US civil rights leaders: Paul Robeson

10,000 League

Red Youth activist The 10,000 League talks about the real history of the civil rights struggle in the USA, focusing on the contribution of Paul Robeson.

Paul lived my his maxim: “The heights of knowledge must be scaled by the freedom seeker,” and was a great and fearless friend of the international proletariat.

He visited and Soviet Union, developing a deep and warm love for its system and peoples, and saw that Soviet socialism was a new and higher form of civilisation. Finding a place and a system that fought against racism and where he could “stand for the first time in my life as a full human being”, he sent his son, Paul Robeson Junior, to study in the USSR.

In the great anti-fascist battles of the 19302 and 40s, he took the side of socialism and led progressive opinion in America and the world to follow the path of working-class emancipation.

A father and inspirer of the civil rights struggle in the US, he campaigned against segregation, Jim Crow and the racist and anti-communist McCarthyite cold war agenda in post-WW2 America. He organised and performed for the Civil Rights Congress, raising money to defend working-class and oppressed black people who were attacked by the KKK, the police, the judiciary, and the political system of the USA.

After returning from the Paris Peace Congress in 1949, where he famously stated that working-class and in particular black Americans would never fight against the USSR, a consistent campaign was set in motion to isolate and neutralise Paul’s profound and progressive influence on US workers.

His August 1949 concert at Peekskill, New York, was attacked by the KKK with the complicity of the police. Pete Seeger describes those events in this video. In September 1949, a larger concert was organised in Peekskill, and detachments of workers were organised to defend the concert, which was an overwhelming success.

Paul Robeson’s pro-Soviet and progressive stance has been whitewashed by official right-wing US historians, but he remains one of the truly great sons of America: a lawyer, an artist, a sportsman, a father of the civil rights struggle … a profoundly intelligent, thinking and feeling human being. Confronted by major questions, he did not shy from them, but studied and took a firm stand against racism, injustice and exploitation, against fascist Germany and against the fascist leadership of US imperialism.

Above all, Paul Robeson was a great American communist, and it is precisely this that made him a great patriot – a real lover of and spokesman for American workers – and a great internationalist.

For his courageous stand, he was brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee witch-hunt, where he stated defiantly: “I am being tried for fighting for the rights of my people, who are still second-class citizens in this United States of America. My mother was born in your state, Mr Walter, and my mother was a quaker, and my ancestors in the time of Washington baked bread for George Washington’s troops when they crossed the Delaware, and my own father was a slave.

“I stand here struggling for the rights of my people to be full citizens in this country. And they are not. They are not in Mississippi. And they are not in Montgomery, Alabama. And they are not in Washington. They are nowhere, and that is why I am here today.

“You want to shut up every negro who has the courage to stand up and fight for the rights of his people, for the rights of workers, and I have been on many a picket line for the steelworkers too. And that is why I am here today.”

The struggle continues!