here today.’

Congressman Scherer interrupted: ‘Why do you not stay in Russia?’ Robeson 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?’

Paul Robeson speaks before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) in 1956.

Forbidden to travel, Robeson set to work on his autobiography Here I Stand. There he pointed out that ‘Karl Marx said, a hundred years ago, that “Labour in a white skin can never be free while labour in a black skin is branded”.’ One particular chapter, ‘The Power of Negro Action’, read like a blueprint for the Civil Rights Movement’s advances of the 1960s. Robeson further emphasised:

Here let me point to a large group among the Negro rank-and-file which is potentially the most powerful and effective force in our community  the Negro men and women who are members of organised labour. We are a working people and the pay-envelope of the Negro worker is the measure of our general welfare and progress… Here, on the basic bread-and-butter level, is a crucial front in our fight for equality and here the Negro trade unionists are the main force to lead the way… You must rally your white fellow workers to support full equality for Negro workers; for their right to work at any job; to receive equal pay for equal work; for an end to Jim Crow unions; for the election of qualified Negroes to positions of union leadership; for fair employment practices in every industry; for trade union educational programs to eliminate the notions of ‘white superiority’ which the employers use to poison the minds of the white workers in order to pit them against you.

Marking Robeson’s Legacy

In June 1958 a US Supreme Court decision resulted in Robeson’s passport being restored. With that document firmly in hand, he flew to London in July. He would undertake a concert tour of the UK, with a series of 26 performances between September and December 1958.

More than 30 years ago, three of my International Brigade veteran friends told of their vivid memory, half a century later, of the morale-boosting concert that Robeson had given to Brigadistas in Spain in January 1938, before they were sent to the front. These were Dubliners Bob Doyle and Maurice Levitas, and Dave Goodman from Middlesbrough, who wrote to me of their short period at training camp:

My company commander was an Irishman, Paddy O’Sullivan. We didn’t even have rifles to train with, and we weren’t there long anyway. Teruel had been re-taken by the fascists and we were needed at the front to try and stop the rot. Before leaving we had a concert with Paul Robeson. Although many details of my experiences in Spain have faded from my memory, the fact that my memory of Paul Robeson singing to us on the eve of our departure for the front is ever green, and is a measure of the impact of his singing. The effect was electric and inspirational.

My International Brigade father, Michael O’Riordan, arrived in Spain in April 1938. 20 years later, he at long last had the opportunity to travel from Dublin to Belfast to see and hear Robeson for the first time at one of the two concerts he was to give in that city in November 1958.

He also met and spoke with Robeson and returned with a concert programme signed for myself and my sister: “Hello Manus & Brenda. Hope to see you soon. Much love from Paul (Robeson)”. As if he needed to clarify that he was not to be confused with any other Paul! I was already familiar, as a nine year old, with Robeson’s renditions of ‘Ol’ Man River’, ‘Kevin Barry’, ‘The Castle of Dromore’, and ‘The Erriskay Love Song’, as played on Radio Éireann, as well as hearing him guest on the BBC programme ‘Desert Island Discs’.

As the South Wales Miners audience had sung to Robeson across the Atlantic in October 1957, he would indeed be welcomed back to Wales, and November 1958 would also see him give concerts in Cardiff and Swansea. But the highlight of his return had already occurred in August 1958, when he was the special guest of the MP for Ebbw Vale and the founder of the National Health Service, Nye Bevan, at the National Eisteddfod of Wales, held that year in Ebbw Vale.

Paul Robeson and Aneurin Bevan at the Eisteddfod festival of Welsh culture in 1958.

Robeson was the first person ever given permission to address the National Eisteddfod in English, when he said of those Welsh people he had come to know and love: ‘You have shaped my life – I have learned from you. I am part of the working class. Of all the films I have made, the one I will preserve is Proud Valley.’

In 1960 Robeson was to lead the May Day Parade in Glasgow, and later that year he embarked on a concert tour of Australia and New Zealand. The most outstanding feature of that tour was his outdoor concert for construction workers building the Sydney Opera House, when ‘Joe Hill’ rang out yet again.

