Robeson was born in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1898. His father started life as a plantation slave in North Carolina, but escaped in 1860 and eventually become a pastor. Robeson recalls, in his book Here I Stand (1958), his father’s determination and loyalty to his convictions: “From my youngest days I was imbued with that concept,” he writes. His family’s longer history of activism is noteworthy, too; his maternal great-great-grandfather, Cyrus Bustill, became in 1787 a founder of the Free African Society, the first mutual aid organisation of African Americans.
Robeson was only the third black student to be accepted by Rutgers College, winning a scholarship in 1915. He was a fine athlete and joined the football team; but on Saturday the 14th of October 1916 he was excluded from the Rutgers football team. He was one of their best players but Washington and Lee University refused to play against a black player. Preceding this event at his first football training , he was savagely attacked by his own team mates unwilling to accept a Black man in their midst. Leaving him with cuts and bruises, a broken nose, a sprained shoulder and a damaged hand.Did this deter him, hell no, his coach named Sandford refused to comply when the demands were made again and Robeson went on to to be named a football all American twice.
He would also become the class valedictoriam, a lawyer, and one of the best 20th Century , actors, singers and advocate for justice the world has ever known. He would go on to speak against colonialism, racism and fascism, using his voice to spread his message of equality peace and freedom.
This despite the efforts of the American government to hide and suppress his voice from history.They took away his passport in 1950, banned him from international platforms and audiences, and restricted him from TV appearances at home. He had done nothing illegal; he was never arrested, or put on trial; yet the powers that be were determined to destroy him nonetheless for his political beliefs. He was to be harassed by zealots of the House of Un-American Activities, to whom he gave no quarter.
“I care nothing – less than nothing – about what the lords of the land, the Big White Folks, think of me and my ideas,” Robeson later wrote, in Here I Stand. “For more than 10 years they have persecuted me in every way they could – by slander and mob violence, by denying me the right to practice my profession as an artist, by withholding my right to travel abroad. To these, the real Un-Americans, I merely say: ‘All right – I don’t like you either!’”
On Saturday 5 October 1957, Paul Robeson sang to Wales for the first time since 1949, to 5000 people crammed into the Porthcawl Pavillion for the Tenth Annual Miners Eisteddfod, due to the new technology of a trans-Atlantic telephone which triumphed over the passport ban and their families. They had not forgotten his sympathy for the plight of the miners who he had lived among in the 1930's. In 1938 he had also paid a visit to Mountain Ash for a ceremony attend by 7,000 people to commemorate 33 Welshmen who had died fighting in the Spanish Civil War.
But even the great Robeson was not strong enough to withstand the psychological effects of blacklisting and the persecution he had endured over the years. After his passport was restored in 1958, he attempted comeback tours, but severe depressions gripped him; in 1961, he tried to take his own life after a party and was subsequently treated with ECT in London. Much later, his son considered whether the “attempted suicide” might perhaps have been a drug-induced incident in which the CIA could be implicated.
Unable to attend Carnegie Hall’s tribute concert on his 75th birthday, he sent a recorded message, declaring: “I want you to know that I am the same Paul, dedicated as ever to the worldwide cause of humanity for freedom, peace and brotherhood.”.
He lived the final years of his life in seclusion in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and died there yesterday on January 23rd, 1976. He is fondly remembered because he not only stood up for the injustices that African-Americans faced, but also was able to empathize and connect with other people’s struggles, he funded Jews escaping Nazi Germany, spoke out against the fascists in Spanish Civil War, campaigned against colonialism in African countries and stood with laborers in the United States and proudly with the people of Wales, an internationalist who identified with the most important issues of freedom and social justice of his time, and practiced what he preached.
His courageous proud message lives on, and he remains forever immortal in my heart.
Paul Robeson - Old Man River
Paul Robeson - Here I stand documentary