Paul Robeson Spent His Life Fighting Against America’s Extreme Right
Paul Robeson, the socialist actor, musician, and civil rights campaigner, dedicated his life to battling against right-wing red-baiting that has echoes in reactionary crusades against progressive education and “critical race theory” today.
An hour north of New York City just past the Hudson Line’s Peekskill station, a golf course sprawls along ponds, sand dunes, and weeping willows. Before this idyllic green was carved from the wooded valley, my friends and I knew it as the defunct Hollowbrook Drive-In. With a giant L-shaped mid-century sign fading above an entrance on the far edge of a traffic circle, I recall during my middle and high school years the skunk weeds and dandelions breaking through asphalt that sprawled beneath a long-neglected screen. I pictured old films playing in black and white. But four decades before, the world-beloved actor, singer, activist, and lawyer Paul Robeson produced a concert here. What that concert spurred made our town infamous, associated forever with the phrase “Peekskill riots.”
It was late August when Robeson arrived. The concert was a fundraiser for the Civil Rights Congress, one of the many progressive organizations that fell victim to a right-liberal backlash against the social and economic policies of the Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) era. The start of the Cold War gave succor to conservatives eager to put brakes on a civil rights movement, whose most forceful advocates were radicals and socialists.
The day of the riots, Robeson and his entourage saw a burning cross on the hill above; racists pelted and flipped over some of the singer and his crew’s cars; rioters effectively blocked the concert to supporters; and mobs slinging racial epithets against blacks, leftists, and Jews injured a dozen. A week and a day later, the concert proceeded. But damage was done: the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) gloated and plastered Peekskill with posters adorned with phrases lifted from fascist rioters during Kristallnacht.
Thinking back on my childhood, I found it strange how little I knew about these events. We never heard about Robeson in our history or social studies courses. A cultural amnesia had overcome our town, broken only by a small group of people who were able to draw a connection between the horrors of the past and the right-wing revanchism of the present. I wondered, too, whether something like this cultural amnesia was at play on a national scale. Did it explain how a country which had driven itself into a frenzy during McCarthyism could rally around a new red scare under the guise of anxieties over anti-leftist conspiracies, like “Critical Race Theory”?
Larger Than Life
Paul Robeson was the son of William Drew Robeson, a runaway slave turned Presbyterian minister, who had fled from his captors to Princeton, New Jersey, in 1860 at the age of fifteen. From there he met Robeson’s mother, Maria Louisa Bustil, a schoolteacher and member of a family of prominent anti-slavery and Jim Crow campaigners.
On Sundays, he would watch his father’s weekly sermons boil over into operatic morality tales on the importance of race pride. The younger Robeson’s own membership in this educated African American milieu allowed him to gain access to the more liberal parts of society. Although he would in his later years describe Princeton as still “spiritually located in Dixie,” it would provide Paul a starting point from which he would be admitted to Rutgers University on a full scholarship. At the respected institution, Robeson would go on to be the star of the university’s glee club and an all-American for football.
From New Jersey, Robeson would move to Harlem and apply to study at Columbia Law School before landing a job at Stotesbury and Associates, a prestigious Manhattan law firm. But here he hit a wall in the halfway world in which he was attempting to make a life for himself. A racist secretary informed Robeson’s colleagues that she would not take dictation from a black man and the partner who hired him as a favor to a mutual friend warned that clients would not let Robeson represent them in court. Robeson took the hint and tried his luck on the stage.
In 1923, Robeson earned the lead in Eugene O’Neill’s All God’s Chillun Got Wings, one of his first major roles. The play depicted an interracial relationship between a white woman and her black husband, whose success she resents so deeply that it leads her to sabotage his budding law career. The resonances with themes in Robeson’s own life must have been clear to him.
Controversially, the script called for the lead to kiss his costar, Mary Blair, the wife of the literary critic Edmund Wilson. Delays in the production caused by an illness which afflicted Blair during rehearsals led to an unusually long buildup which provided the media with an opportunity to work the public into a frenzy. Weeks before the play was due to air, the New York American published an article with the headline “Riots Feared From Drama,” and the Long Island chapter of the KKK threatened to blow up the theater.
