Paul Robeson: `The artist must elect to fight for freedom or slavery'

Peekskill outrage, September 4, 1949.

[See below for a four-part documentary on Paul Robeson's life.]

By Harry Targ

On September 4, 1949, an angry crowd surrounded the 20,000 friends of Paul Robeson who had come to hear him in an open-air concert at Peekskill, New York. After the event right-wing, anti-communist inspired mobs attacked supporters who were leaving the event. These attacks included smashing the windows of Pete Seeger’s automobile with several family members inside. Sixty years later we remember the great progressive Paul Robeson, his struggles for justice, and his refusal to bow to the politics of reaction.

The young Robeson

One of the giants of the 20th century, a citizen of the world, an actor/singer and activist for justice, Paul Robeson has been virtually erased from popular consciousness, a victim of the vicious anti-communist hysteria of the 1940s and 1950s.

Paul Robeson, an African American, was born to Maria Louis Bustill and William Drew Robeson in Princeton, New Jersey in 1898, 33 years after the close of the US civil war and two years after the US Supreme Court declared in Plessy vs. Ferguson that separate institutions for Black and white people were constitutional. New Jersey, while not segregated to the extent of the deep south, was hostile to the rights of Black people.

Robeson was born into a family with a long-standing commitment to struggle for justice. His mother’s ancestors participated in the underground railroad, bringing escaped slaves from the south to the north. Her family included ministers, teachers and artisans in the northern free Black community. His father was a slave who escaped to the north and joined the Union army. As a minister educated at Lincoln University, Robeson’s father defended the rights of Black people in the New Jersey communities where he worked.

Many years later when he was politically active, Robeson would refer to the experiences of his people struggling against slavery and oppression to be free. He likened the struggles of his ancestors to the Black people of his day, and also to factory workers seeking labour rights, and peoples all round the world who were struggling to overthrow European colonial empires.

The young Robeson studied hard, was coached in elocution by his demanding father and performed so well in school that he was admitted to Rutgers University in 1915, only the third Black ever to enter that institution. Robeson graduated in 1919 as valedictorian, champion debater and two-time All-American first-team football selection.

Robeson attended law school at Columbia University from 1919-1923 but decided against a law career because of the racism he faced at a preeminent New York law firm.

While he attended law school, Robeson began appearing in plays and found his way to the influential Provincetown Players of Greenwich Village. Robeson’s artistic career was successfully launched by his performances in two of Eugene O’Neill’s most important and controversial plays, All God’s Chillun Got Wings and Emperor Jones. From there his reputation and visibility spread.

By the late 1920s, he appeared in Porgy, Stevedore and Showboat, where he sang “Old Man River”, a song that would have deep political significance for him later on. On tour in Europe in the late 1920s and starring in a London production of Othello, in 1930, Robeson had become a star of worldwide proportions. During the 1930s, he would appear in 11 films, mostly British productions, further solidifying his global reputation as an actor.

As his reputation was soaring in the theatre of the 1920s, Robeson came to the realisation that the rich musical heritage of his people, then called Negro spirituals, needed to be celebrated and performed. He thus launched a singing career that would be his most enduring contribution to US culture and, at the same time, would serve as a vehicle for him to participate in the struggle of Black people to achieve their freedom from racism and Jim Crow segregation. Over the next 30 years, he would learn at least a dozen languages and would celebrate the musical traditions of peoples from Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Latin America, as well as the United States.

Paul Robeson performs for construction workers at the Sydney Opera House site, 1960.

The politicisation of Paul Robeson

By the mid-1930s Robeson’s outlook concerning the world around him and how the artist must relate to that world had changed significantly. Always aware of racism and segregation, Robeson began to see the oppression of his people as similar and related to anti-Semitism, colonialism, worker exploitation and attacks on the first socialist state, the Soviet Union.

Leaving a London theatre after a performance of Showboat in 1928, Robeson encountered a massive march of Welsh miners who had come all the way from Wales to demand better wages and working conditions. Robeson spoke to their group and joined their struggle. The mutual love and respect Robeson and the Welsh miners developed for each other would last for the rest of his life.

But it was the escalating Spanish Civil war, fascist armies fighting to overthrow a democratically elected government, that led Robeson to declare his commitment to political struggle on behalf of the dispossessed. In a speech given before the National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief at Royal Albert Hall on June 24, 1937, he proclaimed: “I have longed to see my talent contributing in an unmistakably clear manner to the cause of humanity. Every artist, every scientist, must decide NOW where he stands. He has no alternative.” The artist, he said, “must elect to fight for freedom or slavery”.

