A Lost Moment in American History: Paul Robeson v. Jackie Robinson and the Lessons


Paul Robeson. Photo: pbs.org

Much of the battle for African-American equality during the 20th century was framed by critical debates between leading Black political and intellectual leaders. These debates, often argued in very contrasting and bitter terms, involved both the analysis of race relations and how to programmatically address them. In essence, they involved what can be distinguished between “reformist” versus “radical” assessments of the systemic nature of American racism.

During the first half of the century the reformist strategy was argued by Booker T. Washington, educator and reformer, who promoted an accommodations position while W. E. B. Du Bois, sociologist and critic, advocated a radical analysis. During the second half of the century, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X refashioned the debate along the lines of civil rights and national liberation, respectively.

The confrontation between two leading African-American cultural figures of the 1940s and ‘50s, Paul Robeson and Jackie Robinson, echoed this fundamental debate. Theirs was a unique and, unfortunately, overlooked exchange that defined the political climate of post-WW-II America. 

In December 1951, Paul Robeson was with an interracial party at Smalls Paradise, a legendary Harlem nightspot at Seventh Avenue near 135th Street. He saw Jackie Robinson seated across the room with fellow Brooklyn Dodger, Don Newcombe, and he sent a waiter to invite them to his table. Robinson reportedly sneered, “Fuck Paul Robeson,” and the two ballplayers stormed out of the club.

Robeson and Robinson were – along with Joe Lewis — the most acclaimed African-American men in the U.S. during the postwar era. For three decades, Robeson (1898–1976) had been acclaimed as an athlete, a theatrical performer, an international celebrity and a principled political dissidenter. In 1947, the 28-year-old Robinson (1919–l972) broke professional baseball’s color line, was selected the National League Rookie of the Year and changed the face of professional sports. Robeson was 20 years older than Robinson, but both were remarkable men of accomplishment. They had a testy relationship that framed the debate over race and politics in postwar America.

Robeson was born in Princeton, NJ, the son of William Drew Robeson and Maria Louisa Bustill.  His father was a North Carolina plantation enslaved-African and, not unlike Frederick Douglass, escaped as a teenager through the Underground Railroad, relocating to New Jersey and become a pastor. His mother was the great-great-granddaughter of Cyrus Bustill, a founder of the Free African Society, the first African-American mutual aid organization established in 1787.

In 1915, Robeson won a scholarship to Rutgers College, only the third Black student admitted to the school. He was twice named a football All-American and also won letters in baseball, basketball and track. He graduated in 1919 as the class valedictorian, was a debater and, in his junior year, was invited into the honors society, Phi Beta Kappa. Robeson then attended Columbia Law School, graduating in 1923, and served briefly as the only Black attorney at a prestigious firm, but quit in the face of racial prejudice. He also briefly played professional football.

During the 1920s and ‘30s, Robeson was one of the world’s foremost – and controversial — stage actors.  In 1924, he costarred with Mary Blair, a White woman, in Eugene O’Neill play, All God’s Chillun Got Wings, that received threats of violence on opening night. In 1925, he began his singing career performing Negro spirituals.  In 1927, Robison and his wife, Eslanda (Essie) Goode, moved to London and became the toasts of the town.  There, he performed as Othello at the Savoy Theatre, opposite the 22-year-old, White actor, Peggy Ashcroft, as Desdemona. He also received sensational reviews performing so-called “darkie” classics like “Ol’ Man River” from the popular musical, Show Boat.

While in Europe, Robeson became politicized, forever changing his life. He supported striking British miners, studied Marxism, became friends with Emma Goldman and visited Civil War Spain in support of Republican forces. Returning to the States, he became close to the Communist Party, an outspoken critic of American imperialism and domestic racism.

While on a concert tour of Europe in April 1949, Robeson joined DuBois, Pablo Picasso, Pablo Neruda, Julian Huxley and 2,000 other delegates from 60 countries at the Paris Peace Conference, sponsored by Soviet Union’s Communist Information Bureau (Cominform). The Associated Press (AP) misquoted his remarks: “We [colonial people] denounce the policy of the United States government, which is similar to Hitler and Gobbels. … It is unthinkable that American Negros would go to war on behalf of those who have oppressed us for generations against a country [SU] which in one generation has raised our people to the full dignity of mankind.”