Although Robeson’s director, Eugene O’Neill, and all of his costars came to his defense, dismissing the supposed controversy as not worthy of remark, reactionaries rallied around it. On opening night, steelworkers close to the cast guarded the dressing rooms from possible attacks as police fenced the theater in response to the numerous threats. Fortunately, these attacks did not materialize and although critics were generally not very enthused by the play, they praised Robeson’s contribution. One went so far as to write that “Caucasian superiority does suffer a little, because Paul Robeson is a far finer actor than any white member of the cast.”
The Robesons would move to London in 1928 where Paul would star in a production of Show Boat, a West End musical adapted from a best-selling book about race relations in the American South. The appearance of Robeson was the talk of the town. On one occasion he was denied entry to the Savoy Grill, a fancy London eatery, and this incident became national news and was discussed in the Houses of Parliament.
Even within the cosmopolitan world of the arts, Robeson felt that he struggled to reconcile his ideals with films in which he was cast. In 1934, the Hungarian-British filmmaker Zoltán Korda asked him to star in Sanders of the River, alongside Kenya’s future president, the conservative leader Jomo Kenyatta. The film, which depicted British colonialism, was initially thought by Robeson to offer a harsh criticism of the institution. Black nationalists like Marcus Garvey would later ridicule Robeson for acting in what turned out to be another white man’s burden narrative. Reflecting on these events, Robeson would describe the film as something that could have been “shown in Italy and Germany, for it shows the Negro as Fascist States desire him — savage and childish.”
Robeson eventually landed a handful of films on the working-class struggle, stories more in line with his politics. In Song of Freedom (1936), he played a dockworker whose singing voice makes him famous, and whose fame allows him to investigate his regal bloodline in Africa. In Jericho (1937), he plays a heroic World War II officer who refuses an order to abandon ship to save the lives of his men. Robeson would truly hit his stride with a film on the plight of Welsh coal workers.
The relationship with these miners began a decade earlier, when Robeson emerged from a matinee performance of Show Boat back in London. He was confronted by a chanting crowd of Welsh miners, who had marched all the way from the neighboring country. They were on strike, blackballed, and going hungry. After taking them to eat, hearing of their union activity and their difficult position, with no other jobs in their region, Robeson took up their cause.
He visited Wales and brought their story to the screen in the musical The Proud Valley (1940), in which he plays a sympathetic American named Goliath. Without prospects in America, Goliath works in the Welsh mines, and ultimately, saves his comrades from a tunnel collapse. Historian Tony Benn recalls of the musical, “It was through his contact with the Welsh miners that he realized he was working class, as well as black.”
War and Fascism
In 1934, during the Great Depression, Robeson first visited the Soviet Union on the invitation of the Russian film director Sergei Eisenstein. The auteur had hoped to direct Black Majesty, a film on the Haitian Revolution starring Robeson as the island’s liberator, Toussaint Louverture. Though the partnership never panned out, his journey to the Soviet Union made clear to him the contrast between fascism and socialism. Going through Nazi Germany, state officials harassed Robeson for traveling with a white woman. “I could read hatred in their eyes,” Robeson thought while reflecting on this episode. “This is how lynch mobs start.”
Robeson viewed international socialism as a great equalizer and the only real solution to fascism, and Robeson was impressed by a film shoot on a collective farm, which Eisenstein showed him. The constitution of the Soviet Union guaranteed in Article 123 full equality for all. Within the workers’ state, Robeson could remark, “Here, I walk in full human dignity.”
In 1936, with a fascist coup overturning the elected left-wing government of Spain, Robeson made the consequential decision to deepen his commitment; he would relegate his career to second place, behind the anti-fascist struggle. “I stand before you in unalterable support of the government of Spain, freely chosen by its sons and daughters,” he told European audiences. “The battlefield is everywhere. The artist must take sides. He must elect to fight for freedom or for slavery. I have made my choice.” Crisscrossing Spain, he sang to wounded soldiers and demoralized partisans in hospitals or depots on their way to the front. Singing in English, Spanish, and Russian, he aimed to bring hope to the leftist Republican forces.
As a greater European war loomed, Robeson and family prepared to return to the United States. But after spending so much time abroad, his reputation had dimmed in his homeland. At the height of the jingoistic fervor generated by the war, Robeson took on a patriotic musical produced by CBS, titled Ballad for Americans. The show was hackneyed and uninteresting: war propaganda set to soaring music mashed up with a 1940s History for Dummies libretto. It ended up being a wildly popular radio special that made the singer more famous in the United States than ever, and quite likely the most famous black man in the world. Riding on this high, he would go on to take the lead role in the longest running Broadway production of Othello.
