Paul Leroy Robeson (/ˈroʊbsən/; April 9, 1898 – January 23, 1976) was an American singer and actor who became involved with the Civil Rights Movement. At Rutgers College, he was an outstanding football player, then had an international career in singing, with a distinctive, powerful, deep bass voice, as well as acting in theater and movies. He became politically involved in response to the Spanish Civil War, fascism, and social injustices. His advocacy of anti-imperialism, affiliation with communism, and criticism of the United States government caused him to be blacklisted during the McCarthy era. Ill health forced him into retirement from his career. He remained until his death an advocate of the political stances he took.
Robeson won an academic scholarship to Rutgers College, where he became a football All-American and the class valedictorian. He received his LL.B. from Columbia Law School, while playing in the National Football League (NFL). At Columbia, he sang and acted in off-campus productions; and, after graduating, he became a participant in the Harlem Renaissance with performances in The Emperor Jones and All God's Chillun Got Wings. Robeson initiated his international artistic résumé with a theatrical role in Great Britain, settling in London for the next several years with his wife Essie.
Robeson next appeared as Othello at the Savoy Theatre before becoming an international cinema star through roles in Show Boat and Sanders of the River. He became increasingly attuned towards the sufferings of other cultures and peoples. Acting against advice, which warned of his economic ruin if he became politically active, he set aside his theatrical career to advocate the cause of the Republican forces of the Spanish Civil War. He then became active in the Council on African Affairs (CAA).
During World War II, he supported America's war efforts and won accolades for his portrayal of Othello on Broadway. However, his history of supporting pro-Soviet policies brought scrutiny from the FBI. After the war ended, the CAA was placed on the Attorney General's List of Subversive Organizations and Robeson was investigated during the age of McCarthyism. Due to his decision not to recant his public advocacy of pro-Soviet policies, he was denied a passport by the U.S. State Department, and his income, consequently, plummeted. He moved to Harlem and published a periodical critical of United States policies. His right to travel was eventually restored by the 1958 United States Supreme Court decision, Kent v. Dulles, but his health broke down. He retired and he lived out the remaining years of his life privately in Philadelphia.
Paul Robeson was born in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1898, to Reverend William Drew Robeson and Maria Louisa Bustill. His mother was from a prominent Quaker family of mixed ancestry: African, Anglo-American, and Lenape. His father, William, whose family traced their ancestry to the Igbo people of present-day Nigeria, escaped from a plantation in his teens and eventually became the minister of Princeton's Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church in 1881. Robeson had three brothers: William Drew, Jr. (born 1881), Reeve (born c. 1887), and Ben (born c. 1893); and one sister, Marian (born c. 1895).
In 1900, a disagreement between William and white financial supporters of Witherspoon arose with apparent racial undertones, which were prevalent in Princeton. William, who had the support of his entirely black congregation, resigned in 1901. The loss of his position forced him to work menial jobs. Three years later when Robeson was six, his mother, who was nearly blind, died in a house fire. Eventually, William became financially incapable of providing a house for himself and his children still living at home, Ben and Paul, so they moved into the attic of a store in Westfield, New Jersey.
William found a stable parsonage at the St. Thomas A. M. E. Zion in 1910, where Robeson would fill in for his father during sermons when he was called away. In 1912, Robeson attended Somerville High School, Somerville, New Jersey, where he performed in Julius Caesar, Othello, sang in the chorus, and excelled in football, basketball, baseball and track. His athletic dominance elicited racial taunts which he ignored. Prior to his graduation, he won a statewide academic contest for a scholarship to Rutgers. He took a summer job as a waiter in Narragansett Pier, Rhode Island, where he befriended Fritz Pollard, later to be the first African-American coach in the National Football League.
Rutgers College (1915–1919)
In late 1915, Robeson became the third African-American student ever enrolled at Rutgers, and the only one at the time. He tried out for the Rutgers Scarlet Knights football team, and his resolve to make the squad was tested as his teammates engaged in unwarranted and excessive play, arguably precipitated by racism during which his nose was broken and his shoulder dislocated. The coach, Foster Sanford, decided he had overcome the provocation and announced that he had made the team.
Robeson joined the debate team and sang off-campus for spending money, and on-campus with the Glee Club informally, as membership required attending all-white mixers. He also joined the other collegiate athletic teams. As a sophomore, amidst Rutgers' sesquicentennial celebration, he was benched when a Southern team refused to take the field, because the Scarlet Knights had fielded a Negro, Robeson.
After a standout junior year of football, he was recognized in The Crisis for his athletic, academic, and singing talents. At what should have been a high point of his life, his father fell grievously ill. Robeson took the sole responsibility in caring for him, shuttling between Rutgers and Somerville. His father, who was the "glory of his boyhood years" soon died, and at Rutgers, Robeson expounded on the incongruity of African Americans fighting to protect America in World War I and, contemporaneously, being without the same opportunities in the United States as whites.
