People’s Voice, April 16-30, 2010
The International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination was marked this year in Toronto with a tribute to Paul Robeson. Held on March 25 at City Hall, the event included greetings from Mayor David Miller and other speakers. We reprint here part of the speech by Selwyn McLean, chair of the Paul Robeson Centennial Committee-Toronto, which has worked since 1998 to popularize the historic contributions of this famous African-American artist and activist.
… There is no one more fitting than Robeson whose name could have been chosen to symbolize what the International Day For The Elimination Of Racial Discrimination represents. Robeson’s entire being was a manifestation of “day-to-day struggle” against the most formidable of foes…
Born in 1898 to well-established parents (his father had escaped slavery) Paul Robeson’s rise to prominence began at Rutgers University where he excelled in every aspect of college life, and continued at Columbia Law School. However, he found no satisfaction during his brief life as a lawyer at a New York firm from which racism forced his departure. But his extraordinary talents as a widely acclaimed singer and actor brought him tremendous satisfaction as he thrilled audiences in America and around the world. Robeson had found the vehicle through which he could promote his passion for bringing justice and peace to those denied them.
As an activist-artist, Robeson was selfless. He lived by his own stated conviction that, “The artist must take sides. He must elect to fight for freedom of slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative.” (1937 speech at Albert Hall, London, England).
As his causes broadened from national civil rights and racism to international issues like anti-colonialism and anti-fascism, Robeson soldiered on at the risk of great personal and financial sacrifices. He was singled out and targeted by Edgar Hoover’s repressive FBI as a dangerous threat to American democracy; he was persecution by Joseph McCarthy’s tyrannical senate committee; he was abandoned by spineless friends.
The full weight of the state had descended upon him.
For holding principled beliefs about equality, peace and justice, and for doing great political work on behalf of the oppressed and poor, Robeson was made to pay a heavy price. He was placed on the Det-Con List, which meant that, in case of a declared national emergency, he would be arrested as a communist and jailed at a concentration camp.
After speaking at the 1948 World Peace Conference in Paris, he was accused of interfering in the anti-colonial affairs of Africa, and his passport was illegally confiscated in 1950 for eight years. He was blacklisted all across the USA, and could not earn a living as a performer.
But Robeson did have genuine friends who shared his conviction and stood by his side during that darkest period. Albert Einstein, who was as much a social activist as he was a scientist, stood with Robeson in the face of McCarthy and the Hoover. So did Lena Horne, Harry Belafonte, Lee Lorch, W.E.B. DuBois, Pablo Neruda and many others who were in the fight for justice. There is much that could be said about the tremendous support Robeson received from around the world, whether it was from India’s Prime Minister Nehru or the coal miners in Wales. But I want to place support for Robeson in a Canadian context, because Canada was cherished as his second home.
Robeson had been visiting Canada from as early as 1929 and all through the 1940s. He performed in Othello at The Royal Alexander Theatre; he performed at Massey Hall; he performed with the Toronto Jewish Folk Choir; he performed at Sudbury; his activism had taken him to Windsor on behalf of Auto Workers there.
The fight for his right to travel abroad was particularly taken up by the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers of Canada with whom Robeson had a long relationship. It is in this context that Mine-Mill invited Robeson to visit Canada. But when the complicit Canadian government refused his entry (even not needing a passport) the famous Peace Arch Park concerts were organized. These four concerts from 1952-1955 stand out in defiance of the U.S. government as Robeson stood on the bed of a truck inches away from the Washington-British Columbia border and sang and spoke to 40,000 Canadians and Americans on both sides of the border. Robeson’s defiance was heightened by these concerts. At the 1953 concert he ended his speech thus: “I shall continue to fight, as I see truth … And I want everyone in the range of my voice to hear, official or otherwise, that there is no force on earth that will make me go backward one-thousandth part of one little inch.”
… Robeson’s legacy as a scholar, athlete, lawyer, linguist, singer, performer, humanitarian and renaissance man is a perfect example of what a role model looks like. By bringing him back to life 100 years after his birth; by celebrating his life as we are doing here today, Torontonians, I am certain, are helping to inspire our youth to pick up the challenge, and continue the struggle against injustice, racism, neo-fascism, sexism, homophobia and all other forms of oppression.
Robeson’s legacy will always be an integral part of Toronto’s diverse history…