Forge Negro-Labor and Unity for Peace, (10 June 1950) Chicago, IL

Context

A renowned singer, athlete, actor, and activist, Paul Robeson was perhaps one of the most prominent African American public figures from the 1920s to the 1950s. Born on April 9, 1898 in Princeton, New Jersey, Robeson displayed prodigious academic and athletic talent early in his childhood. Enrolling at Rutgers University at the age of 17, Robeson was top of his class as well as a two-time All-American football player. Robeson also dedicated himself to the “call” of advancing African American equal rights. In his Rutgers valedictory address, for instance, he declared, “We of the younger generation especially must feel a sacred call to that which lies before us . . . We of this less-favored race realize . . . [t]hat neither the old-time slavery, nor continued prejudice need extinguish self-respect, crush manly ambition, or paralyze effort.”1

After graduation Robeson moved to New York City and quickly immersed himself in the cultural revival of the Harlem Renaissance. He found numerous outlets for his abilities. While studying law at Columbia University, he worked part-time preparing legal briefs, acted in theatrical productions, performed musically, and played professional football. In 1921, he married Eslanda Goode, a chemistry student at Columbia who later served as his business manager. Robeson’s artistic career and advocacy efforts put in him dialogue with many intellectual figures of the time such as Albert Einstein, W.E.B. DuBois, Emma Goldman, James Joyce, and Ernest Hemingway. While his international success as an entertainer continued to grow, he maintained a continued interest in the complex issues of racial and economic equality.

Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Robeson spoke out on behalf of many activist causes, including the American labor movement. According to Henry Foner, Robeson “marched on picket lines, assisted in organizing drives, sang in union halls, and was awarded honorary lifetime memberships in more unions than any other public figure of his time.” Robeson’s public activism also played a “decisive role” in the 1940 campaign of the United Automobile Workers in their dispute with Ford Motor Company.2 Robeson’s celebrity also helped advance the cause of racial equality. In 1946, he personally led a delegation that met with President Harry S. Truman to advocate on behalf of anti-lynching legislation.3

For Robeson, the causes of racial and economic equality were inextricably linked to the decolonization of the European empires after World War II. In addition to advocating on behalf of the rights of workers and African Americans, he also supported national liberation movements in European-controlled territories in India, Africa, Vietnam, the Middle East, and elsewhere.4 However, in the context of a rapidly developing cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union, these political commitments were seen by many as subversive. Indeed, American defense planners such as George Kennan warned, “it is not Russian military power which is threatening us, it is Russian political power.”5 For Kennan and others, this meant that the true threat to the United States and its allies came from Soviet encouragement for revolutionary movements across the globe more than the risk of a Soviet military attack.6 As a result, American labor and decolonization activists such as Robeson were often suspected for serving as a “fifth column,” unwittingly disseminating Soviet propaganda if not taking direct orders from Moscow. In fact, congressional committees held over one hundred hearings investigating communist links to the American labor movement from 1946 to 1956.7 Robeson himself would eventually be questioned by the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1956 over his ties to the Communist Party and the Soviet Union. He would also be subjected to an extensive blacklisting campaign that effectively ended his entertainment career in the United States.

Delivered on June 10, 1950, Robeson’s speech, “Forge Negro-Labor Unity for Peace and Jobs,” reflects many of these political tensions. He gave this speech during the National Labor Conference for Negro Rights in Chicago; he later published the speech as a pamphlet. This address gave voice to Robeson’s “working class internationalism,” or, his “conviction that there was a powerful commonality in the experience of working-class people that crossed lines of color and nationality.”8 Robeson’s intellectual commitment to this cause, as well as his skill as a speaker honed over his brilliant theatrical career, are visible in this speech.

Endnotes

  1. Scott Ehrlich, Paul Robeson (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988), 32.
  2. Henry Foner, “Foreword: Keynote Address from the 1998 Long Island University Paul Robeson Conference,” in Paul Robeson: Essays on His Life and Legacy, ed. Joseph Dorinson and William Pencak (London: McFarland & Company, 2002), 2.
  3. Foner, “Foreword,” 2-3.
  4. Specifically, Robeson supported pre-WW II African nationalists in London. This meant he mingled with pro-Ethiopian expatriate factions during the Italian invasion of 1935-36, a future leader of independent Kenya (then under British control) in Jomo Kenyatta, and West African trade union organizer I.T.A. Wallace-Johnson. See: Shelia Tully Boyle and Andrew Bunie, Paul Robeson: The Years of Promise and Achievement (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001), 320. Within the Middle East, Robeson visited Egypt, was exalted as a model by Kurdish nationalists, and expressed solidarity with the Jewish people following the horrors of World War II. See: Metin Yüksel, “Solidarity Without Borders: The Poetic Tributes to Paul Robeson of Goran and Cegerxwîn,” Journal of Postcolonial Writing 51 (2015): 556-573; Jonathan Karp, “Performing Black-Jewish Symbiosis: The ‘Hassidic Chant’ of Paul Robeson,” American Jewish History 91 (2003): 53-81.
  5. John Lewis Gaddis, Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of American National Security Policy During the Cold War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 39.
  6. During the late 1940s, Soviet oppression taking place in Eastern Europe was not well understood in the United States. See: Anne Applebaum, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956 (New York: Doubleday, 2012), 10, 18-21, 66-67, 193-194.
  7. Ronald L. Filippelli and Mark D. McColloch, Cold War in the Working Class: The Rise and Decline of United Electrical Workers (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995), 1.
  8. Mark D. Naison, “‘Americans Through Their Labor’: Paul Robeson’s Vision of Cultural and Economic Democracy,” in Paul Robeson: Essays on His Life and Legacy, ed. Joseph Dorinson and William Pencak (London: McFarland & Company, 2002), 190.