When I attended Rutgers University in the 1950s, the two notable alumni we were aware of were Ozzie Nelson and Paul Robeson. Band-leader Ozzie Nelson was at that time the star of the popular TV show “Ozzie and Harriet,” which was about a wholesome, “typical,” White American family. Paul Robeson was also a well-known entertainer, but his story is much more complex. It was through reading about him that this young man (me) from a “typical” American family began to look at life through a Black man’s eyes.
Paul Robeson (1898-1976) grew up in central New Jersey, where his father, a former slave,* was the minister of an all-Black Presbyterian church. Paul was very gifted, excelling in his studies and winning awards for oratorical skills. When he was seventeen, he earned a scholarship to attend Rutgers, where he was the only Black student on campus. He continued to do well in his studies, ultimately honored with a Phi Beta Kappa award. At the same time, he was also a standout on the football field, earning All-American honors twice in a row.
Following his Rutgers years, he studied at Columbia University in New York City, earning a law degree. During this time, the mid-1920s, he discovered Harlem, the center of a rich, Black cultural heritage. This is where he became aware of his singing and acting potential, and his career in entertainment began to flourish. Soon he was performing concerts, including traditional spirituals, as well as both popular and classical songs. His striking good looks made him a natural for movie parts, though they were usually demeaning and reflected the racial caricatures of the time. By 1930, Robeson had become a nationally known figure.**
But Paul never forgot his roots, and he was obsessed with making a difference for his people and for all the oppressed people of the world. He moved to England in the late 1920s to do a concert tour, and he stayed until the beginning of World War II in 1939. Here he developed a broader view of the struggles of poor people: advocating for Welsh miners who were working in oppressive conditions, meeting with leaders of several African nations that were struggling for independence, etc. In the process, he became enamored by the potential of Socialism to overcome the evils of income disparity between rich and poor, which seemed to thrive under Capitalism. He became attracted to the utopian dream of equity promised during the early years after the Russian Revolution. When Stalin ruthlessly took control and expanded it in the mid 1920s, Robeson chose to overlook the abuses of power and continued his public support of the USSR.
This was alright during the Second World War, when Russia was our ally, but within a few years, the Cold War set in, and Russia became our great enemy. Paul doubled down on his belief in the Socialist ideal, and he paid the price. He was shut out of movie roles, ostracized by many Black leaders, spied on by the FBI and condemned by the McCarthy House Un-American Activities Committee. During the next decade, he spent more time traveling through countries where he believed he could impact poor peoples’ struggles for freedom than he spent in the US.
In 1963, Paul Robeson returned again to the US, after experiencing deteriorating health and bouts of depression. This was the year when a new chapter of the Civil Rights movement was beginning with the Birmingham Campaign against segregation. Memorable events included sit-ins, mass arrests and “Bull” Conner’s blustering overreactions. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” launched his emergence as the undisputed symbolic leader of the movement. As Robeson disembarked at the airport, a reporter asked him, “Mr. Robeson, now that you’re back, will you be taking any part in the Civil Rights Movement?” Looking puzzled, he answered, “I’ve been part of it all my life.” From then on, he suffered from increasing illness and went into seclusive retirement until his death in 1976.
Paul Robeson authored only one book in his life. It’s a strong defense of his support of social causes which created so much controversy and stifled his career. He gave it the title Here I Stand (1958). I find this fascinating, because he borrowed the phrase from the sixteenth century reformer Martin Luther, who famously said in defense of his Biblical beliefs, “Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me.” At the same time, Robeson seemed to be handing off the baton of the Civil Rights Movement to a man named after his “Here-I-Stand” hero, Dr. Martin Luther King.
My Man — A Paul Between Two Martins.
– Pastor George Van Alstine
* Robeson pointed out that his father was born a slave in Robeson County, North Carolina, which is named for Revolutionary War General Thomas Robeson, whose descendants owned his father before he ran away. For an excellent PBS documentary on Robeson’s life, including samples of his singing and acting, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BUki-v-NvoE
** Most people know him for his singing of “Old Man River” in the movie Showboat (1936).