He finished university with four annual oratorical triumphs and varsity letters in multiple sports. His play at end won him first-team All-American selection, in both his junior and senior years. Walter Camp considered him the greatest end ever. Academically, he was accepted into Phi Beta Kappa and Cap and Skull. His classmates recognized him by electing him class valedictorian.The Daily Targum published a poem featuring his achievements. In his valedictory speech, he exhorted his classmates to work for equality for all Americans.
Columbia Law School and marriage (1919–1923)
Robeson entered New York University School of Law in the fall of 1919. To support himself, he became an assistant football coach at Lincoln, where he joined the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. However, Robeson felt uncomfortable at NYU and moved to Harlem and transferred to Columbia Law School in February 1920. Already known in the black community for his singing, he was selected to perform at the dedication of the .
Robeson began dating Eslanda "Essie" Goode and after her coaxing, he gave his theatrical debut as Simon in Ridgely Torrence's Simon of Cyrene. After a year of courtship, they were married in August 1921.
He was recruited by Pollard to play for the NFL's Akron Pros while Robeson continued his law studies. In the spring, Robeson postponed school to portray Jim in Mary Hoyt Wiborg's Taboo. He then sang in a chorus in an Off-Broadway production of Shuffle Along before he joined Taboo in Britain. The play was adapted by Mrs. Patrick Campbell to highlight his singing. After the play ended, he befriended Lawrence Brown, a classically trained musician, before returning to Columbia while playing for the NFL's Milwaukee Badgers. He ended his football career after 1922, and months later, he graduated from law school.
Theatrical success and ideological transformation (1923–1939)
Harlem Renaissance (1923–1927)
Robeson worked briefly as a lawyer, but he renounced a career in law due to extant racism. Essie financially supported them and they frequented the social functions at the future Schomburg Center. In December 1924 he landed the lead role of Jim in Eugene O'Neill's All God's Chillun Got Wings, which culminated with Jim metaphorically consummating his marriage with his white wife by symbolically emasculating himself. Chillun's opening was postponed while a nationwide debate occurred over its plot.
Chillun's delay led to a revival of The Emperor Jones with Robeson as Brutus, a role pioneered by Charles Sidney Gilpin. The role terrified and galvanized Robeson, as it was practically a 90-minute soliloquy. Reviews declared him an unequivocal success. Though arguably clouded by its controversial subject, his Jim in Chillun was less well received. He deflected criticism of its plot by writing that fate had drawn him to the "untrodden path" of drama and the true measure of a culture is in its artistic contributions, and the only true American culture was African-American.
The success of his acting placed him in elite social circles and his ascension to fame, which was forcefully aided by Essie, had occurred at a startling pace. Essie's ambition for Robeson was a startling dichotomy to his insouciance. She quit her job, became his agent, and negotiated his first movie role in a silent race film directed by Oscar Micheaux, Body and Soul. To support a charity for single mothers, he headlined a concert singing spirituals. He performed his repertoire of spirituals on the radio.
Lawrence Brown, who had become renowned while touring as a pianist with gospel singer Roland Hayes, stumbled upon Robeson in Harlem. The two ad-libbed a set of spirituals, with Robeson as lead and Brown as accompanist. This so enthralled them that they booked Provincetown Playhouse for a concert. The pair's rendition of African-American folk songs and spirituals was captivating, and Victor Records signed Robeson to a contract.
The Robesons went to London for a revival of Jones, before spending the rest of the fall on holiday on the French Riviera, socializing with Gertrude Stein and Claude McKay. Robeson and Brown performed a series of concert tours in America from January 1926 until May 1927.
Birth of his son (1927)
During a hiatus in New York, Robeson learned that Essie was several months pregnant.Paul Robeson, Jr. was born in November 1927 in New York, while Robeson and Brown toured Europe. Essie experienced complications from the birth, and by mid-December, her health had deteriorated dramatically. Ignoring Essie's objections, her mother wired Robeson and he immediately returned to her bedside. Essie completely recovered after a few months.
Show Boat, Othello, and marriage difficulties (1928–1932)
Robeson played "Joe" in the London production of the American musical Show Boat, at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. His rendition of "Ol' Man River" became the benchmark for all future performers of the song. Some black critics were not pleased with the play due to its usage of the word nigger. It was, nonetheless, immensely popular with white audiences. He was summoned for a Royal Command Performance at Buckingham Palace as Robeson was befriended by MPs from the House of Commons.Show Boat continued for 350 performances and, by 2001, it remained the Royal's most profitable venture. The Robesons bought a home in Hampstead. He reflected on his life in his diary and wrote that it was all part of a "higher plan" and "God watches over me and guides me. He's with me and lets me fight my own battles and hopes I'll win." However, an incident at the Savoy Grill, in which he was refused seating, sparked him to issue a press release portraying the insult which subsequently became a matter of public debate.
