Home Biographies Paul Robeson: The Unheralded God-father of the Civil Rights Movement
Paul Robeson: The Unheralded God-father of the Civil Rights Movement PDF Print E-mail
Written by H. Lewis Smith   
Saturday, 09 April 2016 16:55

“I ask again” he said so defiantly, “shall Negro sharecroppers from Mississippi be sent to shoot down brown-skinned peasants in Vietnam…to serve the interests of those who oppose Negro liberation at home and colonial freedom abroad?” – Paul Robeson

Preceding Malcolm X or MLK in the valiant struggle for civil rights was the perspicacious Paul Robeson, April 9, 1898 – January 23, 1976. Robeson was a singer, actor, social activist, lawyer and athlete. His Alma mater was Rutgers College where he excelled as an all-around athlete, basketball, football, baseball and track & field. He became a transcendent international figure who inspired and touched the hearts and soul of people world-wide along with many high profile Black African-Americans. His being a cosmopolitan, larger than life figure abroad can be attributed to hi123-paul-dubiouss multiple roles as political activist, artist, singer and actor along with his ability to converse in circa twenty different languages1.  He was a visionary leader who sacrificed tremendously because of his unyielding devotion to the causes of anti-racism, peace and socialism established him as the pacesetter…and God-father of the 60s Civil Rights Movement.

As an actor Robeson once wanted to play the role of Joe Louis but was told by Hollywood it would never do for a colored man to be shown knocking out a white boxer. He did several movies two of which he became very distraught over, “Sanders of the River” and “Tales of Manhattan.” The former triggered his crusade as a defender of his people—proving to be the turning point in his public career—as he felt he’d committed a faux pas doing that picture and passionately resented being part of it.

Thus, the higher calling of social injustice led him to abandon the theater and Hollywood to become one of the most important political activists of his generation. His advocacy of anti-imperialism, affiliation with communism and criticism of the American government caused him to be blacklisted during the McCarthy era.  On September 1946 Robeson vehemently charged that it was hypocritical for America to take the lead in Nuremberg in indicting purveyors of race hatred, while lethargically engaging the same at home. He said: “What is happening in Nuremberg is a travesty on democracy, when people of America are murdered by the same kind of men on trial.”

A few years later Robeson filed a petition with the United Nations charging America with genocide against African-Americans. At a moment when the U.S. was charging the socialist camp with human rights violations, his petition was trumpeted globally as yet another example of Washington’s hypocrisy and brutality. It served to prod American authorities in response to ease the horrific maltreatment of African-Americans, setting the stage for what came to be called the “Civil Rights Movement.” In this historic process, Robeson inadvertently played the role of a sacrificial lamb. His income, career and health eroded…as the people he sacrificed for…saw their fortunes improve as the bonds of Jim Crow slowly loosened.

He heartily endorsed the proposal of the Soviet Union to make race discrimination and hatred a crime, placing President Truman in legal jeopardy. Robeson was the most unrelenting critic of what was called the Truman Doctrine. At one juncture Robeson had a face to face meeting with Truman about numerous lynchings, and the maiming of black people in military uniforms. This exchange of angry words led Truman to angrily slam his fist on his desk reprimanding Robeson all at the same time, leading to Robeson’s passport being snatched for several years.

Robeson’s critics were disgusted with his words, particularly his contention that the republic was “built on slavery” exposing America as a hypocrite when simultaneously assailing the socialist camp. Robeson possessed integrity, passion, intelligence, wit, compassion, mental and intestinal fortitude and wasn’t going to go along, just to get along and remain silent about social injustices as they pertained to his own people—just so others can be comfortable.

Appearing before the House Un-American Activities Committee Robeson testified that he had read a lot of Marx a regimen that began not in Russian but actually in England. Both his political and Marxist education he attributed to his affiliation with the Britain’s “English Labour Party.” Time and time again the Committee tried getting Robeson to sign a pledge denouncing communism, each time he would refuse to—never admitting or denying that he was a Communist.

Robeson was under de facto house arrest. Most white people in America regarded him as an enemy of the United States. He was summoned to Washington on numerous occasions to testify before Congress on supposed Communist subversion of the nation. About his travels to Russia, he made it clear that he was able to walk the earth with complete dignity as a human being and wasn’t apologetic about his visits there. He once said about Russia that it was the only country in the world where he felt right at home.

