Paul Robeson (1898-1976) was in many ways a pioneering figure in African-American history. Born in Princeton, New Jersey, Robeson attended Rutgers, where he was a star athlete, among other things becoming a two time Walter Camp All-American in football. He was also a brilliant student. After college, Robeson became a well-known actor and singer. By the 1930s, greatly affected by the pernicious influence of racial discrimination, both on himself and on his people, Robeson became a political activist. By the late 1940s, Robeson had become openly radical and sympathetic to the Soviet Union, which exposed him to much criticism and even persecution. In one infamous incident, a pro-communist concert Robeson gave at Peekskill, New York, in 1949, was met with mob violence. In 1950, in response to his outspoken views, the State Department revoked his American passport, a decision that stood until the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional in 1958.
It was the passport issue that would lead Paul Robeson to make his only appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). On June 12, 1956, he would testify on the topic of “unauthorized use of United States passports.” Robeson would make a stirring defense of his rights as an American citizen, and the civil rights of African-Americans, in remarks addressed to HUAC Chairman Francis Walter (D-PA):
This is the basis and I am not being tried for whether I am a Communist, I am being tried for fighting for the rights of my people who are still second-class citizens in this United
States of America. My mother was born in your State, Mr. Walter,
and my mother was a Quaker, and my ancestors in the time of Washington
baked bread for George Washington’s troops when they crossed
the Delaware, and my own father was a slave. 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 Montgomery,
Ala., and they are not in Washington, and they are nowhere, and
that is why I am here today. You want to shut up every Negro who
has the courage to stand up and fight for the rights of his people, for
the rights of workers and I have been on many a picket line for the
steelworkers too. And that is why I am here today. (Investigation of the Unauthorized Use, p.4499)
Unfortunately, Robeson’s testimony would also feature another prominent aspect of his public advocacy, one that makes him a source of controversy down to the present day: his unstinting support for the Soviet Union and refusal to criticize any aspect of its system or behavior. This, for example, was Robeson’s response to HUAC when asked about the USSR’s Gulag system of slave labor camps:
As far as I know about the slave camps, they
were Fascist prisoners who had murdered millions of the Jewish
people and who would have wiped out millions of the Negro people
could they have gotten a hold of them. That is all I know about that. (Investigation of the Unauthorized Use, p.4506)
Robeson’s labeling of the victims of Stalinist oppression as “fascists” was a direct echo of Soviet propaganda, and one rejected by historians. According to scholar Anne Applebaum, whose work Gulag is considered close to definitive, some 18 million people passed through Stalin’s slave labor camps between 1929-1953, of whom nearly 3,000,000 died as a result. (Applebaum, Gulag, p. 580-584)
Justifiably appalled by racism and Jim Crow, and convinced that communism offered a better future for humanity, Robeson was so attracted by the ideals of Soviet communism that he forced himself to overlook its often horrific reality. In the words of his sympathetic left-wing biographer Martin Duberman:
To the end of his life he would refuse to criticize the Soviets openly, never going further than to make the barest suggestion in private….that injustice to some individuals must always be expected, however much to be regretted, in an attempt to create a new world dedicated to bettering the lot of the many. (Duberman, Paul Robeson, 354)
Today, Paul Robeson is widely regarded as a heroic champion of civil rights. In 2004, he would even be honored by the US Postal Service with his own stamp. In the words of the USPS, “Paul Robeson was a tireless and uncompromising advocate for civil rights and social justice.” (USPS, ‘African-American on Stamps’)
For many eastern Europeans, however, Robeson’s unwavering support for the USSR and its actions make him anything but a symbol of freedom. As intellectual historian Ben Alpers put it, “if memories of Robeson have, at least in recent decades, been very positive in the U.S., his legacy is viewed quite differently in the former Soviet bloc.” (Alpers, ‘Rodriguez, Paul Robeson’). Czech writer Josef Skvorecky famously recounted his feelings about Robeson in his memoir:
In place of [Stan] Kenton, they pushed Paul Robeson at us, and how we hated that black apostle who sang, of his own free will, at open-air concerts in Prague at a time when they were raising the socialist leader Milada Horakova to the gallows…and at a time when great Czech poets (some 10 years later to be “rehabilitated” without exception) were pining away in jails. Well, maybe it was wrong to hold it against Paul Robeson. No doubt he was acting in good faith, convinced that he was fighting for a good cause. But they kept holding him up to us as an exemplary “progressive jazz man,” and we hated him. May God rest his-one hopes-innocent soul. (Quoted in Duberman, Paul Robeson, 351)
Balancing Paul Robeson’s passionate advocacy for civil rights and an end to racial prejudice with his support for Stalinism remains an unavoidable issue when assessing his legacy as a political activist.