Essie had learned early in their marriage that Robeson had been involved in extramarital affairs, but she tolerated them. However, when she discovered that he was having another affair, she unfavorably altered the characterization of him in his biography, and defamed him by describing him with "negative racial stereotypes". Despite her uncovering of this tryst, there was no public evidence that their relationship had soured. In early 1930, they both appeared in the experimental classic Borderline, and then returned to the West End for his starring role in Shakespeare's Othello, opposite Peggy Ashcroft as Desdemona.
Robeson became the first black actor cast as Othello in Britain since Ira Aldridge. The production received mixed reviews which pointed out Robeson's "highly civilized quality [but lacking the] grand style." Robeson stated the best way to diminish the oppression African Americans faced was for his artistic work to be an example of what "men of my colour" could accomplish rather than to "be a propagandist and make speeches and write articles about what they call the Colour Question."
After Essie's discovery of Robeson's affair with Ashcroft, she decided to seek a divorce and they split up. Robeson returned to Broadway as Joe in the 1932 revival of Show Boat, to critical and popular acclaim. Subsequently, he received, with immense pride, an honorary master's degree from Rutgers. Thereabout, his former football coach, Foster Sanford, advised him that divorcing Essie and marrying Ashcroft would do irreparable damage to his reputation. Ashcroft and Robeson's relationship ended in 1932, following which Robeson and Essie reconciled, although their relationship was permanently scarred.
Ideological awakening (1933–1937)
In 1933 Robeson played the role of Joe in the London production of Chillun, virtually gratis; then returned to the United States to star as Brutus in the film The Emperor Jones, "a feat not repeated for more than two decades in the U.S." His acting in "Jones" — the first film to feature an African American in a starring role — was well received. On the film set he rejected any slight to his dignity, despite the widespread Jim Crow atmosphere in the United States. Upon returning to England he publicly criticized African Americans' rejection of their own culture. Despite negative reactions from the press, such as a New York Amsterdam News retort that Robeson had made a "jolly well [ass of himself]", he also announced that he would reject any offers to perform European opera, because the music had no connection to his heritage.
In early 1934 Robeson enrolled in the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, where he studied some 20 African dialects. His "sudden interest" in African history and its impact on culture coincided with his essay "I Want to be African", wherein he wrote of his desire to embrace his ancestry. He undertook the role of Bosambo in the movie Sanders of the River, which he felt would render a realistic view of colonial African culture. His friends in the anti-imperialism movement and association with British socialists led him to visit the Soviet Union. Robeson, Essie, and Marie Seton traveled to the Soviet Union on an invitation from Sergei Eisenstein in December 1934. A stopover in Berlin enlightened Robeson to the racism in Nazi Germany and, on his arrival in the Soviet Union, he expounded on race and what he felt in Moscow, where he said, "Here I am not a Negro but a human being for the first time in my life .. I walk in full human dignity." Waldemar ("Wally") Hille, who subsequently went on to do arrangements on the People's Songs Bulletin with Pete Seeger and others, got his start as an early touring pianist for Robeson.
Sanders of the River, released in 1935, made Robeson an international movie star; but the stereotypical portrayal of a colonial African was seen as embarrassing to his stature as an artist and damaging to his reputation. The Commissioner of Nigeria to London protested the film as slanderous to his country, and Robeson thereafter became more politically conscious of his roles. In early 1936, he decided to send his son to school in the Soviet Union to shield him from racist attitudes. He then played the role of Toussaint Louverture in the eponymous play by C. L. R. James at the Westminster Theatre, and appeared in the films Song of Freedom,Show Boat,Big Fella,My Song Goes Forth, and King Solomon's Mines. He was internationally recognized as the 10th most popular star in British cinema.
The Spanish Civil War and political activism (1937–1939)
Robeson believed that the struggle against fascism during the Spanish Civil War was a turning point in his life and transformed him into a political activist. In 1937, he used his concert performances to advocate the Republican cause and the war's refugees. He permanently modified his renditions of Ol' Man River from a tragic "song of resignation with a hint of protest implied" into a battle hymn of unwavering defiance. His business agent expressed concern about his political involvement, but Robeson overruled him and decided that contemporary events trumped commercialism. In Wales, he commemorated the Welsh killed while fighting for the Republicans, where he recorded a message which would become his epitaph: "The artist must take sides. He must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative."
After an invitation from J. B. S. Haldane, he traveled to Spain in 1938 because he believed in the International Brigades's cause. He visited the battlefront and provided a morale boost to the Republicans at a time when their victory was unlikely. Back in England, he hosted Jawaharlal Nehru to support Indian independence, whereat Nehru expounded on imperialism's affiliation with Fascism. Robeson reevaluated the direction of his career and decided to focus his attention on utilizing his talents to bring attention to the ordeals of "common people". and subsequently he appeared in the pro-labor play Plant in the Sun by Herbert Marshall. With Max Yergan, and the CAA, Robeson became an advocate in the aspirations of African colonialists for political independence.
