PAUL ROBESON : A WATCHED MAN
Verso. 386 pages. £20. ISBN 978-1-78168-131-2
Reviewed by Jim Burns
I’m listening to a CD entitled Classic Labour Songs, the first track of which features Paul Robeson singing “Joe Hill.” It was a song that Robeson frequently sang over the years and started off as a poem written by Alfred Hayes and was then set to music by Earl Robinson. I doubt that many people now know who Joe Hill was, and quite a few will probably have only a vague idea, if that, about Paul Robeson. Hill was a member of the Industrial Workers of the World and composed some of its best songs. In 1915 he was arrested in Salt Lake City and charged with the murder of a local storekeeper during an attempted robbery. He was convicted and subsequently executed, though there were doubts about whether or not he was actually guilty. Alfred Hayes’ poem, and especially when it was set to music, became popular in American radical circles and Paul Robeson’s version is probably the best-known, though fans of Sixties pop culture may point to Joan Baez singing “Joe Hill” at Woodstock in 1969. But that raises the question of how many of the people at Woodstock would have known anything about Joe Hill?
They may also have not known much about Paul Robeson, though in his day, which wasn’t all that long before 1969, he had been a familiar name to many Americans, if only because of the controversies surrounding his political opinions and activities. Robeson had established a reputation as a singer and actor in the 1930s, and had starred in films and stage plays. He had also been a professional football player and had studied law. He was, in Jordan Goodman’s words, “the most famous African-American in the world.” Between 1928 and 1939 he made London his base and it was this period that had “a profound impact not only on his art but also, more importantly, on his political evolution.” Goodman points out how London was “the centre of a rich and vibrant anticolonial, radical intellectual community, drawing its membership mainly from the Caribbean and Africa but also from the Indian subcontinent.” Robeson was drawn into this community and into the general world of the left-wing. He visited Russia, appeared at concerts to raise funds for victims of the Spanish Civil War, sang for miners in South Wales, and involved himself in other activities which came to the notice of both British and American security services. MI5, the FBI, and the political branch of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police soon had files detailing where Robeson had been and what he had said and done, and if they didn’t necessarily name him as a communist they certainly did say that he was a communist sympathiser.
Robeson returned to the USA in 1939 and stayed there for the following ten years. He toured widely, giving recitals, and also widened his political activities to take in the labour and peace movements while speaking out against lynching and commenting favourably on independence movements in Asia and Africa. He also supported Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party during the 1948 presidential election in the United States. It was obvious that he would increasingly come to the attention of the authorities, and towards the end of the 1940s, as the anti-communist mood built up, he began to experience setbacks in terms of his career. Bookings were cancelled, in particular a projected four-month tour of the USA. It was at this point that he was offered work in Britain.
Arriving at Southampton in February, 1949, Robeson travelled by train to London and was met by two men who were known to be members of the British Communist Party. And though the concert tour that had been arranged for him tended to revolve around a conventional programme of non-political songs, Robeson did go to Communist Party-organised rallies and meetings when not singing. Meanwhile, in the USA, twelve leading members of the American Communist Party were on trial and Robeson wanted to be there to offer them his support. But his next move was to France where he was to participate in the Paris Peace Congress, a communist-backed event. And it was during his stay in Paris that he made a speech which included, according to reports printed in newspapers in the USA, the statement that American Negroes would never fight in a war against Russia. There have always been arguments about whether or not Robeson actually said words to that effect. Goodman says: “Neither contemporary newspapers, aside from those subscribing to the Associated Press wire, nor government reports could agree on what was said that evening at the Paris Peace Congress.” But the fact was that the damage had been done and people, including many American Negroes, believed that he had told the delegates to the Congress that American Negroes would refuse to take up arms if ever the United States went to war with the Soviet Union. Robeson was called a traitor, American Negro newspapers came out with headlines saying that he wasn’t speaking for them and their readers, and needless to say more details of his activities and ideas were added to the files on him held by the FBI.