When publicized in the U.S., Robeson’s misquoted statement led to a firestorm of criticism.  National politicians and the establishment press branded him a traitor. Many leading African-Americans, including Walter White, head of NAACP, Rep. Adam Powell and Mary McLeod Bethune (president, National Council of Negro Women), joined the chorus of denunciation. The firestorm over the remarks led to special hearings by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC) and a number of African-Americans were invited to testify, most notably Robinson.

Robinson was a child of sharecroppers in Cairo, GA, and, after his father abandoned the family, his mother moved Jackie and his four siblings to Pasadena, CA.  He attended John Muir High School and played on the varsity baseball, football, basketball, track and tennis teams.  In 1936, he was selected for the Pomona all-star team along with future baseball greats, Ted Williams and Bob Lemon.  His brother, Mack, who won a silver medal in the ‘36 Summer Olympics, encouraged Robinson.  He attended Pasadena Junior College before transferring to UCLA in 1939 where he lettered in baseball, football, basketball and track.

After Pearl Harbor, Robinson was drafted and served in a segregated Army cavalry unit. He applied for the officer-training program, but was initially denied due to race prejudice. After much protest and with the support of Joe Lewis, who was also serving, Robinson and other African-Americans were accepted; he became a 2nd lieutenant.  Even as an officer, he confronted prejudice.  Boarding an unsegregated military bus with a White soldier’s wife at a Southern base, the driver ordered him to sit at the back of the bus. Robinson refused and was subsequently arrested; this led to a series of court-martial hearings and, eventually, nine all-White officers acquitted him. 

During the war, there was growing sentiment that White professional baseball needed to be integrated. This was spurred by the role played by African-Americans in the war effort and, following a threatened 1941 March on Washington opposing discrimination in war-related jobs, Pres. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 8802 establishing the Fair Employment Practices Committee.  In 1943, a New York Communist Party city councilman, Peter Cacchione, introduced a resolution calling for an end to racial discrimination in baseball and the New York Times opined, “If we are willing to let Negroes as soldiers fight wars on our team, we should not ask questions about color in the great American game.”

In response, baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis convened a meeting of club owners to consider the issue and invited Robeson to address the group. Landis said he invited Robeson to the meeting “because you all know him. You all know that he is a great man in public life, a great American.”  Ronald Smith, in his invaluable study, “The Paul Robeson—Jackie Robinson Saga and a Political Collision,” reports, “Robeson declared that if he could be a black in an otherwise all-white play, then a Negro in a white cast should no longer be incredible to baseball owners.”  When he concluded his remarks, the owners gave him a “rousing ovation.”

After the war, Robinson played professional baseball for the Kansas City Monarchs, part of what was known as the Negro league. Anticipating changes to come, Brooklyn Dodger owner, Branch Rickey, helped form a new, six team, black baseball league that included the Brooklyn Brown Dodgers.  According to Smith, “The Brown Dodgers were used as a front to cover his talent search—a quest which determined that Jackie Robinson should be the first black to enter organized baseball in the twentieth century.”  In 1947, he started at 1st base.

“Robinson gave his assurance that he would not retaliate against insults from players nor complain to umpires; he promised not to make public endorsements, write newspaper or magazine articles, frequent night spots, or accept social invitations from whites or blacks,” Smith notes.  Joe Lewis warned Robinson not to be cocky and be dismissed as an “uppity nigger.”  He won the National League Rookie of the Year award in his first season, helping the Dodgers win the National League championship; in 1949, he won the league’s MVP award.

In the summer of 1949, Robinson testified before the HUAC hearing and was the star witness, drawing much media and popular attention to the otherwise boring proceedings.  HUAC was dominated by Southern racists, including John S. Wood (Chairman, GA), Martin Dies (TX) and John Rankin (MS), and Robinson knew he was being used as a foil to not merely criticize Robeson but divide the African-American community.  Nevertheless, he was far less forceful in his denunciation of Robeson than committee members wanted to hear.

