The main objective of the HUAC was the investigation of un-American and subversive activities. Soon after his appointment Dies received a telegram from the Ku Klux Klan: “Every true American, and that includes every Klansman, is behind you and your committee in its effort to turn the country back to the honest, freedom-loving, God-fearing American to whom it belongs.”
“Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC)” – Spartacus Educational (U.K.)
For some, he was the 20th century’s greatest Renaissance man. To J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, the political establishment of the day, and segregationists who controlled the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in the 1940s and 1950s, his “sins” were unforgivable. For those who value decency and courage, his life story should be shared widely, his accomplishments celebrated, his sacrifices recognized, and his legacy cherished.
The issues that the diary’s subject espoused many decades ago — championing the interests of the dispossessed, fighting poverty, speaking out against military adventurism, eradicating racism, and vigorously opposing his own government’s intrusive and, often, illegal methods into the lives of its citizens — still resonate to this day in our politics.
The diary examines in great detail what happened to one American during the McCarthy Era, a period during which false and unsubstantiated accusations could not only often derail a person’s professional career but also result in severe personal hardship.
It is also an uplifting story of eventual vindication through principled behavior, even as many deny his remarkable accomplishments.
The Klan don’t hate nobody! In fact, the Klan is the good n*****r’s best friend. If the n*****r will devote his energies to becoming a better, more useful n*****r, rather than the dupe of Northern interests who have caused him to misconstrue his social standing, he will reap the rewards of industry, instead of the disappointments of ambition unobtainable! Southern whites, occupying that super-position assigned them by the Creator, are justifiably hostile to any race that attempts to drag them down to its own level! Therefore let the n*****r be wise in leaving the ballot in the hands of a dominant sympathetic race, since he is far better off as apolitical eunuch in the house of his friends, than a voter rampant in the halls of his enemies!
I first posted a shorter version of this diary in early 2008. I have spent a considerable amount of time adding new content and completely reformatting this diary.
In early 1976, one of the greatest Americans of the twentieth century died a nearly forgotten man in self-imposed seclusion in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Over the last four decades or so, you rarely, if ever, hear his name mentioned in the popular media. Once every few years, you might hear someone on PBS or C-Span remember him fondly and explain why he was one of the more important figures of the past century.
In many respects, he had as much moral authority as Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks; he was as politically active as Dick Gregory, Harry Belafonte, John Lewis, and Randall Robinson; and, as befits many men and women motivated by moral considerations, he conducted himself with great dignity. For much of his life, not surprisingly and not unlike many of his worthy successors, he was marginalized and shunned by the political establishment of his time — until events validated their “radical” beliefs and resurrected their reputations.
He graduated as valedictorian but had initially been barred from living on the Rutgers campus because he was black. He was twice an All-American but was benched at a game against a Southern team because he was black. He was one of the strongest voices in the college glee club, but couldn’t tour with them because he was black. He was a lawyer whose employers made it clear he would never advance in his field because he was black. He was an international activist for human rights whose passport was taken away. He was among the greatest performers of his day but was prevented from performing at the height of his career.
Paul Leroy Robeson was arguably the greatest Renaissance man of the last century, but his legacy has been virtually erased from American history.
Barely mentioned in high school textbooks, Robeson remains virtually unknown to most Americans. And, yet, throughout his life, few principled men of his caliber paid as high a price and for as long a period as he did for his political beliefs.
“Robeson Remembered: How Rutgers is Saluting an Oft-Overlooked Giant,” New Jersey Monthly, May 7, 2019. In an earlier version of this diary, I referred to the subject as “A Man for All Seasons.” That was Robert Whittington‘s description of Sir Thomas More as a man of conscience, character, and integrity and one who embodied enduring values that have stood the test of time. More served as Lord Chancellor to King Henry VIII of England in the early 16th century and was executed in 1535 on bogus charges of treason. Cartoon source: Library of Congress. Photograph credit: Pinterest.
Activist, Scholar, Actor, Lawyer, Singer, Athlete, Linguist, and More
It has been alleged that I am part of some kind of international conspiracy. I am not and never have been involved in any international conspiracy or any other kind, and do not know anyone who is. It should be plain to everyone – and especially to Negroes – that if government officials had a shred of evidence to back up that charge, you can bet your last dollar that they would have tried to put me in their jail! But they have no such evidence and their charge is a lie…
In 1946, at a legislative hearing in California, I testified under oath that I was not a member of the Communist Party. But since that I have refused to give testimony or sign affidavits to that fact. There is no mystery involved in this refusal… I have made it a matter of principle, as many others have done, to refuse to comply with any demands of legislative committees or departmental officials that infringes upon the Constitutional rights of all Americans.
