October 18, 1945 – Activist Paul Robeson Gets a Medal

In 1945 Paul Robeson won the prestigious NAACP Spingarn Medal for outstanding achievement by an African American.

What a shame that Paul Robeson isn’t better known as a hero and role-model. Martin Duberman’s biography tells the story of a remarkable man, born in 1898 in Princeton, New Jersey to a father who was an escaped slave and who later became a Presbyterian minister. At seventeen, Robeson was given a scholarship to Rutgers University (called Rutgers College at that time), where he received an unprecedented twelve major letters in sports in four years and was also his class valedictorian. After graduating he went on to Columbia University Law School, and, in the early 1920s, took a job with a New York law firm. No white secretary would assist a black man, however, so he turned to performing arts, a field in which blacks were more accepted. He attained international fame as an actor and singer, and traveled the world performing benefits for causes of social justice (he spoke fifteen languages).

Paul Robeson, a 1919 Rutgers graduate and distinguished student, in his yearbook photo. Photo: Rutgers University

His European trips exposed him to the unusual experience of a black being treated like a man. He became more politically outspoken, and his criticism of racism, combined with his intelligence and popularity, aroused the ire of the State Department. He had his passport revoked, and was hounded by J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI. Called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, Robeson testified:

“In Russia, I felt for the first time like a full human being. No color prejudice like in Mississippi, no color prejudice in Washington. It was the first time I felt like a human being, where I did not feel the pressure of color as I feel in this committee today.”

“Why do you not stay in Russia?” Gordon Scherer, House Un-American Activities Committee member, asked Robeson.

“Because my father was a slave, and my people died to build this country, and I’m going to stay here and have a part of it just like you,” Robeson replied to Scherer. “And no fascist-minded people will drive me from it.”

Admirably, all the insults and setbacks and threats and injustice never cowed him. In 1953 when reporters baited him for “hurting your cause by allying yourself with Communists,” he lashed out angrily at them:

Is this what you want? For me to bend and bow and shuffle along and be a nice, kindly colored man and say please when I ask for better treatment for my people? Well, it doesn’t work!”

Robeson also rejected the notion of “gradualism” in the struggle for civil rights as “but another form of race discrimination: in no other area of our society are lawbreakers granted an indefinite time to comply with the provisions of the law.”

One final anecdote shows his outstanding bravery and brilliance (but there are many many such anecdotes in the book). He was visiting the USSR in 1948, which, unbeknownst to the world, was in the middle of carrying out Stalin’s purges against Jews. Robeson kept inquiring about his Jewish friend, the Soviet Yiddish poet Itzik Feffer and wanted to see him. In actuality, Feffer had been arrested (and would be executed subsequent to Robeson’s visit on “The Night of the Murdered Poets”). In an attempt to cover up what was going on, the authorities brought Feffer to see Robeson in his hotel room on Robeson’s final night in Moscow. Feffer could not tell Robeson the truth in the room that he assumed to be bugged, but tried to communicate his fate through gestures. After their visit, Robeson proceeded with his concert. At the end, he asked for quiet, and announced he would sing one encore. He said the song was in honor of his friend Feffer, and then sang (with no preparation at all), the “Resistance Song” from the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, first in Russian, then in Yiddish. Incredible story, incredible guy.

Soviet Yiddish writer Itsik Fefer, singer/actor/activist Paul Robeson, and the legendary Soviet Yiddish actor Solomon Mikhoels at the Soviet Consulate, 1943. (via Milken Archive)

In the end, it is possible he was poisoned by Hoover’s FBI in 1961. (See testimony by his son, here.)

Paul Robeson, an incredibly popular personality while alive, has had all memory of him virtually erased from American history. As reported by Dr. Mark D. Naison, Chair of the Department of African American Studies, Fordham University, New York, NY.:

In response to a coordinated effort to impugn his patriotism, that extended from the FBI and US State Department to Congressional and state investigating committees, Robeson was barred from the commercial theater, the Hollywood film industry, radio and television, and from the concert stage. During those years, no major concert hall, stadium or amphitheater would sponsor a Paul Robeson concert, and two of his largest concerts held on private land, his Peekskill concerts of 1949, were the subject of mob attacks spurred on by veterans organizations. The American establishment also tried to erase the record of his achievements.”

It is a tragedy that the memory of this man of such exceptional courage has been virtually written out of American history.

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