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John L. Puckett

Part III focuses on Paul Robeson’s campaigns on many humanitarian fronts in the face of sustained persecution by the federal government (not to mention white supremacists) and suspension of his U.S. passport in the 1950s. His true Achilles heel, for which he was reviled as a traitor by mainstream media, was his publicly expressed loyalty to the U.S. Communist Party, his sustained admiration for Russia, and his silence on the murderous actions of the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.

Robeson’s life after the summer of 1945 was shaped by the ruthless politics of the nation’s Cold War with the Soviet Union. No individual in the twentieth century endured more sustained persecution and harassment from the federal government than Robeson in the 1950s. His true Achilles heel was his publicly expressed loyalty to the U.S. Communist Party (although he was never a member) and his oft-expressed sympathy with Stalinist Russia, whose murderous dictator Robeson refused to publicly disavow. His passport was suspended, and he was reviled by mainstream media.

August and September of 1945 found Paul Robeson and Larry Brown on an interracial USO tour of U.S. military bases in Europe. An 85-concert tour followed in 1945–46, which included Robeson’s political speeches promoting socialism and advocating for respectful U.S. relations with the Soviet Union. On another front, Black veterans returning to the South faced a resurgent reign of terror and lynching; there were 56 murders between June 1945 and September 1946. Robeson responded by leading the American Crusade against Lynching, headlining events at Madison Square Garden and the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. On September 23, in a highly charged White House meeting, he confronted President Harry Truman over Truman’s failure to back a federal antilynching law—which prompted the outraged president to end the meeting. The nation would not have a federal antilynching law until 2022, in the wake of Ahmaud Abery’s 2020 murder—a lynching by customary definition—in Brunswick, Georgia, at the hands of three white supremacists.

In 1947, paralleling the FBI’s harassment campaign, the House Un-American Affairs Committee (HUAC) undertook its own investigation of Robeson as an alleged propagandist for anti-American causes. In the 1948 presidential race, Robeson eagerly campaigned for Henry Wallace, FDR’s third-term vice president and Truman’s secretary of commerce. Wallace headed the Progressive Party’s national ticket and agenda for world peace and human rights, which was supported by the Communist Party USA (CPUSA). Robeson spoke before the House Judiciary Committee (HJC) against a bill that would ultimately form part of the McCarran Act of 1950, which provided the government’s rationale to hunt down “subversives,” defined as either avowed or suspected Communists. Over the banging of a furious HJC chairman’s gavel, Robeson spoke without restraint, “I stand here struggling for the rights my people to be full citizens in this country. They are not—in Mississippi. They are not—in Montgomery. That is why I am here to today. . . . You want to shut up every colored person who wants to fight for the rights of his people.”1

Robeson subsequently found himself at loggerheads with the staunch anticommunist positions taken by leaders of the NAACP (including his former white ally Walter White) and the Urban League. Tthe Council on African Affairs split into pro-Communist and anti-Communist factions, the former led by Robeson and W.E.B. Du Bois.

The Progressive Party’s electoral failures in 1948 were followed by cancellation of Robeson’s concert bookings by local entertainment agents who were skittish after the federal indictments of the “Hollywood Ten” on subversion charges. In the winter of 1949, he and Larry Brown embarked on a four-month concert tour in Europe, where he was still highly regarded. There he advocated for the liberation movements in South Africa and Kenya. What happened at the 1949 World Peace Conference in Paris, however, marked a downturn in his fortunes. In a brief speech Robeson predicted that neither the 15 million African Americans nor the white workers of Europe would participate in a war against the Soviet Union. His remarks were distorted and misquoted in an Associated Press dispatch that unconscionably reported, among other details, that he had compared the U.S. government to the Hitler regime. Robeson was to be henceforth branded a traitor by both the media and the federal government—and ultimately abandoned by the mainstream Civil Rights Movement.

