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Paul Robeson: Singer, actor, intellectual and defender of tyranny

By Steven Martinovich
web posted January 19, 2004

Paul Robeson stampOn January 20, as part of its long-running Black Heritage series, the U.S. Postal Service will release a commemorative stamp featuring Paul Robeson. He is remembered not just for his "prodigious talents as a performer but also for his tireless and uncompromising commitment to civil rights and social justice," stated an USPS press release last month.

On the face of it, it's easy to see why Robeson is being honored. Born into poverty in 1898, he distinguished himself in high school as both student and athlete. In 1915 he became just the third African-American to attend Rutgers College and graduated in 1919 as class valedictorian and an All-American football player. He later graduated from law school at Columbia University and enjoyed justifiable popularity as a talented actor and singer with a worldwide reputation.

The smiling visage on the stamp, however, fails to tell the whole story about Robeson. For all his beliefs in the "oneness of humankind" and social justice, Robeson championed one of the most brutal dictatorships the world has ever seen in the form of the Stalinist Soviet Union. Throughout his long life, Robeson -- even though he was aware of the true nature of Soviet communism -- continued to back a nation that callously murdered tens of millions of citizens in its quest for the classless society.

His commitment to civil rights, as one example, depended on where you stood ideologically. As a member of the US Communist Party, Robeson spoke out in favour of the 1940 Smith Act, legislation that threatened prosecution for the members of any organization that advocated the violent overthrow of the American government. The party had hoped to use it -- especially during World War II -- to persecute their Trotskyist cousins whom Robeson stated were no better than fascists and Ku Klux Klanmen and deserved no rights. Ironically, the Smith Act was eventually used to target the party itself -- much to the anger of Robeson.

His many trips to the Soviet Union also allowed him to learn what Stalinism really entailed, a truth he didn't share with the American public until decades later. In 1949, he met in Moscow with the Marxist-Stalinist Yiddish writer Itzik Feffer. At the time Feffer had been imprisoned for three years and after he was cleaned up he was brought to Robeson at his hotel. There Feffer begged Robeson to tell the American people the truth about the Soviet Union. After returning to the United States, Robeson calmly told reporters that "I heard no word about" anti-Semitism. Feffer was later murdered on orders from Joseph Stalin.

Although Robeson argued for greater political freedom for African-Americans in the United States, he had few qualms about condemning that same desire for others. During the Hungarian uprising of 1956, Robeson -- who had received the Stalin Peace Prize just four years earlier -- compared those revolutionaries to the "same sort of people who overthrew the Spanish Republican Government."

Many apologists for Robeson like to argue that his devotion to communism and defense of Stalin's Soviet Union was the result of a racist America and Soviet propaganda about its allegedly discrimination free society. That's easy to buy only if one ignores the pogroms against Jews, forced collectivization, mass murders, ethnic genocides and slave labor camps, all of which were common knowledge in the West at the time. Robeson wasn't a dupe, an African-American who suffered racism and countered with a faith in Marxist-Stalinism, he was a man who knowingly supported the most murderous regime in history -- one that openly sought the destruction of democracy.

Robeson and millions of other African-Americans were victims of pervasive and institutionalized racism and to deny otherwise would be a lie against history. Although he had his passport revoked for several years, was blacklisted and investigated by both the FBI and CIA, the real victims are the tens of millions who perished under Soviet communism. While Robeson was being feted by Stalin in Moscow, not far away the camps ground human beings into dust. Robeson used his potent mind and voice to defend a regime whose favored weapon was the gun. The U.S. Postal Service may be honoring a singer, actor, civil rights activist, athlete and intellectual, but it is also honoring a man whose beliefs were an anathema to everything that the United States stands for.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.

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