But ill-health would thereafter take its toll. In 1965 Robeson would sing his fighting version of ‘Ol’ Man River’ in public for the last time. His final years were lived in seclusion, until his passing on January 23, 1976. In 1975 Robeson had, however, issued the following statement:

People should understand that when I could be active I went here, there, and everywhere. What I wanted to do I did; what I wanted to say I said; and now that ill-health has compelled my retirement I have decided to let the record speak for itself. As far as my basic outlook is concerned, everybody should know that I’m the same Paul Robeson and the viewpoint I expressed in my book Here I Stand has never changed.

In 2004, bowing to the pressure of a six-year grassroots campaign, the US Postal Service finally issued a stamp commemorating Paul Robeson, as part of its Black Heritage series. This was midway through the two-term Republican presidency of George W. Bush. But when a man like Robeson had been been so grievously hounded and persecuted by the state, something more presidential than a postage stamp was required.

In 1933, charged with being a Communist, James Gralton became the only Irish person ever to be deported from his native land. In 2016 the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, travelled to Gralton’s birthplace to unveil a monument in his honour and apologised on behalf of the Irish state for the wrong done to him.

That was truly presidential. Sadly, nothing similar happened in the USA in respect of Paul Robeson during the course of the two-term Democratic presidency of Barack Obama. In October 2013, midway through that period of office, President Barack Obama visited Pathways in Technology Early College High School in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. With P-TECH lauded as ‘a ticket into the middle class… available to everybody who’s willing to work for it,’ a report in the New York Amsterdam News elaborated:

Controversy reigned at the beginning of the two-year-old school though, which took up space in Paul Robeson High School and partnered with IBM to give space to 300-plus citywide students. It was part of Mayor Bloomberg’s small school movement, wherein he went on an educational rampage, closing established schools and paradoxically opening small ones in the same building. Some of the remaining 50 Paul Robeson students said that they felt like ‘second-class citizens’ in the building they are now sharing with this highly touted, much praised new school… According to Obama, big business married to education is the key to success… The problem is, the students of Paul Robeson and so many other schools under Bloomberg will not have that opportunity because they are being phased out gradually either by colocation or charter school placement.

President Obama could not bring himself to say one word about the man whose name had been given to the building in which he was now standing, nor could he acknowledge that without the pathbreaking struggles of Paul Robeson, an Obama presidency would never have come to pass.

Paul Robeson speaks at a rally against nuclear weapons in Trafalgar Square, London, in 1959.

He ought to have reflected on the statement given by Robeson to the Milwaukee Journal in October 1941: ‘It means so little when a man like me wins some success. Where is benefit when a small class of Negroes makes money and can live well? It may all be very encouraging, but it has no deeper significance. I feel this way because I have cousins who can neither read nor write. I have had a chance. They have not. That is the difference.’

A rising tide does not lift all boats. For Paul Robeson, identity politics would remain neutered unless they also embraced the reality of class discrimination and struggle. At the time of writing, such issues are being acted out in Bessemer, Alabama, as ballots are being counted in the campaign by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) to unionise 5,800 Amazon employees, 85 percent of whom are black Americans.

The RWDSU says that this is not just a union struggle, it’s also a civil rights struggle, one seeking to assure dignity for every worker. Richard Bensinger, who is working on organising drives at several other other Amazon warehouses in the USA and Canada, said:

Win or lose (the ballot) they [the RWDSU] already won. The good thing is they jumped in feet first. They took on the most powerful, richest guy in the world. Everyone in labour is inspired by this. When there are these big campaigns, some people in the labour movement are afraid and ask, What if they lose? If you don’t try, you’ll never win. I’ve said to the Amazon workers I’m working with, “Whether they win or lose, the folks in Alabama are showing the way.”

This the blueprint that Paul Robeson mapped out in 1958 with Here I Stand. His struggle continues.