World War II, the Broadway Othello, political activism, and McCarthyism (1939–1957)
World War II and the Broadway Othello (1939–1945)
After the outbreak of World War II, Robeson returned to the United States and became America's "no.1 entertainer" with a radio broadcast of Ballad for Americans, and a role in The Proud Valley. Nevertheless during an ensuing tour, the Beverly Wilshire Hotel was the only hotel willing to accommodate him due to his race, and he therefore dedicated two hours every afternoon sitting in the lobby "to ensure that the next time Black[s] come through, they'll have a place to stay."
Furthermore, Native Land was labeled by the FBI as communist propaganda. After an appearance in Tales of Manhattan, a production that he felt was "very offensive to my people", he announced that he would no longer act in films because of the demeaning roles available to blacks.
Robeson participated in benefit concerts on behalf of the war effort and at a concert at the Polo Grounds, he met two emissaries from the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, Solomon Mikhoels and Itzik Feffer Subsequently, Robeson reprised his role of Othello at the Shubert Theatre in 1943, and became the first African American to play the role with a white supporting cast on Broadway. Contemporaneously, he addressed a meeting with Kenesaw Mountain Landis in a failed attempt to convince him to admit black players to Major League Baseball. He toured North America with Othello until 1945, and subsequently, his political efforts with the CAA to get colonial powers to discontinue their exploitation of Africa were short-circuited by the United Nations.
Attorney General's List of Subversive Organizations (1946–1949)
After the lynchings of four African Americans, Robeson met with President Truman and admonished Truman that if he did not enact legislation to end lynching, "the Negroes will defend themselves". Truman immediately terminated the meeting and declared the time was not right to propose anti-lynching legislation. Subsequently, Robeson publicly called upon all Americans to demand that Congress pass civil rights legislation. Taking a stance against lynching, Robeson founded the American Crusade Against Lynching organization in 1946. This organization was thought to be a threat to the NAACP antiviolence movement. Robeson received support from W. E. B. Du Bois regarding this matter and officially launched this organization on the anniversary day of the Emancipation Proclamation, September 23.
About this time, Robeson's belief that trade unionism was crucial to civil rights became a mainstay of his political beliefs as he became proponent of the union activist . Robeson was later called before the Tenney Committee where he responded to questions about his affiliation with the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) by testifying that he was not a member of the CPUSA. Nevertheless, two organizations with which Robeson was intimately involved, the Civil Rights Congress (CRC) and the CAA, were placed on the Attorney General's List of Subversive Organizations (AGLOSO). Subsequently, he was summoned before the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary, and when questioned about his affiliation with the Communist Party, he refused to answer, stating: "Some of the most brilliant and distinguished Americans are about to go to jail for the failure to answer that question, and I am going to join them, if necessary."
In 1948, Robeson was preeminent in Henry A. Wallace's bid for the President of the United States, during which Robeson traveled to the Deep South, at risk to his own life, to campaign for him. In the ensuing year, Robeson was forced to go overseas to work because his concert performances were canceled at the FBI's behest. While on tour, he spoke at the World Peace Council, at which his speech was publicly reported as equating America with a Fascist state—a depiction that he flatly denied. Nevertheless, the speech publicly attributed to him was a catalyst for his becoming an enemy of mainstream America. Robeson refused to subjugate himself to public criticism when he advocated in favor of twelve defendants, including his long-time friend, Benjamin J. Davis, Jr. charged during the Smith Act trials of Communist Party leaders.
Robeson traveled to Moscow in June, and was unable to find Itzik Feffer. He let Soviet authorities know that he wanted to see him. Reluctant to lose Robeson as a propagandist for the Soviet Union, the Soviets brought Feffer from prison to him. Feffer told him that Mikhoels had been murdered, and he would be summarily executed. To protect the Soviet Union's reputation, and to keep the right wing of the United States from gaining the moral high ground, Robeson denied that any persecution existed in the Soviet Union, and kept the meeting secret for the rest of his life, except from his son.
In order to isolate Robeson politically, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) subpoenad Jackie Robinson to comment on Robeson's Paris speech. Robinson testified that Robeson's statements, "'if accurately reported', were silly'". Days later, the announcement of a concert headlined by Robeson in New York provoked the local press to decry the use of their community to support subversives and the Peekskill Riots ensued.
A book reviewed in early 1950 as "the most complete record on college football" failed to list Robeson as ever having played on the Rutgers team and as ever having been an All-American. Months later, NBC canceled Robeson's appearance on Eleanor Roosevelt's television program. Subsequently, the State Department (State) denied Robeson a passport to travel abroad and issued a "stop notice" at all ports because it believed that an isolated existence inside United States borders would not only afford him less freedom of expression but also avenge his "extreme advocacy on behalf of the independence of the colonial peoples of Africa." However when Robeson met with State and asked why he was denied a passport, he was told that "his frequent criticism of the treatment of blacks in the United States should not be aired in foreign countries".