Robeson maintained his advocacy for the Soviet Union despite Stalin’s postwar discriminatory policies against Jews. That is somewhat puzzling given that in 1943 he joined members of the American Jewish Anti-Fascism Committee—whose membership included, among others, the expatriate German physicist Albert Einstein, the Russian Yiddish poet Itzik Feffer, and the Russian Yiddish actor Solomon Mikhoels—on a tour to raise funds for the Soviet war effort. In the postwar era, witnessing the creation of Israel as an ally of the U.S. and Britain, Stalin grew paranoid believing that Soviet Jews were a “fifth column” in Russia conspiring to undermine his dictatorship. Stalin had Mikhoels murdered, and Feffer arrested. While in Moscow in 1949, Robeson met with the imprisoned Feffer and learned of the unfolding antisemitic purges. As the encore to his last Moscow concert, he honored the Jewish victims of Stalin’s policies by singing in Yiddish the Warsaw Ghetto resistance song. Yet upon his return to America, Robeson publicly denied any knowledge of the purges. On August 12-13, 1952, “Night of the Murdered Poets,” Feffer and others in his circle were executed.2

Robeson’s biographer Martin Duberman offers a plausible explanation for his public refusal to criticize Stalin:

Robeson had come to believe so passionately that U.S. racism and imperialism were the gravest threats to mankind, including the real possibility in 1949 that the United States would launch a preemptive strike against the Soviet Union, that he felt public criticism of anti-Semitism in the U.S.S.R would play into the hands of America’s right wing. If his judgment on that point ever wavered, he never revealed it. To the end of his life he would refuse to criticize the Soviets openly, never going further than to make the barest suggestion in private, to a few intimates, that injustice to some individuals must always be expected, however much to be regretted, in an attempt to create a new world dedicated to bettering the lot of the many. He continued to believe that the best chance for reaching his primary goal—improving the condition of oppressed peoples—lay with the egalitarian impulses originally unleashed by the Russian Revolution. Convinced in the thirties of the Soviets’ unique freedom from racial prejudice, and seeing no major Western power in the ensuing years developing a comparable commitment to the welfare of its minorities, he resisted every pressure to convert any private disappointment he may have felt in the Soviet experiment into public censure.3

Robeson’s difficulties at home worsened when in a later speech he converted his earlier prediction that Black Americans would not fight against the Soviets into a “should-ism”—they should not engage in such a venture. Alarmed by Robeson’s militancy and his alleged Russophilia, HUAC subpoenaed prominent Black leaders to render their opinions of Robeson; critics called these hearings a platform for extracting loyalty oaths.

That Robeson’s life was in jeopardy was evident in the violent reception he and his supporters received in Peekskill, a town in northwest Westchester County, New York. The town is a summer playground for wealthy liberals, whose permanent residents were mainly white working-class people who apparently loathed militant Blacks and Jews and lumped them together as communists. Supported by the Fur and Leather Workers Union, Robeson’s concert on behalf of the Harlem Civil Rights Congress (an alleged communist-dominated organization) was scheduled for the evening of August 27, 1949 at the Lakeland Acres picnic grounds outside the town. At the entrance to the concert site, the cars in which Paul Robeson, Essie Robeson, and their entourage rode were attacked by a violent mob. A thousand enraged locals, including aggrieved members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion, pelted their cars with rocks. The police offered no protection, so the Robeson entourage had no choice but to flee to safety. Paul and Essie Robeson took refuge with Jewish friends in nearby Ossining. That afternoon, the anti-Robeson mob bludgeoned the left-wing concertgoers, putting twelve of them into the hospital.

Undaunted, Robeson rescheduled his concert to September 4 at the Hollow Brook Golf Course, three miles from Peekskill, this time with support from a large contingent of trade unionists who were prepared to protect him. Ringed by union guards, Robeson gave a stirring rendition of “Ol’ Man River,” among other songs he performed with a jittery Larry Brown on piano. Trouble started after the concert as the crowd began to leave the hollow that served as the venue. A furious mob of thousands of locals attacked hundreds of volunteer union guards in the hollow; not only did Governor Thomas Dewey’s state troopers stand aside, many of them even joined in the mayhem. Roughly 150 people were seriously injured, and cars and buses were damaged and overturned. Robeson would no doubt have been lynched had the mob laid its hands on him. They only managed to hang him in effigy. Several investigations of the Peekskill riots yielded similar rigged results: the riots were justified on account of their anticommunist focus, the union guards were goon squads, the rioters’ intentions were neither antisemitic nor anti-Black, and the police showed laudable restraint.

