Remembering Paul Robeson: “Old Man River”

23 Jan

Remembering Paul Robeson, on the anniversary of his death.  A renaissance man. All-American football player at Rutgers, also the class valedictorian — he was the only black in the Class of 1919. Played football professionally to support himself while at Columbia Law School, from which he graduated in 1923, with classmate William Douglas, future Supreme Court justice. Actor, singer, activist (his father was an escaped slave who graduated from college). Played Othello on stage, also starred in film. Supported the Spanish Republicans; his support of the Soviet Union was misguided, but his insistence on civil rights for blacks in America, of course, was not. His passport was revoked in 1950 — the State Department resented his criticisms of the treatment of American blacks while overseas. NBC, among others, blackballed him. Invoked the fifth amendment when called to testify before the House un-American Activities Committee. Before he did, he answered a Congressman who suggested Robeson stay in the Soviet Union if he liked it so much: “Because my father was a slave, and my people died to build this country, and I am going to stay here, and have a part just like you.” Immensely popular in Europe, but lived the last decade of his life in the States mostly in solitude. Died in 1976 at age 77. More than 2,000 mourners packed a Harlem church, and many more stood outside, listening to loudspeakers.

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