It was reported in his New York Times obituary that Paul Robeson became a “virtual recluse” by the time of his death on January 23, 1976. He was living in his sister’s home in a working-class neighborhood in Philadelphia, completely retired from public life. From a pinnacle of roughly $100,000 per year in the early-1940s, Robeson’s income had dwindled by the mid-1950s to a few thousand dollars, largely a consequence of his U.S. passport being revoked. Though his finances rebounded some by the 1960s, Robeson never regained the domestic celebrity status he once enjoyed.
This African American History Month we should analyze the context of Robeson’s forced marginalization, as well as the marginalization of the Communist-led left. The two are interconnected.
As Gerald Horne notes in his biography of Robeson, “you cannot fully appreciate how the Jim Crow system came to an end without an understanding of the life of Paul Robeson.” Similarly, to appreciate Robeson’s stratospheric rise and his cataclysmic fall we should view his life through the lens of his principled affinity for the Communist-led left during a time of right-wing hysteria.
As the late-1940s Red Scare ascended, the U.S. government’s repressive apparatus focused laser-like on those unwilling to acquiesce to anti-communism. Robeson not only supported and funded Communist-led organizations, such as the Civil Rights Congress (CRC) and the Council on African Affairs (CAA), he also challenged Western capitalist hegemony by vocally lending support to the Soviet Union, the only place where he “felt like a human being” – treasonous remarks from Washington’s vantage point.
After the 1948 indictment of the Communist Party, USA’s top leadership, Robeson became co-chair of the National Non-Partisan Committee to Defend the Rights of the Twelve Communist Leaders. By 1950, Robeson’s passport was revoked; he was surveilled incessantly. Unable to travel abroad for concert income, Robeson’s ability to fund the CRC and CAA was handicapped.
While Robeson’s membership in the CPUSA is contested, Martin Duberman notes that he offered to publicly join in 1951; partly to thumb his nose at Red Scare inquisitors, partly in solidarity with his beleaguered comrades. The proposal was rejected by the CPUSA’s leadership, though; it was felt that Robeson was more effective as a leader in the movements for equality and liberation with his membership ambiguous. Gerald Horne wondered if Robeson had secretly been a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, which was “more of a likelihood than U.S. membership.” Roughly 20 years after Robeson’s death, Gus Hall – longtime Communist leader – claimed Robeson was a member, and that he and Henry Winston met regularly with him “to accept his dues and renew his yearly membership…”1 Regardless of his actual membership, one thing is certain: Like other Black radicals associated with the Communist-led left, Robeson worked to bolster a Red-Black Alliance. For this, he had to be punished.
In 1943, Robeson was considered “probably the most famous living Negro” by Time magazine. A year later, 12,000 people gathered to wish the athlete, artist, bass-baritone, and champion of civil rights happy birthday. By all accounts, Robeson was unafraid to confront Presidents and world leaders.
An internationalist, Robeson refused to confine his critiques of racism and Jim Crow. At a 1946 Council on African Affairs sponsored meeting at Abyssinian Baptist Church, he connected the struggles for equality domestically with the demand for independence and liberation internationally, specifically in South Africa. He told the audience of 4,000 people, “freedom for the oppressed black peoples of South Africa is inseparable from the struggle for freedom everywhere – in China, in India, or our own South.”
This was a recurring theme. At a CAA sponsored Madison Square Garden rally attended by 15,000 people, Robeson supported colonial independence, while challenging the Truman administration’s drive toward Cold War. He said, “The imperialists’ ‘Stop Russia’ cry” must be “drowned out by the voice of the American people demanding Big Three [U.S., USSR, and Great Britain] unity for colonial freedom.”
He added, “‘Stop Russia’ really means stop colonial independence, stop Europe’s new democracy, stop labor unions, stop Negro organization and voting.” In the New York Times’ coverage of the Madison Square Garden rally the CAA was labeled a “Communist-controlled organization supported mainly by Negroes,” a telling comment foreshadowing racist political repression to come.
Robeson also advocated for peace. At a July 1950 Hands off Korea rally, Robeson – along with Communists Benjamin Davis, Jr. and Ferdinand Smith – linked U.S. militarism to the fight against colonial occupation. He declared, “we want no war and there will be none…All over the world we will impose the peace.”