Paul Robeson’s Testimony Before HUAC:
Investigation of the Unauthorized Use of United States Passports, Part 3. Hearings Before the Committee on Un-American Activities, House of Representatives, Eighty-Fourth Congress, Second Session. June 12-13, 1956. (Joyner Docs CWIS: Y 4: Un 1/2: P 26/pt. 3; circulating copy in Joyner Docs Stacks: Y 4: Un 1/2: P 26/pt. 3)
-Robeson’s testimony can be found from p. 4492-4510.
Additional Congressional Testimony by Paul Robeson and his Family:
Communist Training Operations: Part 3: Communist Activities and Propaganda Among Youth Groups. Hearings Before the Committee on Un-American Activities, House of Representatives, Eighty Sixth Congress, Second Session. 1960. (Joyner Docs CWIS: Y 4.UN 1/2:C 73/104/PT. 3; also in Joyner Docs Stacks: Y 4.UN 1/2:C 73/104/PT. 3)
-Features testimony by Robeson’s son, Paul Robeson, Jr., on p. 1462-1467.
Control of Subversive Activities. Hearings before the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, Eightieth Congress, Second Session on H.R. 5852, an act to protect the United States against un-American and subversive activities. 1953. (Joyner Docs CWIS: Y 4.J 89/2:Su 1)
-Paul Robeson’s testimony can be found on p. 315-337.
State Department Information Program — Information Centers, Part 7. Hearing before the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Committee on Government Operations, United States Senate, Eighty-Third Congress, First Session, pursuant to S. Res. 40, a resolution authorizing the Committee on Government Operations to employ temporary additional personnel and increasing the amount of expenditures. 1953. (Joyner Docs CWIS: Y 4.G 74/6:IN 3/PT. 7)
-Features testimony of Paul Robeson’s wife, Eslanda C. Robeson, covering p. 473-482.
Additional CWIS Documents:
The American Negro in the Communist Party. Prepared and Released by the Committee on Un-American Activities, U.S. House of Representatives. December 22, 1954. (Joyner Docs CWIS: Y 4: Un 1/2: N 31)
Hearings Regarding Communist Infiltration of Minority Groups. Hearings Before the Committee on Un-American Activities, House of Representatives, Eighty First Congress, First Session. 1949-50, 3 pts. (Joyner Docs CWIS: Y 4: Un 1/2: C 73/11/)
-Pt. 1 includes testimony by baseball legend Jackie Robinson, in part taking issue with pro-Soviet comments attributed to Robeson. The transcript of Robinson’s appearance can be found on p. 479-83.
Alpers, Ben. ‘Rodriguez, Paul Robeson, and Complicated Narratives of Reception.‘ U.S. Intellectual History Blog, April 8, 2013.
Applebaum, Anne. Gulag: A History. New York: Doubleday, 2003. (Joyner Stacks: HV8964.S65 A67 2003)
Duberman, Martin Bauml. Paul Robeson. New York: Knopf, 1988. (Joyner Stacks: E185.97.R63 D83 1988)
FBI FOIA Vault: Paul Robeson’s FBI File.
National Archives and Records Administration: Teaching With Documents: The Many Faces of Paul Robeson.
United States Postal Service. ‘African-Americans on Stamps: A Celebration of African-American Heritage.’ USPS Publication No. 354, January 2004.