In 1951, an article titled "Paul Robeson – the Lost Shepherd" was published in The Crisis although Paul Jr. suspected it was authored by Amsterdam News columnist Earl Brown.J. Edgar Hoover and the United States State Department arranged for the article to be printed and distributed in Africa in order to defame Robeson's reputation and reduce his and Communists' popularity in colonial countries. Another article by Wilkins denounced Robeson as well as the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) in terms consistent with the anti-Communist FBI propaganda.
On December 17, 1951, Robeson presented to the United Nations an anti-lynching petition, "We Charge Genocide". The document asserted that the United States federal government, by its failure to act against lynching in the United States, was "guilty of genocide" under Article II of the UN Genocide Convention.
In 1952, Robeson was awarded the International Stalin Prize by the Soviet Union. Unable to travel to Moscow, he accepted the award in New York. In April 1953, shortly after Stalin's death, Robeson penned To You My Beloved Comrade, praising Stalin as dedicated to peace and a guide to the world: "Through his deep humanity, by his wise understanding, he leaves us a rich and monumental heritage." Robeson's opinion on the Soviet Union kept his passport out of reach and stopped his return to the entertainment industry and the civil rights movement. In his opinion, the Soviet Union was the guarantor of political balance in the world.
In a symbolic act of defiance against the travel ban, labor unions in the United States and Canada organized a concert at the International Peace Arch on the border between Washington state and the Canadian province of British Columbia. Robeson returned to perform a second concert at the Peace Arch in 1953, and over the next two years, two further concerts were scheduled. In this period, with the encouragement of his friend the Welsh politician Aneurin Bevan, Robeson recorded a number of radio concerts for supporters in Wales.
End of McCarthyism (1956–1957)
In 1956, Robeson was called before HUAC after he refused to sign an affidavit affirming that he was not a Communist. In his testimony, he invoked the Fifth Amendment and refused to reveal his political affiliations. When asked why he had not remained in the Soviet Union because of his affinity with its political ideology, he replied that "because my father was a slave and my people died to build [the United States and], I am going to stay here, and have a part of it just like you and no fascist-minded people will drive me from it!" Robeson's passport was subsequently revoked. Campaigns were launched to protest the passport ban and the restriction of his right to travel over the next four years, but it was to no avail. In 1957, unable to accept invitations to perform abroad, Paul Robeson sang for audiences in London and Wales via the transatlantic telephone cable: "We have to learn the hard way that there is another way to sing".
In 1956 in the United Kingdom, Topic Records, at that time part of the Workers Music Association, released a single of "Joe Hill" backed with "John Brown's Body". Versions of "Joe Hill" are the third most popular selection on the BBC radio programme Desert Island Discs for British Labour Party politicians, and the fourth most popular selection for all British politicians. This version was selected by Ed Miliband.
Nikita Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalinism at the 1956 Party Congress silenced Robeson on Stalin, though Robeson continued to praise the Soviet Union. In 1956, after public pressure brought a one-time exemption to the travel ban, Robeson performed concerts in Canada in March. That year Robeson, along with close friend W. E. B. Du Bois, compared the anti-Soviet uprising in Hungary to the "same sort of people who overthrew the Spanish Republican Government" and supported the Soviet invasion and suppression of the revolt.
An appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States to reinstate his confiscated passport had been rejected, but over the telephone Robeson was able to sing to the 5,000 gathered there as he had earlier in the year to London. Due to the reaction to the promulgation of Robeson's political views, his recordings and films were removed from public distribution, and he was universally condemned in the U.S press. During the height of the Cold War, it became increasingly difficult in the United States to hear Robeson sing on commercial radio, buy his music or see his films.
Later years (1958–1976)
Comeback tours (1958–1960)
1958 saw the publication of Robeson's "manifesto-autobiography", Here I Stand. His passport was restored in June 1958 via Kent v. Dulles, and he embarked on a world tour using London as his base. In Moscow in August 1959, he received a tumultuous reception at the Lenin Stadium (Khabarovsk) where he sang classic Russian songs along with American standards. Robeson and Essie then flew to Yalta to rest and spend time with Nikita Khrushchev.
On October 11, 1959, Robeson took part in a service at St. Paul's Cathedral, the first black performer to sing there. On a trip to Moscow, Robeson experienced bouts of dizziness and heart problems and was hospitalized for two months while Essie was diagnosed with operable cancer. He recovered and returned to the UK to visit the National Eisteddfod.
Meanwhile the State Department had circulated negative literature about him throughout the media in India.
During his run at the Royal Shakespeare Company playing Othello in Tony Richardson's 1959 production at Stratford-upon-Avon, he befriended actor Andrew Faulds, whose family hosted him in the nearby village of Shottery. In 1960, in what would prove to be his final concert performance in Great Britain, Robeson sang to raise money for the Movement for Colonial Freedom at the Royal Festival Hall.