Robeson spoke out for workers, walked their picket lines and sang to gatherings of trade unionists in auto, steel, shipping, meat packing, electrical and mining industries who were demanding the right to form unions during the massive organising drives of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). He sang of that great Industrial Workers of the World (WW) singer/ organiser, “Joe Hill”. And he sang songs championing racial justice.

Red scares

After World War II, Robeson met with US President Harry Truman and demanded that he take a stand against segregation and support anti-lynching legislation in the south. He already had spoken out against the exclusion of Blacks from major league baseball. Opposing the Cold War and Truman’s refusal to stand against segregation in the south, Robeson joined the campaign of third party candidate Henry Wallace, of the Progressive Party of America, who was running for president in 1948.

Robeson had often visited the Soviet Union, befriended the great Soviet film maker Sergei Eisenstein and had spoken with admiration about what appeared to be the lack of racism there. After World War II and as the Cold War was heating up, the US government and right-wing groups launched a campaign to stifle the voice of Paul Robeson because of his sympathies for the Soviet Union and his strong advocacy for racial justice in the United States. He was called to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Thugs vandalised and beat attendees at the summer Robeson concert in Peekskill, New York. Government agents pressured concert impresarios to stop sponsoring Robeson's concerts. And when his public access to audiences declined in the 1950s, even Black churches were pressured to cancel Robeson visits.

The centrepiece of the effort to muzzle Robeson was the decision of the US State Department to revoke his passport in 1950. He was forbidden to leave the United States even though he still was a beloved worldwide figure. His passport was not reinstated until 1958 when the Supreme Court ruled that the State Department did not have the right to confiscate the passports of citizens..

Despite his not being able to travel, working people around the world continued to support Robeson. Canadian trade unionists from 1952 through 1955 organised four Robeson concerts at the border between the state of Washington and Canada. Robeson performed from the US side and Canadian workers listened to his music from their side. Robeson welcomed the Canadian workers at the 1952 concert singing his signature song, “Old Man River'' from Showboat. He sang the lyrics he had revised from the original version in the 1928 musical -- from stereotyping of Black people as docile to Black people as fighters for their freedom. Robeson began to insert the newer progressive lyrics in the 1930s when his own political consciousness had begun to change and for the rest of his life he saw the new lyrics as emblematic of his own political transformation.

In 1957, Welsh miners organised a chorus in a London studio and sang to Robeson listening in New York using the then new long distance telephone lines. They always remembered his support for their struggle and they wanted to demonstrate to him and the world their opposition to the efforts of the United States to stifle the voice of Paul Robeson.

After Robeson’s passport was reissued he resumed worldwide travel in the late 1950s. He fell ill in 1961, returned to the United States and for the most part retired from public life.

Robeson believed that peoples everywhere shared common musical forms and common struggles: workers, peoples of colour, colonised peoples, women. He celebrated their differences but insisted on their human oneness. Perhaps we need to rediscover that vision again today. He died in 1976 but his spirited call for human solidarity is just as precious today as it was in his lifetime. And, as at Peekskill, those who support human solidarity must be prepared to “hold the line” against reaction.

Hold The Line

Let me tell you the story of a line that was held,

And many brave men and women whose courage we know well,

How we held the line at Peekskill on that long September day!

We will hold the line forever till the people have their way.

Hold the line!Hold the line!

As we held the line at Peekskill

We will hold it everywhere.

Hold the line!Hold the line!

We will hold the line forever

Till there’s freedom ev’rywhere.

[Harry Targ teaches foreign policy,US/Latin American relations, international political economy and topics on labour studies. He is a member of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism (CCDS), the Northwest Central Labor Council (AFL-CIO) and the Lafayette Area Peace Coalition (LAPC). This article first appeared at Targ's blog Diary of a Heartland Radical and has been posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission.]

Biography of Paul Robeson

Visit the Paul Robeson Foundation website at

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 09/14/2009 - 15:07


`I won't stop fighting until I'm dying'

13 May 1998
The Peace Arch Concerts and Freedom Train and the Welsh Transatlantic Concerts
Paul Robeson
Folk Era Records
Send US$20 each to 705 South Washington St, Naperville, Illinois 60540, USA

Reviewed by Barry Healy

In 1925, a young black man in New York made US musical history by presenting a program of entirely African-American songs. He sang 16 songs, but the audience forced him to sing 16 encores before they would leave! This was the first performance of this folk wealth to be made without deference or apology.