Paul Robeson, Here I Stand (pp 46-48, 1958).
What did this man do that propel so many to ignore his numerous contributions and conveniently forget the crucial role he played in our culture and politics? Or, a few others to remember him with deep reverence and respect?
Who was this brilliant man? This article best summarizes the depth and breadth of his accomplishments.
How many people do you know who are athletes? How about an athlete who has won 15 varsity letters in four different sports? An athlete who has also played professional football while at the same time being valedictorian at his university? Does this athlete also hold a law degree? How many scholar-athlete performers can you name? Concert artists who have sold out shows around the world and who can perform in more than 25 different languages? Does this scholar-athlete-performer also act in Shakespearean and Broadway plays and in movies? Can you identify a scholar-athlete-performer who is also an activist for civil and human rights? Someone who petitioned the president of the United States of America for an anti-lynching law, promoted African self-rule, helped victims of the Spanish civil war, fought for India’s independence, and championed equality for all human beings? Did this scholar-athlete-performer-activist also have to endure terrorism, banned performances, racism, and discrimination throughout his career?
Paul Robeson was all these things and more. He was the son of a former slave, born and raised during a period of segregation, lynching, and open racism.
“Teaching With Documents: The Many Faces of Paul Robeson” – National Archives.
Getting to Know Paul Robeson
I had been vaguely familiar with Robeson but first became fully aware of his accomplishments in some depth during a Cold War History seminar in undergrad school. One of the sections dealt with the historic and contentious Presidential Election of 1948. What caught my attention was not as much the dynamic of the Harry Truman-Tom Dewey race or the splintering of the Democratic Party by the defection of rightist Dixiecrats under Strom Thurmond but, rather, the leftist challenge to Truman’s candidacy by the Progressive Party and former Vice President under FDR, Henry Wallace.
Candidates on the Progressive Party’s ticket were the forerunners of today’s thousands of elected black officials not only in the South but all over the country (Paul Robeson: The Great Forerunner, p. 118). In the years to come, the critical role played by Robeson in campaigning for Wallace in the then-segregated states of the Deep South laid the foundations for African-Americans to re-enter national politics for the first time since Reconstruction.
Personally, he found in the newly established Progressive party a legitimate political organization through which to channel his reformist energies. As did millions of citizens, he rallied behind the Progressive candidate in the presidential elections of 1948, former Vice-President Henry Wallace. He appeared in Wallace campaign films. Robeson seemed genuinely inspired when, in a campaign speech in Washington, D.C., he told an audience, “We have taken the offensive against fascism! We will take the power from their hands and through our representatives we will direct the future destiny of our nation.”
The least of Robeson’s postwar defeats was the dismal showing made by Wallace in the November elections. In a society now locked in a cold war with the Russian rival, Robeson’s progressive politics were labeled “communistic” and “treasonable.” He consistently suffered because of his outspoken political views. Speeches were abruptly canceled, concerts were called off, biographies of Robeson were banned from public libraries, and rioting often occurred during his appearances.
J. Fred MacDonald, “The Perimeters of Black Expression: The Case of Paul Robeson” – 1992, Source: Blacks and White TV – African Americans in Television Since 1948. Photograph credit: The Paul Robeson Community Center.
Giving Up on a Career in Law in America and Finding Fame in Europe
All that Paul Robeson stood for had enormous impact on American and global history. The combination of his art, intellect and humanity was rarely paralleled.
The cruelties visited upon him by the power of the State stands as a great blemish on the pages of American history. But despite the attempt to wipe him from memory, he has endured and continues to influence.
It speaks to our most strategic interests that African American children be instructed about the truth of his existence. Indeed it would be in the best interest of all Americans to know what this great patriot offered this nation.
Actor, singer, and political activist Harry Belafonte, April 9, 2008, on the occasion of Paul Robeson’s 110th Birthday. “Paul Robeson: The 20th Century’s Greatest Renaissance Man” – 2008, Source: Bay Area Paul Robeson Centennial Committee. Photograph credit: Black Voices.
Robeson gave up pursuing a law career not long after graduating from Columbia Law School in 1923 when a white secretary in the Stotesbury and Milner law firm in Manhattan (where he worked) refused to take dictation from him. She told him, “I never take dictation from a nig##r.”