In December 1949, Robeson further agitated government watchdogs by joining W.E.B. Du Bois and other leftists in cabling salutations to Joseph Stalin on his 70th birthday. Outlets for airing Robeson’s views were rapidly diminishing, and world events in 1950 augured badly for someone so outspoken for the Soviet Union; as of 1949, for Maoist China; and in 1950, against the Korean War. And his uncompromising, sustained attack on Jim Crow and white supremacy put him in the crosshairs of southern Democrats, more than a few Republicans in Congress, and the State Department, which stripped Robeson of his passport. In 1951, Robeson co-authored and presented a petition to the U.N. boldly accusing the U.S. of genocidal racism, defining genocide as physical and/or cultural destruction. This incentivized the State Department to forbid him to travel even to Canada, the West Indies, or Mexico, none of which required a U.S. passport. He was, in the parlance of the time, “contained.” While restrictions on Robeson’s right to travel were of dubious constitutional legality, through the 1950s the federal district and appeals courts upheld the restrictions.

Anticommunist hysteria surged to high tide from 1950 to 1954, the waters roiled by Wisconsin senator Joseph McCarthy, his right-wing counselors, and his conservative abettors in Congress. McCarthy and HUAC equated communism with insanity, and they were convinced that Robeson was “batty” and “psychologically damaged.” To McCarthy and colleagues, “containment” (silencing) was the appropriate therapy for such a menace. Such was the trendy status of armchair psychiatry in the hallowed halls of the federal legislature.4

Paul and Essie Robeson’s hopes that the Progressive Party would stem this worrisome tide were dashed when the Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower won a landslide victory for the presidency in 1952 and the Progressive candidate tallied under 200,000 votes. A month after the election Moscow announced that Paul Robeson was one of seven recipients of the 1952 International Stalin Peace Prizes. Afraid that an unfettered Robeson would embarrass the government through political activities supporting decolonization in Africa and exposing racism at home, the State Department—showing its racist intention—denied his petition to travel to Europe to receive the prize in person. And Robeson’s African American critics argued that his association with the Soviet Union and communism, coupled with his uncompromising attitude and his high visibility, jeopardized the civil rights movement. His biographers agree that Robeson was a small “c” communist, not a party member—an action-oriented radical working tirelessly on many fronts for a more just society.

In July 1953 McCarthy’s Senate Investigating Committee compelled Essie Robeson to testify. When asked by McCarthy if she were not a member of the Communist Party, Essie, citing the First and Fifteenth amendments (but not the Fifth amendment, to the committee’s surprise) politely told McCarthy that her opinions were strictly a personal matter. When Senator Stuart Symington from Missouri asked her if the government did not have the right to know her views on an organization dedicated to the overthrow of the U.S. by violent means. Essie replied obliquely that the only violence of which she was aware were vicious attacks by enraged white-racist mobs on peacefully demonstrating Communist Party members. In 1946, Paul had testified under oath before a legislative committee in California that he was not a member of the Communist Party; thereafter, whenever subpoenaed to testify before a government committee, he would refuse, on constitutional grounds, to answer the question.

After Stalin’s death in 1953, Paul Robeson continued his advocacy for the Soviet Union, believing that for all its flaws it rightfully stood among the world’s powers as the only formidable deterrent to anti-Black racism and colonialism. He remained publicly loyal to the CPUSA. Robeson was ageing and the passport fight and intensified FBI harassment drained his physical and mental health. Confined to his bed at home after debilitating prostate surgery, he was depressed, lethargic, and moody. Against his doctors’ advice, Paul appeared before HUAC with his attorney, Milton Friedman, in July 1956. When probed by the committee if he was a member of the Communist Party, Paul pleaded the Fifth Amendment even as he asserted that the CPUSA was a legal party. He lectured the committee on the foundational role of Black enslavement in building the U.S. and hinted that HUAC was neo-fascist. Robeson was never charged with any crime, and he was never arrested or put on trial.

Consistent with his deeply rooted animosity to colonialism, Robeson wrote about Vietnam a decade before U.S. President Lyndon Johnson sent ground troops into South Vietnam. Robeson’s article for the 1954 issue of Freedom was entitled “Ho Chi Minh Is the Toussaint L’Ouverture of Indo-China.” His professed admiration for the Haitian revolutionary dated to a New Jersey oratorical contest he won in 1915. In 1935, he performed at London’s Westminster Theatre as the eponymous hero in the play Toussaint L’Ouverture, which one contemporary critic has called “the most outstanding anti-imperialist play ever to make it onto London’s West End during the interwar period.”5 In his 1954 article, Robeson referenced U.S. logistical support for the French colonial regime’s jungle war with Vietnamese nationalists—nationalists first, communists second—led by Ho Chi Minh. He wrote, “Vast quantities of U.S. bombers, tanks and guns have been sent against Ho Chi Minh and his freedom fighters; and now we are told that soon it may be ‘advisable’ to send American GI’s into Indo-China [French-controlled Vietnam] in order that the tin, rubber and tungsten of Southeast Asia be kept by the ‘free world’—meaning White Imperialism.”6

1. Paul Robeson, Here I Stand (New York: Beacon Press, 1988), 42. This book was first published under Robeson Sr.’s copyright in 1958 by Othello Publishers, whose president was Paul Robeson Jr.

