Paul Robeson, 1898-1976: He Traveled the World Singing Songs to Support Peace and Equal Rights for Black Americans
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Now,the VOA Special English program, PEOPLE IN AMERICA. Today, Shirley Griffith and Steve Ember finish the story of the life of Paul Robeson. He was a singer and international political activist.
By the late nineteen twenties, Paul Robeson had become the most highly praised black actor and singer of the time. During the nineteen thirties, he became involved in national and international movements for peace, equal rights for black Americans, and better labor conditions. He traveled around the world singing his songs to support these struggles. However, his friendship with the Soviet Union brought strong opposition from conservative groups in the United States.
Many people in the United States opposed Robeson's political beliefs as too liberal or extreme. As early as nineteen forty-one, American government agencies, led by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, reportedly had targeted him as dangerous. They considered his political activism to be against the best interests of the American government.
During World War Two, the United States and the Soviet Union were allies fighting against Nazi Germany. Robeson recorded several Russian songs to honor the Soviet people's defense of their land against the Nazi invasion. These recordings were broadcast in the Soviet Union.
Many Soviet soldiers were said to have heard Paul Robeson's voice before going into battle. This is one of those songs. It is called "Native Land."
After World War Two, relations between the United States and the Soviet Union became tense. In the late nineteen forties, Americans feared communism as a threat to their way of life. The people in the Soviet Union were denied the freedoms that Americans enjoyed. The United States joined with other nations to try to halt the spread of communism around the world.
In addition, the crimes of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin became public. These included the killing of millions of people in the Soviet Union who opposed his policies. As a result, many former American supporters of communism stopped supporting the Soviet Union.
Robeson, however, continued to support the Soviet Union. He still believed in the idea of communism. And he believed in friendship between the United States and the Soviet Union. A congressional committee began investigating Americans who supported communism or who were friends of people who supported it. The committee questioned Robeson. He refused to say if he was a communist. Robeson saw the questioning as an attack on the democratic rights of everyone who worked for international friendship and for equality.
Robeson also was condemned in the United States because of his criticism of the United States government. He spoke at the World Peace Conference in Paris in April, nineteen forty-nine. He was reported to have said he did not believe black Americans would fight for the American government that oppressed them against the Soviet Union.
This statement brought a strong reaction against him from some people in the American press, government and public. It led to rioting at a concert in New York State where Robeson was to appear. Hundreds of people were injured when crowds threw stones at people attending the concert.
In nineteen fifty, the American State Department withdrew Robeson's travel document because of the political ideas he expressed. This prevented him from leaving the United States to perform in other countries. The State Department said his travel to other countries would not be in the best interest of the United States.
Robeson also was barred from performing in many places in the United States. His concerts were canceled. His records were withdrawn from stores. Record companies refused to produce new recordings of his songs. Robeson said the actions against him were attempts to silence artistic expression. He said they were attempts to control whom people could hear and what they could hear.
In nineteen fifty-two, the Mine, Mill and Smelters Workers Union of British Columbia, Canada, invited Robeson to attend its yearly meeting. Americans do not need a passport to enter Canada. But the United States government barred him from entering Canada anyway. So the union invited him to sing at an outdoor concert in the United States.
The concert was held at Peace Arch Park. The park is in the northwestern state of Washington, on the border between the United States and Canada. Robeson sang to more than thirty thousand people in both countries. Here is a recording from that concert. Robeson sang a famous labor union song called "Joe Hill."
Robeson performed at another outdoor concert at Peace Arch Park the following year. At the end of the program, Robeson spoke to the thousands of people attending. He promised to continue the fight for freedom as long as he could. Here is part of that speech.
Nineteen fifty-eight was an important year for Paul Robeson. His regained his passport that year after a Supreme Court ruling on a similar case. The Supreme Court ruled that the State Department could not withhold passports of American citizens because of their suspected beliefs or the groups they joined. A book he wrote about his life, "Here I Stand," also was published. And, that same year, he performed in a concert at the famous Carnegie Hall in New York. It was his first appearance there in eleven years. Every seat in the hall was filled. Paul Robeson sang an African American spiritual called "Didn't My Lord Deliver." Here is a recording from that concert.
Paul Robeson and his wife Essie moved to London where he continued to sing and act. They also visited the Soviet Union often. In nineteen sixty-three, they returned to the United States. Paul Robeson was suffering from physical and mental problems. He retired from public life because of his bad health. Paul Robeson died in nineteen seventy-six, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
In nineteen forty-nine, Paul Robeson had written these words: "I shall take my voice wherever there are those who want to hear the melody of freedom or the words that might inspire hope...in the face of...fear. My weapons are peaceful, for it is only by peace that peace can be attained. The song of freedom must prevail."
You have been listening to the story of the life of singer and political activist Paul Robeson. This Special English program was written by Shelley Gollust and produced by Lawan Davis. Your narrators were Shirley Griffith and Steve Ember. I'm Bob Doughty. Listen again next week for another
PEOPLE IN AMERICA program on the Voice of America.