Paul Robeson: The Voice They Could Never Silence

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By Paul Rockwell

 

Paul Robeson is a legendary figure in American history. He was not only a famous scholar, athlete, linguist, singer and actor, but he was above all a freedom fighter who dedicated his life and art to black liberation and the worldwide struggle against imperialism.

 

The son of an escaped slave, Paul Leroy Robeson was born April 9, 1898. He began his singing and acting career in the early 1920s during the Harlem Renaissance. Accompanied by pianist Lawrence Brown, he performed in the first major concert of all-Black music in the U.S.

 

From Carnegie Hall to San Quentin prison, Robeson’s recitals drew from the rich legacy of African American work songs, folk songs, protest music and spirituals. The range of his voice, his mastery of African-American dialects, his pride in African culture, and his mellow baritone songs blended into one magnificent call for freedom.

 

Robeson used his talents and art to serve humanity. He turned down Uncle Tom roles in Hollywood and he demanded equality for Blacks in stage and film.

 

Robeson was an internationalist. He stood in the forefront of the anti-fascist movement in the 1930s. Amid the bombing of Madrid during the Spanish Civil War, he sang freedom songs to the Republican soldiers who were resisting fascist aggression.

 

Robeson was at the peak of his career at the end of World War II when U.S. rulers launched a campaign of slanders, censorship and police terror against leftists and progressives. The House of Un-American Activities Committee threatened Robeson with imprisonment.

 

Banned from concert halls, he was welcomed into the homes and churches of thousands of people. His passport revoked, Robeson joined a massive concert at the “Peace Arch” on the Canadian U.S. border, singing for 40,000 people. In many cities and towns, workers, war veterans and townspeople locked arms, forming human barricades against the police riots, so that Robeson’s voice could be heard in parks, barns, railroad stations, churches and union halls.

 

Dr. Martin Luther King learned much from his heroic predecessor. Robeson wrote in Here I Stand, “I say Negro action can be decisive. Whenever we, the Negro people, claim our lawful rights with all the earnestness, dignity and determination that we can demonstrate, the moral support of the American people will become an active force on our side. We have the power of numbers, the power of organization, and the power of spirit.”

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