Preempting the rise of Joseph McCarthy and the House and Senate Un-American Activities Committees, President Harry Truman presided over a purging from government posts of progressives whose views he thought might make them sympathetic to Russia. It was in this tense atmosphere that Robeson would help found the American Crusade Against Lynching (ACAL) in 1946 and bring its concerns to a rally in Washington on September 23, followed by a meeting with Truman. The president would respond to the ACAL by dismissing its concerns; now was not the time for bringing up such divisive issues.
Truman insisted that the United States and Great Britain represented “the last refuge of freedom in the world.” The historian Martin Duberman recounts in his biography of Robeson that the civil rights icon scoffed at this, referring to rampant imperialism from both, and went on to add that “if the federal government refused to defend its black citizens against murder, blacks would have to defend themselves.” At which point, “Truman declared the interview at an end.”
Truman had only added support to a broader backlash against the progressive politics of the FDR era, and now Robeson was in its sights, called for the first of many times before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), likely as a result of the Truman meeting. In 1951, the State Department planted an article in the NAACP’s The Crisis magazine, chiding him as a dupe of communists, who was dangerously “naïve.” The following year it suspended his passport. The aim of these smear campaigns was to drive a wedge between the Left and the Civil Rights Movement.
As the smear campaign intensified, and concerts were canceled under the blacklisting regime — which targeted university professors, Hollywood progressives, musicians, athletes, writers — Robeson and his pianist and musical partner Larry Brown had to leave America to earn a living. In Paris, Robeson shared a stage with Spanish painter Pablo Picasso and Chilean poet Pablo Neruda at the Partisans for Peace Congress in 1949. There he issued an anti-war statement and warned of the horrific consequences of a conflict with the Soviet Union. He contrasted the valor that African Americans displayed on the front to the poor treatment they had received at home. The media misreported Robeson’s statement, playing up the suggestion of black revolt and disloyalty to the nation.
At first oblivious to the reaction back home, Robeson continued his tour, proceeding to Eastern Europe, and arriving in Moscow in June 1949. Hoping to find out if the rumors of antisemitic repression in the Soviet Union were correct, Robeson asked to see his friend, the poet Itzik Feffer, who was then locked incommunicado in Moscow’s Lubyanka prison. Six years prior, Robeson had met with Feffer in New York at a meeting of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee along with Albert Einstein.
The actor waited for several days to see his friend who was finally brought by state officials to see Robeson in a hotel. There, Feffer signaled that the room was bugged and the duo spoke cautiously while passing notes.
Where have you been? Robeson jotted.
What can I do?
Say nothing or we prisoners are dead.
But Robeson followed the visit with a concert in Tchaikovsky Concert Hall. It was broadcast live, with Soviet leadership in attendance. Though no recordings survive, Robeson announced — “to gasps,” according to his son — that he saw his friend Itzik Feffer earlier.
With little fanfare, after reminding the audience of the long-standing cultural ties between Jews in the United States and those in the Soviet Union, then asking for silence, Robeson sang an encore of the Warsaw ghetto resistance song, “Zog Nit Keynmol,” offering an extraordinary moment of defiance to Stalin. When Robeson came home, rather than offer a header to the American right, however, he said nothing.
In America, Robeson found himself in a bind. He opposed Stalinist terror, but he did not wish to give support to a cold war that many feared would grow to a direct war between two rising nuclear superpowers. Unable to find a solution to this dilemma, he opted simply to lie. When asked directly by a small newspaper about Stalin’s atrocities toward Jews, he denied knowledge of purges that Feffer and other friends in Russia underwent. In 1952, Feffer along with twelve other Soviet Jews would be executed in Lubyanka prison in Moscow.
But more than his silence on these purges, it was his antiwar message in Paris that haunted Robeson’s return to the United States. Aware that the Truman moment was defined by a reactionary media, which performed like an adjunct to the security state, he watched as his plea for peace and freedom from fear was twisted into an expression of disloyalty. The HUAC reactionaries and centrist splitters even pulled baseball great Jackie Robinson into the debate. Robinson was allegedly strong-armed into testifying against Robeson, convinced that he wouldn’t have a career if he objected.
When Robeson arrived in Peekskill in 1949, this climate of anti-communism and red-baiting served as the backdrop for his performance.