By 1950, attitudes towards him had changed. An editorial carried by all 37 newspapers of the Hearst chain thundered: “It is an accident unfortunate for America that Paul Robeson was born here”. Randolph Hearst, the Rupert Murdoch of his day, was supporting a McCarthyite campaign to drive Robeson out of public life.

For the next eight years, Robeson was hounded and victimised by every police agency of the US government, murderous fascist gangs and racists.

Born on April 9, 1898, in Princeton, New Jersey, of an ex-slave father and an active abolitionist mother, Robeson grew up surrounded by veterans of the anti-slavery movement. His father was minister of the Zion Church where the famous anti-slavery newspaper, the North Star, was printed.

Two years before his birth, the US Supreme Court ruled Jim Crow apartheid legal under the doctrine of “separate but equal”. Blacks were segregated into separate hospitals, concert halls, public transport and thousands of other areas of life. They were driven out of professional work (even professional sport) into poorly paid manual labour.

At 17, Robeson won a scholarship to Rutgers University, one of the best in the USA. He was an outstanding debater, won awards for baseball, basketball and athletics and was twice named in the All-American football team, while combating racist violence (even from teammates) the whole time. He graduated as valedictorian.

When he began work as a lawyer, a white secretary refused to take dictation from him. So he left and devoted his life to fighting racism through theatre and music.

He performed concert tours worldwide and made 11 films. Yet there were still restaurants in the US that refused him entry. In 1930, he moved to London to escape this pervasive racism.

1934 was his political turning point. His experiences that year moved him from being a proud representative of African-American people to being a radical working-class internationalist.

He travelled to both Germany and the Soviet Union. In Germany, he witnessed the rise of Nazism. He later said of his visit to the USSR that it was “the first time I felt like a full human being”.

“From an early age”, Robeson recalled in later life, “I had come to accept and follow a certain protective tactic of Negro life in America, and I did not fully break with the pattern until many years later. Even while demonstrating that he is really an equal (and, strangely, the proof must be superior performance!) the Negro must never appear to be challenging white superiority.”

After his political radicalisation in the Soviet Union, Robeson chose to challenge white supremacy no matter what the personal cost, and the cost was extremely high.

He sang at venues that working-class people could afford and selected acting roles that gave positive portrayals of African-Americans and workers. He sang for the Spanish republicans fighting fascist Franco and denounced Hitler's anti-Semitism.

During this period, while making the film Proud Valley among the mining communities of Wales, Robeson formed a lifelong bond with the Welsh miners, commemorated on Freedom Train and the Welsh Transatlantic Concert. Their working conditions reminded him of the lives of his relatives in the North Carolina tobacco plantations and the West Virginia coalfields.

Returning home in 1939, he hit the headlines with a nationwide broadcast entitled “Ballad for Americans”, which highlighted African-American songs. He used that success as a platform to travel the country campaigning against fascism.

During World War II, Robeson toured tirelessly, supporting the war effort. He coupled his support with demands that the USA become a nation worth fighting for by ending racism.

While the government publicly accepted his pro-war efforts, the FBI quietly added his name to the “DetCon List” (if the US was invaded, he was to be confined to a concentration camp with other radicals).

After the war, his radicalism gathered momentum; every year brought more campaigning and worse reaction. In 1946, he led a delegation to see President Harry Truman to demand federal laws against the lynching of blacks and an education campaign against racism. Truman, dependent on the support of redneck southern Democrats, refused to act.

The next year, Robeson criticised a government-supported commemorative project called the Freedom Train, which was to transport the original Declaration of Independence around all the states for public exhibition -- but not unsegregated exhibition. Black poet Langston Hughes wrote a bitter poem, “Freedom Train”, which is the first track on the CD of that name.

Right-wing reaction to Robeson became fiercer. His management began to get requests that Robeson cut the politics out of his performances. Robeson refused. Yet his success was still phenomenal; in 1947, he earned $100,000, which made him one of the top 10 concert artists in the world. That counted little to Robeson. In January 1948, he dropped all paid performing for two years to concentrate on political campaigning.