2. For a comprehensive account of Stalinist antisemitism and the complicated state of Stalin’s paranoia about Jews in the postwar era, see Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin (New York: Basic Books, 2010/2022), 339–377.

3. Martin Duberman, Paul Robeson: A Biography (New York: New Press, 1989), 354.

4. Tony Perucci, “The Red Mask of Sanity: Paul Robeson, HUAC, and the Sound of Cold War Performance,” TDR/The Drama Review 53, no 4 (2009): 18–48, esp. pp. 24–25.

5. Quote in Gerald Horne, Paul Robeson: The Artist as Revolutionary (London: Pluto Press, 2016), 65.

6. Cited in Duberman, Paul Robeson, 713n42.

A Note on Sources: Martin Duberman’s 800-page Paul Robeson: A Biography expertly charts the course of Robeson’s remarkable life and career and remains the single best and most cited Robeson biography. With Duberman’s careful attention to detail, his book is close to being a definitive biography, notwithstanding the 35-year time lag between its date of publication, 1988, and 21st-century medical advances and the contemporary Black Lives Matter Movement. For my story collection, I have condensed and freely drawn from Duberman what I regard as the essentials of his narrative. Though limited as a historical study that adds to what Duberman describes as the turning points in Paul Sr.’s life, Paul Robeson Jr.’s two-volume biography, The Undiscovered Paul Robeson: An Artist’s Journey, 1898–1939 and Quest for Freedom, 1939–1976, provides new, unvarnished details of Eslanda Goode Robeson’s tribulations as Paul’s lifelong business partner and financial manager, and her stressful marriage to Paul amidst his many extramarital affairs. Both Duberman and Paul Jr. are useful guides to Paul Robeson’s 1958 statement of beliefs, Here I Stand, from which I have quoted directly. A biography notable for its succinct identification of the dominant themes in Robeson’s melding of his artistry and radical political activity is Gerald Horne’s The Artist as Revolutionary. The most recent biography at this writing (fall 2022) is 2020’s Ballad of an American: A Graphic Biography of Paul Robeson, skillfully illustrated by Sharon Rudahl and edited by Paul Buhle & Lawrence Ware. This imaginative book interprets Robeson for 21st century audiences.

Continue reading Heroic Civil Rights Icons in West Philadelphia

Black and white photo portrait of adult Paul Robeson, wearing a dark suit, white shirt, and white-speckled dark tie.

Paul Robeson was the best known African American of the first half of the 20th century. He was famous as an All-American football player, the world’s finest bass-baritone singer of his time, a pioneering black theatrical and screen actor, and a tireless political activist. He advocated throughout the world for socialism, anticolonialism, and human rights for all oppressed peoples, irrespective of race, religion, or ethnicity. He spent the final decade of his remarkable life in West Philadelphia at 4949 Walnut Street.

Black and white photo of Paul Robeson, shown in the foreground standing beneath a palm tree beside a young African American man who is a volunteer with the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War. Robeson wears a light-colored suit with vest, striped tie, and English cap. The volunteer wears a dark, buttoned jacket. In the background is a Spanish colonial-style building with a white-wood balcony railing.

Paul Robeson, Part II, focuses on the artist as a revolutionary. In the decade before World War II, he stood against racism, fascism, and colonialism, and campaigned relentlessly for social justice and human rights for all oppressed peoples. He paid particular attention to African independence movements, the struggle against U.S. Jim Crowism, and what Robeson perceived as a racially tolerant Soviet Union.

Black and white photo. Paul Robeson stands at microphones that are positioned on a podium on a raised stage. A banner that reads PROGESSIVE PARTY NATIONAL CONVENTION hangs from a wire. People below the stage are moving about doing various things. A policeman wearing sunglasses stands near the stage.