By August, Garden officials barred Robeson and the CAA from renting the premises. Civil liberties were suffocated to make room for activists – like A. Philip Randolph and Walter White – more willing to acquiesce to anti-communism in exchange for civil rights concessions. Regardless, the Garden’s actions were denounced “as a denial of free speech and the right of assembly.” Robeson called for pickets to protest the decision, with 100 people participating.
According to Alphaeus Hunton, Robeson’s partner at the CAA, “It is no accident that a progressive Negro organization [the CAA] and a great Negro leader like Paul Robeson,” were targeted. Robeson, Hunton, and the CAA, exemplified a still potent Red-Black alliance.
In December 1951, Robeson and William L. Patterson – head of the CRC – simultaneously delivered the historic We Charge Genocide petition to the UN in New York and Paris, respectively, bringing international pressure to bear against racism, Jim Crow, and the horrors of lynching. The petition was a “sickening cataloging” of atrocities. “The finger of accusation on the cover of the petition, sold by the tens of thousands in various languages worldwide, was that of Robeson,” Gerald Horne notes.
Though he was confined domestically, the FBI and CIA kept tabs on Robeson, the CAA, and CRC. For example, when the CAA sought to use film as an educational resource by producing and screening the documentary South Africa Uncensored – which Robeson narrated – the CIA requested funds to procure copies; only one copy is now known to exist. The film documented “raw and gritty…firsthand testimonial footage of the appalling conditions endured” by Black South Africans under apartheid. Its “aesthetics reflects the source footage’s clandestine and illicit provenance” and captures the “vile white leisure spectacle of enjoying forced fisticuffs between black workers.” The film’s ending “juxtaposes images of discrimination and police violence in Harlem as a rhetorical mirror for its intended U.S. audience,” a mirror just a relevant today as the assault on Black lives continues.
During this time, Robeson also helped establish a “national Freedom Fund” to support organizations that fight for “the full equal citizenship status” of African Americans; the CAA, the National Negro Labor Council, and Robeson’s newspaper Freedom were beneficiaries of the Fund.2
In the November 1950 introductory issue of Freedom, Robeson makes an astounding observation. He notes that a “well-wisher” had stopped to say hello as he walked Harlem; he asked, “‘Paul, were you born in Russia?’”
“I laughed, of course,” Robeson wrote, “but then took the time to tell my friend the tale that makes up this column. For what the question reflected was that, somehow, the masters of the press and radio had convinced at least this friend that a person who fights for peace, for admission of People’s China to the UN, for friendship with the Soviet Union, for labor’s rights and for full equality for Negros now, cannot be a ‘real’ American, must be ‘born in Russia.’” This sentiment is at the heart of Robeson’s and the CPUSA’s forced marginalization – a sentiment that effectively made Robeson and everything he stood for into something foreign and un-American.
Throughout his life, Robeson defied the “errand boys, [and the] Uncle Toms…by word and deed I will challenge this vicious system [Jim Crow] to the death,” he continued, “because I refuse to let my personal success, as part of a fraction of one percent of the Negro people, to explain away the injustices to fourteen million of my people; because with all the energy at my command, I will fight for the right of the Negro people and other oppressed labor-driven Americans to have decent homes, decent jobs, and the dignity that belongs to every human being!”
It was for this commitment to African American equality, Black liberation, workers’ rights, internationalism, peace, and socialism, that Robeson was punished. This African American History Month with the continued attacks on Critical Race Theory and equality, it is more important than ever to remember Robeson the revolutionary.
- See Martin Duberman, Paul Robeson: A Biography (New York, 1989), 420; Gerald Horne, Paul Robeson: The Artist as Revolutionary (London, 2016); and Gus Hall, “Paul Robeson: Artist, Freedom Fighter, Hero, American Communist,” Political Affairs, July 1998. ↩
- Unless otherwise noted, sources for the above are taken from Horne, Paul Robeson, 2016 and Tony Pecinovsky, The Cancer of Colonialism: W. Alphaeus Hunton, Black Liberation, and the Daily Worker, 1944-1946 (New York, 2021).
LIVING TIMELINE: PAUL ROBESON Mural by Art Bloc DC on the exterior wall of 1351 U Street, NW, Washington DC, June 21, 2015, captured by Elvert Barnes Photography (Flickr)