In the late '40s, right-wingers seized on reported comments of Robeson's at a World Peace Conference that US blacks would not support a US war against the Soviet Union. The fierce media and government response instigated fascist attacks on two Robeson concerts in Peekskill, New York. Trade union security guards saved his life, while police passively watched.

When the US entered the Korean War in 1950, Robeson's passport was illegally revoked by the State Department, and the authorities set about destroying his career. Concert promoters who booked him were threatened; police photographed people attending his performances and recorded their car licence plates. By 1952, his income had plummeted to $6000.

Against this background in 1952, the Mine, Mill and Smelters Union of British Columbia, Canada, invited Robeson to sing to 3000 people in Vancouver. At the time, US citizens could travel to Canada without a passport, but not Robeson. He was stopped by a presidential executive order.

The union's response was to organise the Peace Park concerts in 1952 and 1953. Peace Park straddles the border between British Columbia and Washington state. Robeson sang from the back of a truck parked one foot from the border, and 40,000 people flocked to hear him!

The union issued recordings of the first two concerts to its members. These virtually lost performances make up Folk Era's The Peace Arch Concerts CD. Despite the scratchy sound, this is Robeson at the height of his powers, his deep baritone seemingly coming out of the earth itself, his passion for freedom undiminished and his artistry enhanced by oppression.

As usual, there are spirituals which anticipate the arrival of liberation theology (“Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel”, “Go Down Moses” and “Jacob's Ladder”), the labour anthem “Joe Hill” and Robeson's signature song, “Ol' Man River”. Jerome Kern wrote the song for Robeson but, characteristically, Robeson changed the despondent final lyrics “I'm tired of living but scared of dying” to “I won't stop fighting until I'm dying”.

In 1953, 1956 and 1957, the south Wales miners invited Robeson to their annual Eisteddfod. He was not able to circumvent the government travel ban until the laying of a transatlantic telephone cable.

The Welsh Transatlantic Concert is a moving listening experience. There is an extraordinary intimacy as Robeson speaks and sings for his beloved Welsh comrades.

The highlight is a rendition of “All Men are Brothers”, set to a theme from Beethoven's 9th Symphony, which sums up Robeson's passion and hope for humanity. “March beside me, oh my brother”, he sings. “All for one and one for all.”

The Treorchy Male Voice Choir responds to him with a beautiful performance of “Y Deln Aur” (The Golden Harp) before the entire 5000 audience reaches across the Atlantic with “We'll Keep a Welcome in the Hillside”.

Robeson regained his passport in 1958 and toured again. He was the first artist to perform at the Sydney Opera House, singing to the construction workers there in 1969. He died in 1976.

A Paul Robeson centennial committee in the US is trying to get a commemorative stamp issued this year to celebrate the 100th anniversary of his birth. Robeson certainly deserves it; whether the US deserves it is another question.

These two CDS are wonderful, significant historical records of working class internationalism. More than that, they capture the example of Robeson's life. Let our memorial to him be a world purged of racism and oppression, where, as Robeson said: “People everywhere shall sing the songs of peace and brotherhood, the songs of human triumph.”

Submitted by douglas jordan (not verified) on Mon, 09/21/2009 - 17:14


There is much to admire and respect in the life and achivements of Paul Robeson. His courage in defying the witchhunt of the 1940s onwards can serve as an example of how to act in the face of state oppression. But that is only one side of the picture.

At a conference called to defend the Bill of Rights held in New York in late July 1949 he opposed a motion called for the pardon of the eighteen Trotskyists convicted under the Smith Act in 1941 by claiming that they were 'the allies of fascism who want to destroy the new democracies of the world...They are the enemies of the working class. Would you give civil rights to the Ku Klux Klan'.

A product of his time and like many radicals blind to the reality of Stalinism. This does not undermine his achivements but needs to be discussed in the totality of his life.

Robeson's appearence at the Sydney opera house was in 1960 not 1969. During his visit to Australia he was shown a private screening of a film on the condition of Aborigines living in the Warburton ranges. At its end he openly wept at what he had seen. He promised to come back and do whatever he could to make the issue public. Due to circumstances beyond his control he never did. A pity.

Submitted by Lou (not verified) on Fri, 06/04/2010 - 06:09


I'm almost ashamed to say that I hadn't heard of him either until I listened to the Manic Street Preachers,  just like RickyRay. It was only after listening that peaked my interest and got me researching him.