Robeson returned to the USA in June, 1949, and had to face up to an attack on him that had appeared in the New York Herald Tribune in April. Written by Max Yergan, a one-time friend and political associate of Robeson, the aim of the article seemed to be to link Robeson to the Communist Party. Goodman devotes several pages to Yergan, who had been involved with left-wing groups for many years but who was, by 1949, seemingly desperate to establish himself as a committed anti-communist. When the FBI was considering using Yergan as a source of information they were told by various people they consulted that he was “an opportunist who would cooperate with anyone if it meant furthering and improving himself.” He wasn’t the only one who would ride the anti-communist bandwagon as a means of drawing attention to himself, nor was Robeson the only one to suffer from the disinformation people like Yergan could spread by setting themselves up as experts on the so-called “communist conspiracy.” It was a period when innuendo and unsubstantiated allegations of party membership could easily ruin reputations as a gullible public allowed itself to be persuaded that communists were around every corner and waiting to strike.
It may be that Robeson couldn’t help creating problems for himself by being so outspoken when it came to questions of race, world peace, and related matters. He made a long speech at Rockland Palace in New York which was certainly full of worthy sentiments, but was bound to provide his enemies with material for renewed attacks on him. A more-cautious person might well have toned down his criticisms of American society for its treatment of Negroes, and his favourable comments on the Soviet Union, but Robeson was not prepared to compromise. The result was that a newspaper like the New York Times could headline their report, “Loves Soviet Best, Robeson Declares,” yet another distortion of what he actually said.
The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) had started to take an interest in Robeson, and an investigator testifying in 1949 stated that Robeson’s remarks regarding the reluctance of Negroes to fight in a war against Russia were made on instructions from the Communist Party. The aim was to drive a wedge between white and black Americans. Many whites, the investigator claimed, were already convinced that a majority of their black fellow-citizens were communists and would be disloyal if there was a showdown between America and Russia. Another witness before HUAC, this time a black ex-communist named Manning Johnson who insisted that his ten years in the Party had given him great insights into how it worked, stated firmly that he knew Robeson to be a member, though his membership was not made public. Johnson, who made a living testifying about the Communist Party and naming his former friends in the movement, was of the opinion that Robeson “has delusions of grandeur. He wants to be the Black Stalin among Negroes.” It was the kind of statement likely to attract the attention of journalists looking for an eye-catching headline for their next story. And the New York Times promptly picked up on what Johnson had said and highlighted the link to Stalin.
Robeson continued to have problems with bookings for concerts. Some were cancelled and for others which were allowed to take place, he had to agree to sing only and not make any kind of speeches. Concerts in Peekskill attracted hostile crowds and violent attacks were made on people attending them, with the police standing by and not only refusing to intervene but also taking part in the violence. Among the attackers were members of the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and these two groups were also prominent in a campaign to force the National Broadcasting Company(NBC) to cancel a programme hosted by Eleanor Roosevelt on the subject of “The Position of the Negro in American Political Life.” Robeson had been scheduled to take part in the discussion, but it soon became obvious that NBC would back down in the face of the opposition that built up. He did still manage to speak on other occasions, though usually at functions organised by groups sympathetic to his political views. In May, 1950, he flew to London, where he was the guest of the British Peace Committee.
When Robeson landed in Britain he was given only one week in which to take part in various meetings and demonstrations. When he returned to America his passport was cancelled. The Korean War had started and the fiery Robeson was of the opinion that American participation in support of South Korea was simply sacrificing lives to aid a corrupt regime. At a rally in Madison Square Gardens he again put forward his belief that American Negroes would be better employed fighting for their freedom in America rather than taking part in wars in other countries. He was involved in the founding of Freedom, a left-wing newspaper aimed at a black readership. Robeson had a regular column in which he could sound off on issues like civil rights, the peace movement, McCarthyism, and events in Africa and Asia. The FBI inevitably viewed Freedom as existing “for the purpose of giving aid and support to the Communist Party, USA,” and those on its board were said to be past or present Party members.