As he drove toward the field with his sixty-five-year-old mother, folk singer Pete Seeger rolled down his window, and told the cop he had to get through; he was here to sing. There wasn’t going to be a concert, the cop said, and gruffly turned away. Helen Rosen picked up her friend, Robeson, the star attraction, at the Peekskill train station. He had called ahead and told her he’d been warned of disruptions.
As they approached the field known then as Lakeland Acres picnic area, Rosen recalled seeing unusual traffic, hearing noises and disturbance, even screaming. A gang of veterans broke through the barricades and its members proceeded to vandalize the stage. Seeger recalled seeing piles of stones beside the road on the way in, with rocks as large as tennis balls piled several feet high.
The piles must have been covered when performers came in, Seeger told an interviewer. Otherwise, he would have seen them. Rioters turned cars on their sides, smashed windshields, and injured dozens. Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion, and Catholic organizations had rallied the opposition in the Peekskill Evening Star. Knowing Robeson’s three prior concerts here had been successes, these groups pitted Peekskill’s traditional working-class inhabitants against a relatively new enclave of wealthy, educated, left-wing weekenders, many of them Jewish, like Rosen.
In the aftermath, with the announced do-over concert to come a week later, signs appeared across the town that read, “Wake up, America. Peekskill did.” Supporters of the violence had plastered these posters on store windows and car bumpers, recalled Seeger.
“In Europe, they were horrified,” Seeger told the interviewer. “They said those were the same signs that went up in Germany after Kristallnacht. Only in Germany they read: ‘Wake up Germany: Munich did.’ . . . As pogroms grew, they whispered, ‘Throw stones at all the Jewish storekeepers,’” he recalled.
At the second concert, twenty thousand supporters arrived to hear Robeson, Seeger, and others, who were met by eight thousand protesters. Like two decades earlier in Provincetown, Robeson’s people organized trade unionists to link themselves, arm in arm, around the stage, forming themselves into a human wall. Though the one-day concert was finally able to go forward, again the protesters shouted violent antisemitic and racist threats, chanting, “We’ll kill you,” and “You may get in but you won’t get out.”
The volunteer security, made up of union members, flushed snipers from the trees above the field who were alleged to have high-powered rifles and their sights ready to aim at the stage. But after performers left under close protection, with only a verbal barrage of violence able to reach them, a mass beating followed. A barrage of stones and blows rained down on the union members and other left-wing supporters of Robeson, who were corralled in the field that became the drive-in I knew growing up, and later the golf course it remains today. Until 1:30 AM, the police oversaw this beating, resulting in one hundred fifty injured, and did nothing to stop it.
In the days that followed, reactionaries launched a witch hunt against the Left and a nasty combination of racism and anti-communism came to dominate the town. Fascists plastered posters which read “Communism is Treason, Behind Communism stands — the Jew!” on cars. In the neighboring village of Harmon, one of the few Jewish homes had its windows smashed and the American Legion requested that books written by known communists be removed from Peekskill’s library.
Faced with a backlash which had at this point become national in scale, Robeson did not back down. In a press conference held after the grand jury hearing into the riots, he said before an audience of reporters that “the Communist Party has played a magnificent role in fighting for the freedom of the American Negro.” Despite the vitriol thrown at him by the Right, he would continue to defend freedom of speech and association as central to any progressive politics, and to reject the idea that reactionary political violence could ever be justified.
The divisions which the Right attempted to create in Peekskill are illustrative of a broader strategy implemented by reactionaries in their struggles against the Left. Opponents of Robeson sought not only to attack him as an individual, but they also sought to attack the institutions as well as the political and intellectual culture out of which his ideas emerged.
In thinking about the recent wave of right-wing hostility to leftist books, wokeness, and critical race theory, we should not forget to place this hostility within the context of a broader right-wing tradition. This is a tradition which runs through American history; but running parallel to it has always been a radical, progressive alternative to these antidemocratic tendencies.
When I imagine Paul Robeson in Peekskill, I think of this. And though he would die — thanks to a backlash — in relative obscurity, his accomplishments are legion and his politics were prescient. Sometimes called the Great Forerunner, who powerfully quipped, “The answer to injustice is not to silence the critic, but to end the injustice,” his influence on the second half of the twentieth century and the early twenty-first is immeasurable.