The Color Line: Remembering Paul Robeson





Mr. Beres is former sports information director for Northwestern University and the University of Oregon.

During my 40 years in college athletics, I learned how pervasive prejudice against athletes who were black once was. Because of the prodigious talents Paul Robeson brought to areas of American life beyond sports, his story should be remembered today, when black athletes have come to be dominant and honored figures in sports that once demeaned their race.

Robeson, remembered by many as a great musician on stage and in film, first became football's greatest player as a lineman for Rutgers University in 1916-18. Despite his talent, he had to endure slurs off the playing field, and slaps on it, because he was black. He played in the North, but this was a time when overt bigotry wasn't limited to the South.

Like Jackie Robinson, who broke the big league baseball color line a generation later, Robeson was a proud man with a temper. But, like Robinson, he didn't retaliate when opponents tried to intimidate him. Remaining quiet on the field, he chose instead to protect his chances of playing.

What he had to tolerate prepared him for facing the racial hurdles he later had to jump to struggle through law school. He was Phi Beta Kappa and valedictorian of the Rutgers Class of 1919.

When the College Football Hall of Fame was established in 1948, Robeson should have been at the head of the inaugural inductees. He was bypassed, blackballed for half a century because of his race. But it was more than race. His extended trips to the Soviet Union in the 1930s fed Bolshevik paranoia in his native land. Reactionaries who thought Robeson was getting too cozy with the Russians labeled him a communist.

Finally, in 1995, moderates convinced the Hall's election board to try to make amends. It was a hollow gesture, coming 19 years after the death of Robeson, who during his lifetime remained persona non grata to the good 'ol boys of the power structure. One of Robeson's fellow inductees, fabled Syracuse running back, Jim Brown, wasn't about to let the Hall forget its blindness. He said,"My induction is especially significant to me because Robeson is the man I most admire."

The wire service account of the occasion said,"Robeson was shunned from the Hall for nearly 50 years because of his liberal beliefs and efforts to win equal rights for Blacks."

I remember Robeson as a bent but not broken older man, using his eloquence to speak out against the bigotry of White society. That independence continued to feed the enmity of those in high places, including the albino power structure that persisted in blocking his admission to the Hall of Fame for five decades.

As McCarthyism reared its head in 1950, the State Department revoked Robeson's passport. If there were to be lists of potential subversives, it's not surprising Robeson would appear there after his first 1934 visit to the U.S.S.R., where he said he felt"like a human being for the first time since I grew up."

That comment became a bludgeon to be used by those in government who believed signing the loyalty oath was the mark of a true American. In their eyes, jaundiced by Cold War fear, Robeson's statement made him disloyal. At issue wasn't Robeson's naiveté about Stalinism so much as his belief that in the U.S.S.R.-- no matter how limited personal liberty was-- it was the same for all races.

I remember reading the question of a writer for the New York Post:"Was there something in Robeson's character that caused him to shut his eyes to the truth about the Soviet Union?" What a short-sighted question from a man in a position to know that Robeson wasn't praising the U.S.S.R. so much as he was lamenting the insensitivity of his fellow Americans who shut their eyes to racial prejudice in their midst.

Robeson never gave in to the bigots. Despite risks to himself and to his career, he spoke out against racism decades before Martin Luther King galvanized the civil rights movement.

My interest in the Robeson case was revived when I saw John Henry Redwood play Robeson in the stage production, Paul Robeson. Redwood, a teammate of the Great Gale Sayers at the University of Kansas, left that school in the aftermath of civil rights demonstrations in 1961.

Redwood said Robeson's principled life is vindicated by his admission into the Hall of Fame, even if posthumously. But Americans should not forget the close-minded prejudice that unjustly kept him on the outside during his lifetime.

His legacy is heard in his words spoken by Redwood in the one-man show:"I am not concerned about people agreeing with me. I want to provoke dialogue, and I seek change."

A quarter-century after his death, Paul Robeson still provokes dialogue.


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Brian Carnell - 2/19/2002

What utter garbage, "I remember reading the question of a writer for the New York Post : "Was there something in Robeson's character that caused him to shut his eyes to the truth about the Soviet Union?" What a short-sighted question from a man in a position to know that Robeson wasn't praising the U.S.S.R. so much as he was lamenting the insensitivity of his fellow Americans who shut their eyes to racial prejudice in their midst." This is as much a twisting of the facts as anything ever done by Stalin. Robeson openly admired the Soviet Union -- trying to pretend he wasn't praising the USSR is absurd. What the heck do you think Robeson meant when he wrote in New World Review (Vol. 21, No. 4, April, 1953, pp. 11-13):

But in the Soviet Union, Yakuts, Nenetses, Kirgiz, Tadzhiks -- had respect and were helped to advance with unbelievable rapidity in this socialist land. No empty promises, such as colored folk continuously hear in these United States, but deeds. For example, the transforming of the desert in Uzbekistan into blooming acres of cotton. And an old friend of mine, Mr. Golden, trained under Carver at Tuskegee, played a prominent role in cotton production. In 1949, I saw his daughter, not grown and in the university - a proud Soviet citizen.... They have sung -- sing now and will sing his praise -- in song and story. Slava -- slava -- Stalin, Glory to Stalin. Forever will his name be honored and beloved in all lands. In all spheres of modern life the influence of Stalin reaches wide and deep. From his last simply written but vastly discerning and comprehensive document, lack through the years, his contributions to the science of our world society remains invaluable. One reverently speaks of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin -- the shapers of humanity’s richest present and future...
or this gem from the Daily Worker c. 1945,
If the United States and the United Nations truly want peace and security let them fulfill the hopes of the common people everywhere -- let them work together to accomplish on a worldwide scale, precisely the kind of democratic association of free people which characterizes the Soviet Union today.
Of course, when whitewashing history, you wouldn't want to mention Robeson's views on the rebellion in Hungary against Communist rule,
Of course, it [Hungarian uprising] was not a true uprising of the people. It was inspired by America and other agents. The ‘Voice of America’ really started it.
And god forbid you bring up the Feffer affaire which is the most damning against Robeson because not only does it reveal him as a cold ideologue, but a bastard willing to betray even his close friends and associates to the Revolution. Not the sort of man you would want to turn your back on.

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