Paul LeRoy Bustill Robeson (April 9, 1898 – January 23, 1976) was a multi-lingual American actor, athlete, Basso cantante concert singer, writer, civil rights activist, fellow traveler, Spingarn Medal winner, and Lenin Peace Prize laureate.
Robeson won an academic scholarship to Rutgers University. He was the third African-American student accepted at Rutgers, and was the only black student during his time on campus. Robeson was one of three classmates at Rutgers accepted into Phi Beta Kappa and one of four students selected in 1919 to Cap and Skull, Rutgers' honor society. He was honored with the Phi Beta Kappa Key in his third, Junior, year. He was also the class valedictorian, exhorting his classmates to "catch a new vision. Rutgers-Newark honored him by naming their student-life campus center, and art gallery after him.
A noted athlete, Robeson earned altogether fifteen varsity letters in football, baseball, basketball, and track and field. For his accomplishments as an end in football, he was twice named a first-team All-American in (1917 and 1918). During scrimmages as Robeson 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. 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 1917 and 1918 college All-America football teams.
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. He 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. He was also noted 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. His earliest surviving film is 1924's Body and Soul.
Next he 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. Then, in 1930, he starred in the title role in Shakespeare's Othello in England, when no US company would employ him for the part. He reprised the role in New York in 1943, and toured the U.S. with it until 1945. His Broadway run of Othello is still, as of 2006, the longest of any Shakespeare play. He won the Spingarn Medal in 1945 for this performance. Uta Hagen played Desdemona, and José Ferrer played Iago. He 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. He also played the role of Toussaint L'Ouverture in a 1936 play by C.L.R. James alongside the actor Robert Adams. Robeson's repertoire of African-American folk songs helped bring these to much wider attention both inside the US and abroad — in particular his rendition of "Go Down Moses." 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 (e.g., Chinese, Russian, Yiddish, German, etc.).
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. He remained there, with long periods away on singing tours, until the outbreak of World War II. At the height of his popularity in the 1930s, Robeson became a major box office attraction in British films such as Song of Freedom and The Proud Valley. Briefly returning to the US he reprised his title role in Dudley Murphy's film version of Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones in 1933. The 1936 Universal film Show Boat was a box office hit for Robeson, and the most frequently shown and highly acclaimed of all his films. His performance of "Ol' Man River" for this film was particularly notable. He was Umbopa in the 1937 version of King Solomon's Mines. 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.
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 mining areas, including performances in Cardiff, Neath and Aberdare. In 1934, he performed in Caernarfon to benefit the victims of an industrial accident at Gresford colliery, near Wrexham, in which 264 miners were killed. 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. In 1940, he appeared in The Proud Valley, playing a black laborer who arrives in the Rhondda and wins the hearts of the local people.
Robeson remains a celebrated figure in Wales. The exhibit Let Paul Robeson Sing! was unveiled in Cardiff in 2001, going on to tour 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. 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.
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.
At a Bill of Rights Conference in New York City in July 1949, a resolution was introduced calling for the freeing all 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?" The resolution was defeated and Robeson's speech is credited with its defeat. Robeson biographer Martin Duberman commented that this "was not Robeson's finest hour."
Robeson became an increasingly unpopular figure with the right during the Cold War and, in 1949, a planned concert by him in Peekskill, New York to benefit the Civil Rights Congress resulted in the Peekskill Riots. The original August 27 concert was postponed after concert-goers were attacked by an angry mob carrying baseball bats. The event was rescheduled for September 4 and was attended by 20,000 people but the aftermath of the concert was marred by violence when a miles-long gauntlet of hostile locals, veterans and outside agitators threw rocks through the windshields of cars and buses, injuring 140 people.
Paul Robeson's tireless involvement in dispelling the myths about the continent of Africa is a key aspect to his legacy as well the reason for his relentless persecution by Hoover's FBI and the Right Wing of the US. A large aspect of Robeson's persecution was due not necessarily to his support of the Soviet Union, which was a common cause célèbre of many well known artists at the time of the Red scare, but to his fervent dedication to freeing Africa from the shackles of Colonialist exploitation.
Paul Robeson's founding in 1937, along with Max Yergan, The Council on African Affairs saw the first major US organization created whose focus was on providing pertinent and up to date information about Africa across the United States, particularly to African Americans. During WWII , 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. Robeson along with Essie became an honorary members of the West African Students' Union in London during the 1930s, becoming acquainted with African students Kwame Nkrumah and Jomo Kenyatta future presidents of Ghana and Kenya, respectively. The vilification of Robeson's work for African liberation reached its zenith when Hoover with the help of the NAACP, arranged for a ghost written leaflet to be printed and distributed in Africa called "Paul Robeson: Lost Shepherd."