In October 1960, Robeson embarked on a two-month concert tour of Australia and New Zealand with Essie, primarily to generate money, at the behest of Australian politician Bill Morrow. While in Sydney, he became the first major artist to perform at the construction site of the future Sydney Opera House. After appearing at the Brisbane Festival Hall, they went to Auckland where Robeson reaffirmed his support of Marxism, denounced the inequality faced by the Māori and efforts to denigrate their culture. Thereabouts, Robeson publicly stated "..the people of the lands of Socialism want peace dearly".
He was introduced to Faith Bandler who enlightened the Robesons to the deprivation of the Australian Aborigines. Robeson, consequently, became enraged and demanded the Australian government provide the Aborigines citizenship and equal rights. He attacked the view of the Aborigines as unsophisticated and uncultured, and declared, "there's no such thing as a backward human being, there is only a society which says they are backward."
Health breakdown (1961–1963)
Back in London, he planned his return to the United States to participate in the Civil Rights Movement, stopping off in Africa, China and Cuba along the way. Essie argued to stay in London, fearing that he'd be "killed" if he returned and would be "unable to make any money" due to harassment by the United States government. Robeson disagreed and made his own travel arrangements, stopping off in Moscow in March 1961.
During an uncharacteristically wild party in his Moscow hotel room, he locked himself in his bedroom and attempted suicide by cutting his wrists. Three days later, under Soviet medical care, he told his son that he felt extreme paranoia, thought that the walls of the room were moving and, overcome by a powerful sense of emptiness and depression, tried to take his own life.
Paul Jr. believed that his father's health problems stemmed from attempts by CIA and MI5 to "neutralize" his father. He remembered that his father had had such fears prior to his prostate operation. He said that three doctors treating Robeson in London and New York had been CIA contractors, and that his father's symptoms resulted from being "subjected to mind depatterning under MKULTRA", a secret CIA programme.Martin Duberman claimed that Robeson's health breakdown was probably brought on by a combination of factors including extreme emotional and physical stress, bipolar depression, exhaustion and the beginning of circulatory and heart problems. "[E]ven without an organic predisposition and accumulated pressures of government harassment he might have been susceptible to a breakdown."
Robeson stayed at the Barvikha Sanatorium until September 1961, when he left for London. There his depression reemerged, and after another period of recuperation in Moscow, he returned to London. Three days after arriving back, he became suicidal and suffered a panic attack while passing the Soviet Embassy. He was admitted to The Priory hospital, where he underwent electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) and was given heavy doses of drugs for nearly two years, with no accompanying psychotherapy.
During his treatment at the Priory, Robeson was being monitored by the British MI5. Both intelligence services were well aware of Robeson's suicidal state of mind. An FBI memo described Robeson's debilitated condition, remarking that his "death would be much publicized" and would be used for Communist propaganda, necessitating continued surveillance. Numerous memos advised that Robeson should be denied a passport renewal which would ostensibly jeopardize his fragile health and his recovery process.
In August 1963, disturbed about his treatment, friends had him transferred to the Buch Clinic in East Berlin. Given psychotherapy and less medication, his physicians found him still "completely without initiative" and they expressed "doubt and anger" about the "high level of barbiturates and ECT" that had been administered in London. He rapidly improved, though his doctor stressed that "what little is left of Paul's health must be quietly conserved."
In 1963, Robeson returned to the United States and for the remainder of his life lived in seclusion. He momentarily assumed a role in the civil rights movement, making a few major public appearances before falling seriously ill during a tour. Double pneumonia and a kidney blockage in 1965 nearly killed him.
Robeson was contacted by both Bayard Rustin and James L. Farmer, Jr. about the possibility of becoming involved with the mainstream of the Civil Rights movement. Because of Rustin's past anti-Communist stances, Robeson declined to meet with him. Robeson eventually met with Farmer, but because he was asked to denounce Communism and the Soviet Union in order to assume a place in the mainstream, Robeson adamantly declined.
After Essie died in December 1965, Robeson moved in with his son's family in New York City and in 1968 he settled at his sister's home in Philadelphia. Numerous celebrations were held in honor of Robeson over the next several years, including at public arenas that had previously shunned him, but he saw few visitors aside from close friends and gave few statements apart from messages to support current civil rights and international movements, feeling that his record "spoke for itself". At a Carnegie Hall tribute to mark his 75th birthday in 1973, he was unable to attend, but a taped message from him was played that said: "Though I have not been able to be active for several years, 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."