Robinson stated, “He [Robeson] has a right to his personal views, and if he wants to sound silly when he expresses them in public, that is his business and not mine.”  He insisted that “Negroes were stirred up long before there was a Communist party and they’ll stay stirred up long after the party has disappeared—unless Jim Crow has disappeared by then as well.” He reminded the committee that racial integration was slow going, pointing out that only three of the 16 major league teams were desegregated and there were only seven blacks out of 400 players in the game. “We’re going to keep on making progress,” Robinson argued, “until we go the rest of the way in wiping Jim Crow out of American sports.”

The lives of Robeson and Robinson diverged significantly in the 1950s as the Cold War caught up with Robeson.  As early as 1941, the FBI placed Robeson under surveillance. In September 1947, HUAC issued a study, “Report on Civil Rights Congress as a Communist Front Organization,” that singled out Robeson for special rebuke. “Paul Robeson will be remembered as one who has been outspoken in his defense of the Communist Party on numerous occasions …,” it argued. It concluded, “He has long been an ardent apologist for the Soviet Union, where his son was resided and was educated.”

By the 1950s, he was blacklisted and innumerable concert engagements were cancelled. FBI agents followed him everywhere, even tapping his phone. He and his wife were subpoenaed to testify, individually, before House and Senate anticommunist hearings, respectively. In 1950, NBC cancelled Robeson’s appearance on Eleanor Roosevelt’s popular radio talk show to debate Adam Powell. That same year, his passport revoked and not returned for eight years; he was even prohibited from traveling to Vancouver to address a labor convention.

In a court filing in February 1952, the State Department revealed what it most feared with regard to Robeson:
“Furthermore, even if the complaint had alleged, which it does not, that the passport was canceled was solely because of the applicant’s recognized status as spokesman for large sections of Negro Americans, we submit that this would not amount to an abuse of discretion in view of the appellant’s frank admission that he has for years been extremely active politically in behalf of the independence of the colonial people of Africa.”

In 1956, he was subpoenaed to testify before HUAC with regard to his Communist affiliation. After six grueling hours of cross examination, Robeson was excused and not charged with contempt. This is in sharp contrast to what happened to the Hollywood 10, Howard Fast and those accused of violating the Smith Act.

During the 1950s, Robinson actively worked with the NAACP, but in the 1960s quit the organization because it was too conservative. Ironically, he supported Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential election. In his 1972 memoir, I Never Had It Made, Robinson took on a more qualified attitude toward Robeson. While not regretting his HUAC testimony, he wrote: “I have grown wiser and closer to painful truths about America’s destructiveness. And I do have increased respect for Paul Robeson who, over a span of that twenty years, sacrificed himself, his career, and the wealth and comfort he once enjoyed because, I believe, he was sincerely trying to help his people.”

The debates of the past are long gone, but the issues addressed continue to live on to this day; and they do so with new voices and visions. 

The debate posed by Robeson and Robinson over political values is not dissimilar to that waged earlier by Washington and Du Bois or later by King and Malcolm. It involves what can be distinguished between a “reformist” vs. a “radical” assessment of the systemic nature of American racism, thus U.S. capitalist society. This debate was partially reflected in the 2016 Democratic Party presidential campaign; Hillary Clinton represents the reformist and Bernie Sanders symbolizes the radical perspectives. 

American party politics is fragmenting as both major political parties reconfigure. Tea Party conservatives and Trump supporters are at war with establishment or country-club Republicans for control of the GOP; Democrats are beginning to split along the political lines represented by Clinton and Sanders, one reflecting establishment interests, the other a “democratic socialist” critique.

The debate over race in America argued by Robeson and Robinson helps distinguish among “progressives,” whether “reformist” or “radical.”  The former promotes the accomplishments of the here-and-now; the latter fashions of vision of what’s possible. Of course, nothing is absolute, contradictions abound.

Few contemporary American notables, whether Black or White, occupy positions of influence comparable to Robeson and Robinson, let alone Washington and Du Bois or King and Malcolm X.


David Rosen can be reached at [email protected]; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com


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