After traveling to Europe for several years in the early 1930s, Robeson was extended and accepted an offer to visit the Soviet Union. While there, Robeson was given the red carpet treatment, according to biographer Martin Duberman, including trips to the theatre, banquets, and other attractions. Robeson became captivated with this new society and its leadership, declaring "that the country was entirely free of racial prejudice and that Afro-American spiritual music resonated to Russian folk traditions. “Here, for the first time in my life ... I walk in full human dignity.”
Through his writings and speeches, Robeson went on to defend the foreign and domestic policies of the Soviet Union and Joseph Stalin. During the Soviet purges, Robeson allegedly told a Daily Worker reporter that “from what I have already seen of the workings of the Soviet Government, I can only say that anybody who lifts his hand against it ought to be shot!” After the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Robeson proclaimed during a speech at the Paris World Peace Congress in 1949 that “It is unthinkable that American Negroes will go to war on behalf of those who have oppressed us for generations... against a country [the Soviet Union] which in one generation has raised our people to the full dignity of mankind.” Sugar Ray Robinson responded to this by saying that although he did not know Robeson he would “punch him in the mouth” if he met him. Even while many former left wing supporters of the Soviet Union learned of the atrocities being committed there and began publicly denouncing their former affiliations, Robeson held firm.
During his lifetime, Robeson always denied that he was a Communist Party member. But after his death, at the occasion of his 100th birthday in 1988, the American Communist Party issued a pamphlet "Paul Robeson: An American Communist," by CP chairman Gus Hall, in which the Party acknowledged that Robeson had been a secret member. Hall wrote: "My own most precious moments with Paul were when I met with him to accept his dues and renew his yearly membership in the CPUSA."
In March 1950, NBC cancelled 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.
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 1952, Robeson was awarded the Stalin Peace Prize. In April, 1953 shortly after Joseph Stalin's death he wrote a eulogy entitled To You Beloved Comrade, in which he praised Stalin's "deep humanity," "wise understanding," and dedication to peaceful co-existence with all the peoples of the world calling him “wise and good”.
Six years later, in June 1949, during the 150th anniversary celebration of the birth of Alexander Pushkin, Robeson visited the Soviet Union to sing in concert. Concerned about the welfare of Jewish artists, Robeson insisted to Soviet officials that he meet with Feffer. Forced to communicate through hand gestures and notes because the room was bugged, Feffer indicated that Mikhoels had been murdered in 1948 by the secret police. Robeson responded publicly during his concert in Tchaikovsky Hall on June 14 by paying tribute to his friends Feffer and Mikhoels and by singing the Vilna Partisan song "Zog Nit Keynmol" in both Russian and Yiddish to honor them. Upon returning to the United States, however, Robeson denied the widespread persecution of Jews stating that he "met Jewish people all over the place... I heard no word about it..
Robeson is, however, often criticized for continuing to support the Soviet Union despite being aware of Soviet anti-Semitism. According to Joshua Rubenstein's book, Stalin's Secret Pogrom, Robeson justified his silence on the grounds that any public criticism of the USSR would reinforce the authority of anti-Soviet elements in the United States which, he believed, wanted a preemptive war against the Soviet Union. A number of biographies of Robeson, including his son's, suggest that another major reason for his silence was that he felt that criticism of the Soviet Union by him would only serve to shore up reactionary elements in the U.S., the same elements that helped block anti-lynching legislation, and maintained a racial climate in the South that allowed lynching to continue.
In 1946, Robeson was questioned by the Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities in California. When he was asked whether he was a member of the Communist Party, Robeson replied that he might as well have been asked whether he was a registered Democrat or Republican — in the United States the Communist Party was equally legal. But, he added, he was not a Communist.
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, "My father was a slave and my people died to build this country, and I'm going to stay right here and have a part of it, just like you. And no fascist-minded people will drive me from it. Is that clear?". Shortly thereafter he stated "I am here because I am opposing the neo-fascist cause, which I see arising in these committees.". (Audio recording of Paul Robeson's testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, June 12, 1956) At one point he remarked, "you are the nonpatriots, and you are the un-Americans, and you ought to be ashamed of yourselves. In making these statements, he was the only major figure to testify before HUAC who directly attacked the committee, and turned their own accusations against them.
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 travelling 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.
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. 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. 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. 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.
In 1961, Robeson attempted suicide in a Moscow hotel room. His son claimed this 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 returned to live in the United States in 1963. For the remainder of his life he was plagued by ill health, and his appearances were relatively few.
Over 3,000 people gathered in Carnegie Hall to salute Robeson's 75th birthday, 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 due to 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.
Beginning in 1978, Paul Robeson's films were finally shown on American television, with Show Boat making its cable television debut in 1983. In recent years, Robeson's silent films have appeared on Turner Classic Movies.
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