Death, funeral, and public response
On January 23, 1976, following complications of a stroke, Robeson died in Philadelphia at the age of 77. He lay in state in Harlem and his funeral was held at his brother Ben's former parsonage, Mother AME Zion Church, where Bishop J. Clinton Hoggard performed the eulogy. His pall bearers included Harry Belafonte, Pollard, and others. He was interred in the Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York. According to biographer, Martin Duberman, contemporary post-mortem reflections on Robeson's life in "[t]he white [American] press..ignored the continuing inability of white America to tolerate a black maverick who refused to bend, ..downplayed the racist component central to his persecution [during his life]", as they "paid him gingerly respect and tipped their hat to him as a 'great American,'" while the black American press, "which had never, overall, been as hostile to Robeson [as the white American press had], opined that his life '..would always be a challenge to white and Black America.'"
Legacy and honors
Early in his life, Robeson was one of the most influential participants in the Harlem Renaissance. Few people have ever achieved his level of excellence in athletics and academics. His achievements were all the more incredible given the barriers of racism he had to surmount. Robeson brought Negro spirituals into the center of the American songbook. His theatrical performances have been recognized as the first to display dignity for black actors and pride in African heritage, and he was the first artist to refuse to play to live, segregated audiences.
After McCarthyism, [Robeson's stand] on anti-colonialism in the 1940s would never again have a voice in American politics, but the [African independence movements] of the late 1950s and 1960s would vindicate his anti-colonial [agenda].
Several public and private establishments he was associated with have been landmarked, or named after him. In 1978, his films were shown on American television for the first time, and his efforts to end Apartheid in South Africa were posthumously rewarded by the United Nations General Assembly.Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist won an Academy Award for best short documentary in 1980. In 1995, he was named to the College Football Hall of Fame. In the centenary of his birth, which was commemorated around the world, he was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award, as well as a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Robeson is also a member of the American Theater Hall of Fame.
Beginning in 1978, Robeson's films were finally shown on American television, with Show Boat debuting on cable television in 1983.
As of 2011 the run of Othello starring Robeson was the longest-running production of a Shakespeare play ever staged on Broadway. He received a Donaldson Award for his performance. His Othello was characterised by Michael A. Morrison in 2011 as a high point in Shakespearean theatre in the 20th century.
Subsequently, he received the Spingarn medal from the NAACP. His starring role as an African American in the film "was a feat not repeated for more than two decades in the U.S.Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist won an Academy Award for best short documentary in 1980.
Robeson left Australia as a respected, albeit controversial, figure and his support for Aboriginal rights had a profound effect in Australia over the next decade.
Robeson archives exist at the Academy of Arts;Howard University, and the Schomburg Center. In 2010, Susan Robeson launched a project by Swansea University and the Welsh Assembly to create an online learning resource in her grandfather's memory.
Robeson connected his own life and history not only to his fellow Americans and to his people in the South, but to all the people of Africa and its diaspora whose lives had been fundamentally shaped by the same processes that had brought his ancestors to America. While a consensus definition of his legacy remains controversial, to deny his courage in the face of public and governmental pressure would be to defame his courage.
In 1978, TASS announced that the Latvian Shipping Company had named one of its new 40,000-ton tankers Paul Robeson in honor of the singer. TASS said the ship's crew would establish a Robeson museum aboard the tanker.
In 2004, the U.S. Postal Service issued a 37-cent stamp honoring Robeson.
The campus center at the Newark campus of Rutgers University is named after Robeson.
In popular culture
Tom Rob Smith's novel Agent 6 (2012) features the character "Jesse Austin, a black singer, political activist and communist sympathizer modeled after real-life actor/activist Paul Robeson. In his portrayal of Austin, Smith dramatizes little-known facts of the FBI's harassment of Robeson and his family that give a chilling verisimilitude to the actions of an FBI agent hellbent on destroying a perceived threat to his country."
Black 47's album Home of The Brave includes the song "Paul Robeson (Born To Be Free)", which features spoken quotes of Robeson as part of the song. These quotes are drawn from Robeson's testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee in June 1956.
In November 2014 it was reported that film director Steve McQueen's next film would be a biopic about Paul Robeson.
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- Wilson, Sondra K., ed. (2000). The Messenger Reader: Stories, Poetry, and Essays from The Messenger Magazine. New York: Modern Library. ISBN 0-375-75539-X.
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- Brown, Lloyd Louis (1997). The Young Paul Robeson: "on My Journey Now". Westview Press. ISBN 978-0-8133-3177-5.
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- Gilliam, Dorothy Butler (1978). Paul Robeson: All-American. New Republic Book Company.
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- Robeson, Eslanda Goode (16 April 2013). Paul Robeson, Negro. Read Books Limited. ISBN 978-1-4474-9401-0.
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- Robeson, Jr., Paul (21 December 2009). The Undiscovered Paul Robeson: Quest for Freedom, 1939 - 1976. John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 978-0-470-56968-9.
