Paul Robeson

Celebrating the Labor Activism of Paul Robeson

On this 100th Anniversary of Paul Robeson’s graduation from Rutgers College in 1919, the Union of Rutgers Administrators (URA-AFT) expresses our gratitude to Paul Robeson for his labor activism and leadership in the international struggle for worker rights. We honor his legacy by continued activism and mutual support among all unions and student groups in the Rutgers community devoted to social justice.

Paul Robeson

A brief history:
Paul Robeson (1898 to 1976) began his labor-related activism at the age of 37 starring in union-based plays and films. He would go on to sing at union rallies and march on picket lines during the height of McCarthyism: United Auto Workers in Detroit (1941), Labor Victory Rally at Yankee Stadium (1942), Madison Square Garden Rally for Fair Employment Practices (1945), Waterfront Strikers in San Francisco (1946), Food and Tobacco Workers in North Carolina (1947), and United Public Workers in Washington, D.C. (1949). In 1950, he helped found the National Negro Labor Council, supporting black workers striking throughout the country.

Paul Robeson

An actor and singer of international renown, Paul Robeson faced severe retaliation for his labor organizing. In 1949, he gave a now-famous speech in Paris, where he spoke out against a possible war with the Soviet Union. The press labeled him a traitor and, in 1950, the U.S. Government revoked his passport.

From 1949, the FBI put pressure on concert halls to not allow him to sing,” his granddaughter told BBC News in 2014. “No recording company would issue a contract and he disappeared from the radio.” His name was stricken from the college All-American football teams and news footage of him was destroyed. His income dwindled from over $100,000 in 1947 to $6,000 in 1952.

The efforts to silence him failed. Threatened by the State Department with possible imprisonment in 1952, he sang by telephone to union workers in Vancouver; he then sang to an crowd of 40,000 at the U.S.-Canadian border. In 1956, he appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee and told them: “You are the Un-Americans.” He continued his activism and humanitarian efforts throughout his life, a testament to all people devoted to social justice, worker rights, world peace, and international solidarity.

There is no standing above the conflict on Olympian heights. There are no impartial observers. [The] artist, the scientist, the writer is challenged. The struggle invades the formerly cloistered halls of our universities […] The battlefront is everywhere.”
— Paul Robeson: Here I Stand (1988)

By Kathryn Neal

Sources:
Philip S. Foner, ed., Paul Robeson Speaks: Writings, Speeches, and Interviews, a Centennial Celebration (1978)


Dr. Mark D. Naison, Fordham University; “Americans Through Their Labor”; http://richgibson.com/paulrobeson.htm

Paul Robeson: Internationally Acclaimed Performer, Champion of the People, American Postal Worker Magazine; http://www.apwu.org/labor-history-articles/paul-robeson-internationally-acclaimed-performer-champion-people