Part III focuses on Paul Robeson’s campaigns on many humanitarian fronts in the face of sustained persecution by the federal government (not to mention white supremacists) and suspension of his U.S. passport in the 1950s. His true Achilles heel, for which he was reviled as a traitor by mainstream media, was his publicly expressed loyalty to the U.S. Communist Party, his sustained admiration for Russia, and his silence on the murderous actions of the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.

Nighttime color photo of Royal Albert Hall shown in floodlights. A freestanding domed building of iron and glass, designed in an Italianate style, the building’s interior amphitheater is a world-famous concert hall. Red brick dominates the building’s façade.

Part IV focuses on the final chapter of Paul Robeson’s eventful life when his myriad leftist political activities and stated views resulted in a deliberate and largely successful campaign by federal agencies, mainstream media, and other hostile critics to erase him from historical memory. Robeson was compelled to live out his remaining days in relative obscurity and declining health.

Black and white photo of Malcolm X in 1964. Shown smiling and relaxed, he stands at a microphone. He wears a light gray-tone suit or sports coat, with a dark tie. He has closely cropped hair, is clean shaven, and wears glasses.

In the 1950s, Malcolm X was the national representative of Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam (NOI). In the 1960s, he became a harsh critic of Elijah’s personal failures and NOI’s rigidly separatist and starkly apolitical theology. In the last years of his life, he converted to orthodox Islam and advocated for pan-Africanism. He is remembered in West Philadelphia as minister of Muhammad Temple of Islam #12.

Color photo highlights the wall-enclosed prison facility, shown in the left-to-right center of the image, in its woodland location, with a river flowing just beyond the rear wall. The rest of the photo shows some unidentifiable low buildings enclosed by woods.

Malcolm X is the second iconic civil rights activist with an imprint in West Philadelphia. He belongs to a radical civil rights tradition that links him with Paul Robeson and Martin Luther King Jr. Part II looks at Malcolm Little’s prison conversion to the version of Islam practiced by the Nation of Islam and his decision to become Malcolm X.

Black and white photo from 1965, a massive indoor venue with thousands of Nation of Islam followers. The foreground to center of the photo shows several hundred women wearing white abayas, seated in folding chairs. A banner hung in the far-left balcony reads THERE IS NO GOD BUT ALLAH AND MUHAMMAD IS HIS PROPHET.

Malcolm X is the second iconic civil rights activist with an imprint on West Philadelphia. He belongs to a radical civil rights tradition that links him with Paul Robeson and Martin Luther King Jr. Part III looks at Malcolm’s meteoric rise in the Nation of Islam in the mid-1950s, his role for a time as Elijah Muhammad’s presumptive heir, and his 1960s drift to militant political activism in violation of Nation of Islam dogma.

Contemporary color photo of the colorful Broadway façade of what was once home to the Audubon Ballroom.

Malcolm X is the second iconic civil rights activist with an imprint on West Philadelphia. He belongs to a radical civil rights tradition that links him with Paul Robeson and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Part IV looks at Malcolm’s break with Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam, his turn to Pan-Africanism, and the events leading to his assassination at Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom.

Paul Robeson, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. were militant activists who shared common ground as heroic civil rights icons and left their marks on West Philadelphia.

Stories in this Collection


This collection of nine stories explores the ties between Paul Robeson, Malcolm X, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as heroic civil rights icons who left formidable imprints on West Philadelphia. The collection begins with Robeson, who spent the last decade of his life in West Philadelphia (1966–1976), tracing his meteoric rise to international fame as an incomparable singer and Black actor of stage and screen, his turn to political activism, his international advocacy for social justice for all oppressed people, and his persecution by the federal government during the Cold War. Next is Malcolm X, who as a convert to the Nation of Islam (NOI), overcame his past as an incarcerated street hustler to become a devout acolyte of the Messenger Elijah Muhammad and the NOI’s national spokesperson. Among other temples under his watchful eye was Muhammad Temple of Islam #12 in West Philadelphia. Before his assassination by NOI operatives, Malcolm converted to mainstream (orthodox) Islam and embraced racially inclusive pan-Africanism. Last is King, who at the height of northern racial turmoil in the Civil Rights era, held a major rally in West Philadelphia just as he was entering the radical phase of the last three years of his life. A final synthesis story surveys the common ground shared by these three Civil Rights precursors to the contemporary Black Lives Matter movement and the New York Times' 1619 Project.