As a result of being placed on the “blacklist” as a communist sympathizer, Robeson found himself being forsaken by previous black support such as the NAACP, Ebony Magazine, leading black newspapers, etc. High profile Black people were urged to denounce him such as the likes of Jackie Robinson and Don Newcombe pitcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers at a time when Robeson was summoned to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee. It was there that Robeson revealed that he knew Jackie Robinson and that he was one of the people to speak to Judge Landis (baseball commissioner) to see that Jackie Robinson had a chance to play baseball. He had addressed the combined owners of the sport in a successful administration of pressure—but the payback he received from Robinson and Newcombe was rebuke. Carl Rowan a Black U.S. ambassador to Finland, too once stated that Robeson had betrayed the Negro race.

However, not all Black people shunned Robeson, among which were actors Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte who were very supportive. Poitier particularly was very complimentary of Robeson with statements like “the richness of Negro culture has received no finer expression than in the career of Paul Robeson.” Then later on in year 1978 Poitier talked about how he and Belafonte use to walk with Robeson on the streets of Harlem, just walk and talk about many things, politics, art, race, Africa, etc. Poitier found him to be overwhelming in his knowledge, formidable in his commitment, and how Robeson had an [impact]—on every selection—he ever made as an actor.
To immobilize and keep him silenced American authorities continually denied Robeson his passport because whenever he went abroad he would criticize the treatment of African-Americans. Subsequently, on May 1954 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Jim Crow was no longer the law of the land—though implementing this ruling unfolded slowly at best.

Robeson’s consistent internationalism, his maniacal study of languages and cultures, was redeemed in a burst of poetic justice when a great wave of humanity demanded that his right to travel be restored. Much pressure was applied by foreign countries—Mexico, Russia, England, Israel, China, Japan, India, Ghana, Nigeria, etc. on Washington, DC—to return Robeson’s passport.

Robeson had been catapulted into a legendary status in the first place because of his popularity abroad and, unsurprisingly, when the time came to rescue him from the clutches of his antagonists, the international community weighed in emphatically, creating domestic ripples hard to ignore, particularly among religious figures.

Bowing to international pressure in 1958 the high court relented and ruled that Robeson could not be denied the right to travel. During the eight years when Robeson was denied the right to travel he received many letters of sympathy and concern from all parts of the world, particularly from Britain and the Soviet Union. It was considered one of the most shameful consequences of the Cold War—that this American most honored abroad—is cruelly persecuted and treated as a pariah at home.

In this changing era, a Robeson revival was occurring, along with a downgrading…or remonstrating…of those who had rebuked him earlier. Thus, Malcolm X—who symbolized a Black militancy that was a direct outgrowth from the sagacious Robeson—reprimanded Jackie Robinson, the baseball star, who had denounced the artist before HUAC “It was you who let yourself be used by the whites,” Malcolm charged, “you let them sic you on Paul Robeson…you let your white boss send you before a congressional hearing [to] dispute and condemn [Robeson] because he [had] these guilty American whites frightened silly.” Retreating apologetically, Robinson awkwardly asserted, “I would reject such an invitation if offered now, I do have increased respect for Paul Robison, who over a span of 20 years sacrificed himself, his career and the wealth and comfort he once enjoyed because, I believe, he was sincerely trying to help his people.”

Congressman Andrew Young is reported as saying: “Thank you for your beautiful life” “You kept alive a legacy of hope through some of the darkest days of our history. But had you not done so in the 30s, 40s and 50s our accomplishments in the 60s would not have been possible and I would not be here in Congress, as the first black man from Georgia in 102 years.”  Paul Robeson could have been the President of the United States.

The years of being under siege by the US government, numerous death threats and attempts on his life limited Robeson’s earning power, and a resulting mental strain took its toll; thus by 1963 with his health rapidly deteriorating was forced into retirement, becoming a recluse.



1 Encyclopedia of Harlem Literary Renaissance by Lois Brown, p. 457


About the author of this bio:  Mr.  Smith is a writer who lives in the U.S.  The article above was originally posted on thyblackman.com.  Mr.  Smith penned two books entitled:  Bury that Sucka, A Scandalous Love Affair with the N-word and Undressing the N-word, Revealing the Naked Truth About Lies, Deceit and Mind Games (to find out more about this book, click here: https://www.createspace.com/4655015). In addition, he is the founder of this website: http://theunitedvoices.com/aboutus.php.  Mr. Smith is a graduate of California State University, Los Angeles where he obtained a B.A. degree.  He can be reached at  This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . He can also be followed at Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/thescoop1.