Remembering a great American

January 27, 2004|By Brian Gilmore

ON JAN. 20, the U.S. Postal Service belatedly issued a stamp in honor of performer, athlete and political activist Paul Robeson. It is the 27th stamp in the Postal Service's black heritage series.

While this symbolic tribute is certainly well-deserved, the long-overdue selection of Mr. Robeson is bittersweet.

Mr. Robeson was born April 9, 1898, in Princeton, N.J. Mr. Robeson's father escaped chattel slavery in North Carolina through the Underground Railroad and settled in New Jersey, where he married and raised his family.

An athlete and stellar student, Mr. Robeson won a full scholarship to attend Rutgers University when he was 17. There he earned an unprecedented 12 letters in sports, was named Phi Beta Kappa in his junior year and graduated as class valedictorian. He went on to receive a law degree from Columbia Law School in New York while playing professional football on weekends.

But Mr. Robeson ditched the law degree and the football cleats for a career in Hollywood - and political activism. He almost immediately rose to the top of the entertainment world through his captivating performances of many well-known black spirituals. He began acting in plays such as Othello and Showboat, starred in movies and became an international star with a huge following worldwide.

But Mr. Robeson was also a man with deeply ingrained moral principles. Instead of resting on his entertainment laurels, he began to use his appearances to speak out against fascism and racism worldwide.

Demanding equal rights for blacks in the United States, he led a campaign to implement an anti-lynching law. He also donated proceeds from his performances to Jewish refugees fleeing the wickedness of Adolf Hitler. And he regularly performed for American troops fighting fascism during World War II.

Sadly, because of his commitment to equal rights and justice, Mr. Robeson became the target of J. Edgar Hoover's FBI and Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy's campaign against communism.

The work to destroy him began in earnest. Eighty of Mr. Robeson's concerts were canceled, and in 1949, racist mobs attacked two of his outdoor performances in Peekskill, N.Y., while state police stood by and did nothing.

Mr. Robeson responded to these attacks by stating, "I'm going to sing wherever the people want me to sing ... and I won't be frightened by crosses burning in Peekskill or anywhere else."

But efforts to silence Mr. Robeson continued.

In 1950, the United States revoked Mr. Robeson's passport, leading him to fight an eight-year battle to get it back so he could travel again.

He was hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee to answer for his radicalism. When asked why he didn't go live in the Soviet Union and leave the United States if he thought it was so unjust, Mr. Robeson was defiantly straightforward: "Because my father was a slave, and my people died to build this country, and I am going to stay here and have a part of it just like you."

In the end, the government's attacks left Mr. Robeson a broken man. He could barely earn a living. By the time his passport was reinstated, illness had slowed him down. His status as an international celebrity had been diminished.

He died in Philadelphia in 1976, virtually penniless and almost forgotten.

Someone must be dead for 10 years before the U.S. Postal Service will consider issuing a stamp in his or her honor, to ensure that the subject has withstood the test of time as an American cultural figure, according to a spokesman for the Postal Service. The exception is for a president, who may be commemorated with a stamp a year after his death. Recommendations for the issuance of commemorative stamps are made annually to the postmaster general by the Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee, whose 15 volunteer members meet four times a year.

The issuance of this commemorative stamp is an opportunity for Mr. Robeson to reclaim his rightful place in American history.

"To be free," Mr. Robeson wrote in his 1958 autobiography, is to "walk the good American earth as equal citizens, to live without fear, to enjoy the fruits of our toil, to give our children every opportunity in life - that dream which we have held so long in our hearts is today the destiny that we hold in our hands."

This vision is the true legacy of Paul Robeson.

Brian Gilmore is a lawyer and poet who lives in Takoma Park. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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