Unable to travel because he no longer had a passport, Robeson did think that he would be able to cross the border into Canada to sing at a convention of the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers. The border between the United States and Canada was quite open and people crossed it easily and without passport checks. But Robeson was a special case, and informers in the Union had notified the FBI and the Canadian Special Branch about his trip. He was stopped at the border and told he couldn’t leave the United States. Had he managed to reach Canada it had been arranged with the authorities there that he would be denied entry. It’s heartening to read that there were sufficient people in both countries who were prepared to help Robeson defy attempts to stop him singing, and a sound system was set up on the American side so that he could, in effect, broadcast to the crowd that gathered on the Canadian side. Something similar happened when Robeson was able to sing to miners in South Wales via a telephone link.
Robeson had repeatedly tried to have his passport reinstated, but his applications were always rejected, often on the grounds that his presence abroad would not be in the best interests of the United States. Robeson’s biting criticisms of American foreign policy and the position of Negroes in American society, were never likely to be welcomed by the authorities, particularly if those criticisms were made from other countries. But by 1955 a change began to take place with various individuals who, like Robeson, had been denied passports suddenly finding that the courts supported their appeals. America was still not clear of the anti-communist hysteria of the early-1950s, but some things were loosening up. Robeson was told he was free to travel to Canada, but the Canadians were still likely to refuse to admit him. He did eventually get permission to perform there, though a plan for a five-week tour was rejected.
The authorities didn’t relax their hounding of Robeson even when he had been diagnosed as suffering from prostate cancer. In 1956 he was summoned to appear before HUAC where he was questioned about his alleged membership of the Communist Party and his favourable comments over the years about the Soviet Union. He consistently invoked the Fifth Amendment in response to many of the questions, though he did go into more detail when the Committee returned to what he was supposed to have said in Paris in 1949. Robeson made it clear that he was referring to a world-wide population of “coloured people” in India, Africa, and elsewhere, who would prefer to fight for their independence rather than be involved in wars drummed up by colonial powers. Later during the hearing Robeson did seem to experience some embarrassment when he was asked about speeches praising Stalin he was said to have made. By 1956 the Khrushchev revelations about Stalin’s crimes had become widely known. Goodman says that, “Robeson looked vulnerable,” and he somewhat lamely kept replying, “I do not remember,” when asked what he had said about Stalin.
A passport was eventually given to Robeson, though when a renewal application was made in 1962 the State Department insisted that he had to sign an affidavit to say that he was not a member of the Communist Party. He had always refused to do this in the past, saying it violated his constitutional rights, but was persuaded by family and friends to do so now, perhaps because it was becoming evident that his health was failing. He was described as a “very frail and subdued old man.” He returned to the USA but the 1960s were not good years for him. His wife died in 1965, his health continued to deteriorate, and in 1966 he moved to Philadelphia where his sister Marian looked after him. He never performed in public again and died in 1976.
It was probably true that Robeson had been naïve in his view of life in Russia. He had visited that country on more than one occasion, but had perhaps only seen what he had wanted to see. Or, more likely, what the authorities there had wanted him to see. And during the Cold War in the late-1940s and the 1950s, it left him wide open to attack from conservatives and anti-communists. His pro-Russian stance became an excuse for those disliking his comments about racism in America, and the drawbacks of American foreign policy, to get at him as anti-communist hysteria swept through the United States. But Robeson was a brave man and always refused to temper his beliefs to suit the mood of the moment. The way in which he was prevented from working, was spied on, had his passport withdrawn, and was besmirched in the press, pointed to how a supposedly democratic country could so easily slide into repression. And the fact that Robeson was a Negro who dared to speak out about racism in his country no doubt angered the authorities even more.
Jordan Goodman has written a thoroughly engrossing book about the trials and tribulations of Paul Robeson and has, at the same time, explored the wider implications of what is often referred to as McCarthyism, though many others were involved in the hearings and investigations that took place in the 1940s and 1950s. He usefully outlines the legal aspects of blacklisting and passport control, and brings in a whole list of personalities on both sides of the battle between the authorities and supposed subversives. Some acted honourably, some not, and Paul Robeson: A Watched Man confirms what earlier books have also shown, that there were plenty of politicians and others who were prepared to use anti-communism as a means to further their careers, gain useful publicity, and often make money, by appearing as committee members or acting as informants. Paul Robeson may have had faults, but he was a decent and courageous man in comparison to most of his opponents.