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- Swindall, Lindsey R. (27 October 2010). The Politics of Paul Robeson's Othello. Univ. Press of Mississippi. ISBN 978-1-60473-825-4. Paul Robeson at Google Books
- Swindall, Lindsey R. (15 August 2015). Paul Robeson: A Life of Activism and Art. Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 978-1-4422-0794-3. Paul Robeson at Google Books
- Balaji, Murali (29 April 2009). The Professor and the Pupil: The Politics and Friendship of W. E. B Du Bois and Paul Robeson. Nation Books. ISBN 0-7867-3260-1.
- Beevor, Antony (2006). The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939. Penguin Books. ISBN 978-0-14-303765-1.
- Bell, Charlotte Turner (1 January 1986). Paul Robeson's Last Days in Philadelphia. Dorrance Publishing Company, Incorporated. ISBN 978-0-8059-3026-9.
- Bogle, Donald (25 February 2016). Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films, Updated and Expanded 5th Edition. Bloomsbury Academic. ISBN 978-0-8264-2953-7.
- Cameron, Kenneth M. (1990-10-01). "Paul Robeson, Eddie Murphy, and the Film Text of 'Africa'". Text & Performance Quarterly 10 (4): 282–293. doi:10.1080/10462939009365979.
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- Curthoys, Ann (2010). "Paul Robeson’s visit to Australia and Aboriginal activism, 1960" (PDF). In Peters-Little, Frances; Curthoys, Ann; Docker, John. Passionate Histories: Myth, Memory and Indigenous Australia. Canberra, Australia: ANU E Press and Aboriginal History Incorporated. pp. 163–. ISBN 978-1-921666-65-0. Paul Robeson, p. 163, at Google Books
- Dorinson, Joseph; Pencak, William, eds. (1 January 2004). Paul Robeson: Essays on His Life and Legacy. McFarland. ISBN 978-0-7864-2163-3.
- Dorinson, Joseph (2002). Something to Cheer About: Paul Robeson, Athlete. pp. 65–.
- Foner, Henry (2002). Foreword.
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- Foner, Henry (2001). Paul Robeson: A Century of Greatness. Paul Robeson Foundation.
- Glazer, Peter (2007). Carroll, Peter N.; Fernández, James D., eds. The lifted fist: performing the Spanish Civil War, New York City, 1936–1939. Facing fascism: New York and the Spanish Civil War (Museum of the City of New York). ISBN 978-0-8147-1681-6.
- Goldstein, Robert Justin (2008). American blacklist: the attorney general's list of subversive organizations. University Press of Kansas. ISBN 978-0-7006-1604-6.
- Stewart, Jeffrey C., ed. (April 1998). Paul Robeson: artist and citizen. Rutgers University Press. ISBN 978-0-8135-2510-5.
- Harris, Francis C. (1998). Paul Robeson: An Athlete's Legacy.
- Naison, Mark (1998). Paul Robeson and the American Labor Movement.
- Hopkins, James K. (1998). Into the Heart of the Fire: The British in the Spanish Civil War. Stanford University Press. ISBN 978-0-8047-3127-0.
- James, C. L. R.; Høgsbjerg, Christian; Dubois, Laurent (31 December 2012). Toussaint Louverture: The Story of the Only Successful Slave Revolt in History; A Play in Three Acts. Duke University Press. ISBN 978-0-8223-5314-0. Paul Robeson at Google Books
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- Morrison, Michael A. (May 2011). "Paul Robeson's Othello at the Savoy Theatre, 1930". New Theatre Quarterly 27 (2): 114–140. doi:10.1017/S0266464X11000261.
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- Robeson, Jr., Paul (1978). "Paul Robeson: Black Warrior". In Freedomways. Paul Robeson: The Great Forerunner. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company. pp. 3–16. ISBN 0-396-07545-2.
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- Robinson, Eugene (1978). "A Distant Image: Paul Robeson and Rutgers' Students". In Freedomways. Paul Robeson: The Great Forerunner. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company. ISBN 0-396-07545-2.
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- Weisenfeld, Judith (1997). African American Women and Christian Activism: New York's Black YWCA, 1905-1945. Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0-674-00778-9.
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- Wright, Charles H. (1 January 1975). Robeson: Labor's Forgotten Champion. Balamp Publishing Company. ISBN 978-0-913642-06-1.
- Wyden, Peter (1983). The Passionate War: The Narrative History of the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 978-0-671-25330-1.
Film biographies and documentaries about Robeson
- The Tallest Tree in Our Forest (1977)
- Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist (1979) Paul Robeson at the Internet Movie Database
- (1979 TV movie) Paul Robeson at the Internet Movie Database
- Paul Robeson: Speak of Me As I Am (1998)
- Paul Robeson: Here I Stand (1999) PBS American Masters, directed by St. Clair Bourne Paul Robeson at the Internet Movie Database
- Paul Robeson: Portraits of an Artist (2007) Irvington: Criterion Collection. ISBN 1-934121-19-3.
- Fordin, Hugh (1986). Getting to Know Him: A Biography of Oscar Hammerstein II. Da Capo Press. ISBN 978-0-306-80668-1.