Paul Robeson died at the age of 79 on January 23, 1976. Most people remember him for the song ‘Ol’ Man River’. However, what is less well documented is the fact that Robeson was probably as significant a figure in the American Civil Rights movement as Martin Luther King. Indeed the lyrics of ‘Ol’ Man River’ hinted at the issues that concerned Robeson in 1940s America – prejudice, segregation and racial lynchings.
Paul LeRoy Bustill Robeson was born in Princeton, New Jersey, on April 9, 1898, the son of a father born into slavery and a mother raised as a vocal abolitionist. Robeson’s academic and athletic achievements earned him a scholarship to Rutgers University in 1915, where he became not only a four-sport letterman and two-time All American football star, but a member of Phi Beta Kappa and class valedictorian — all of this while being only the third African-American student in the university’s history!
The lure of a promising career in law proved less compelling for Robeson who found himself increasingly drawn towards a career in the theatre and, over the next twenty years, Robeson established himself as one of the most important musical and dramatic performers of his day. The role of Joe and the song ‘Ol’ Man River’ in the musical Show Boat were written for Robeson’s famous bass voice; Robeson originated the title role in Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones and he became the first African-American to play Othello on Broadway. By the late 1940s, Robeson’s international artistic reputation was well established, but it was to become rivalled by his reputation as a political activist and, like many other black figures who dared to speak out about racism, it was to cost him dear.
His outspoken views on segregation didn’t win him many friends in the United States, and neither did his openly leftist leanings. Robeson travelled repeatedly to Russia beginning in the 1930s — a history that led to the unconstitutional seizure of his passport and to his blacklisting following an appearance before the Joseph McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee in 1950. Work and roles dried up and his income plummeted. When asked during those hearings why he did not simply move to the USSR, Robeson offered a typically powerful response: "Because my father was a slave, and my people died to build this country, and I am going to stay right here and have a part of it just like you."
He moved to Harlem and published a periodical critical of United States policies. His right to travel was eventually restored by the 1958 United States Supreme Court decision, Kent v. Dulles, but his physical and mental health broke down. He retired and he lived out the remaining years of his life privately in Philadelphia until his death in 1976.
Robeson was an outstanding individual – a true Renaissance Man – he was a singer, actor, athlete and political activist and it is time that his role in advancing civil rights in America (and in fighting Nazism in Spain and Germany) is more widely acknowledged. In America, Martin Luther King Day is celebrated on the third Monday of January – it was on Monday 19th this year. Perhaps it is time to recognise the importance of Robeson to the civil rights cause as well? The artist and director of 12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen, has revealed that his next film will be about Robeson and finally more people should learn about this great man’s life and legacy.