When Fred Rose, the only Communist to have served in the Canadian parliament, died in 1983, CBC TV ran an obituary which included an audio campaign endorsement by a person identified as “the American Communist Paul Robeson.”
Whether or not Paul Robeson carried a card, he hung out with Communists, supported the Soviet Union, and spoke out for edgy leftwing issues such as civi rights, anti-colonialism, and peace.
In Paul Robeson: A Watched Man (Verso) Jordan Goodman tells how the State Department destroyed the career of the world famous vocalist and actor.
From the 1920’s through the 1940’s, Robeson was one of the world’s leading artists. Repelled by racism in the United States he made most of his money in England, where in the 1930’s he was bitten by the leftwing bug.
Robeson was not naive. He used his fame to push the borders of acceptable debate on racism and anti-colonialism. As the Cold War gripped the United States he turned sharply to the left. In 1948 he was active in Henry Wallace’s anti-Cold War third party campaign for President. In June 1949 he addressed the Soviet backed Paris peace conference where he told delegates that American Blacks would not bear arms against the Soviet Union.
Paul Robeson pickets White House in August 1948 with members of the Civil Rights Congress
For the State Department, that was “it.” He was exposing to the world America’s dirty racial laundry, just when we were criticizing Communism for destroying human rights. The Truman Administration lined up mainstream civil rights groups and Black media to disown Robeson. Jackie Robinson, the first Black to play major league baseball, testified before the House Unamerican Activities Committee, criticizing Robeson while calling for full civil rights for American Blacks.
The Truman administration revoked Robeson’s passport, cutting him off from his career in England and Europe where he had made his fortune. Robeson’s career was finished. In America he was blacklisted. He refused to sign an affidavit that he was not a Communist. He was prevented from traveling even to Canada where an American passport was not required. Robeson described himself as a prisoner in his own country.
Goodman tells the saga of Robeson’s struggle to get a passport. Only in 1958, after a Supreme Court ruling in a different case, was his passport restored. By then, Robeson was almost 60 years old. His voice was weakening. After a triumphal comeback tour in Great Britain, he developed a mental illness. His health failed and he never performed again.
In 1976, Paul Robeson died in obscurity at his sister’s home in Philadelphia. Her home is maintained by a community group as a museum in honor of Paul Robeson.
Paul Robeson: A Watched Man is well written and fast reading. It sets forth the shameful efforts of the Truman and Eisenhower Administrations to suppress civil liberties and to persecute a great dissident.
If you like the history of the Cold War, you will love this book.