Ambivalent about his future prospects as a black lawyer in New York, Robeson had experienced considerable success in a parallel career path. He had made quite a name for himself in films, on stage, and on the radio. The world order had been transformed after World War I and great social and cultural changes were underway. The Harlem Renaissance gained worldwide recognition for black entertainers and opened up opportunities for them in other countries. In the 1920s, reviled in their own country, turned into outcasts, and treated worse than second-class citizens in a segregated society, many black entertainers sought refuge in European countries to find acceptance abroad. Beginning in 1928, Robeson would spend over a decade living and performing not only in Great Britain but all over Europe. It was there that his popularity as an actor and singer grew by leaps and bounds.
Early on during his stay in London, several incidents happened which validated his decision to move abroad. While largely free of racism, British society was hardly a paradise for men of color. In 1928, he became the first actor ever to be invited for lunch to the House of Commons by a group of Labour Party MP’s. In 1929, however, he was refused service at the world-famous Savoy Grill. In protest, Robeson wrote this letter to the Manchester Guardian on October 23, 1929.
I thought that there was little prejudice against blacks in London or none but an experience my wife and I had recently has made me change my mind and to wonder, unhappily, whether or not things may become almost as bad for us here as they are in America.
A few days ago a friend of mine invited my wife and myself to the Savoy grill room at midnight for a drink and a chat. On arriving the waiter, who knows me, informed me that he was sorry he could not allow me to enter the dining room. I was astonished and asked him why. I thought there must be some mistake. Both my wife and I had dined at the Savoy and in the grill room many times as guests.
I sent for the manager, who came and informed me that I could not enter the grill room because I was a negro, and the management did not permit negroes to enter the rooms any longer.
“Paul Robeson, Letter in the Manchester Guardian” – Spartacus Educational (U.K.). The promotional poster is about Song of Freedom, a 1936 British film starring Robeson. It is the story of a musically-talented black dockworker living in England and one who achieves fame by becoming an international opera star. Poster credit: Cinema Torrents.
Later, it was discovered that the hotel management had acted only after receiving complaints from American tourists who had been visiting London at the time. Because of Robeson’s letter to the Guardian and complaint to the then-British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald (who condemned the incident), major hotels in London decided not to exclude blacks from among their patrons. In the late 1920s, when lynchings of black men were still taking place in the Southern United States, it is not unrealistic to assume that what took place in London could not have conceivably happened in Robeson’s own country.
When Shakespeare’s Othello opened in London in 1930 with Robeson as the first black actor in 65 years to play the title role, he received 20 curtain calls on opening night. Whatever concerns his race might have raised soon dissipated for his magnificent, sophisticated, and mesmerizing performances defied the prevailing negative stereotypical image of the “uncultured and uncivilized” black man.
The New Yorker magazine covered it this way.
In 1930 Robeson won rave reviews for his performance in Shakespeare’s Othello. That performance, however, took place in London, not New York, which London correspondent Anthony Gibbs took pains to point out in his dispatch for the June 21, 1930 New Yorker.
Writing in The Guardian (Sept. 3, 2003), Samantha Ellis observes: “Recognising that his Othello transcended the ropey production, the audience gave Robeson 20 curtain calls. He reprised the role all over the world and never lost his pleasure in it. For Robeson, it was more than just a part: it was, as he once said, “killing two birds with one stone. I’m acting and I’m talking for the negroes in the way only Shakespeare can.”
Robeson’s Othello would not make it to New York until 1943. It would run for almost 300 performances, setting an all-time record run for a Shakespearean play on Broadway.
“London Letter,” New Yorker, June 11, 1930.
Living abroad and traveling extensively, Robeson — long interested in the issue of civil rights and workers’ rights — came into his own as his political activism grew.
He was one of the top performers of his time, earning more money than many white entertainers. His concert career spanned the globe: Vienna, Prague, Budapest, Berlin, Paris, Amsterdam, London, Moscow, New York, and Nairobi.
Robeson’s travels opened his awareness to the universality of human suffering and oppression. He began to use his rich bass voice to speak out for independence, freedom, and equality for all people. He believed that artists should use their talents and exposure to aid causes around the world. “The artist must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice,” he said. This philosophy drove Robeson to Spain during the civil war, to Africa to promote self-determination, to India to aid in the independence movement, to London to fight for labor rights, and to the Soviet Union to promote anti-fascism. It was in the Soviet Union where he felt that people were treated equally. He could eat in any restaurant and walk through the front doors of hotels, but in his own country he faced discrimination and racism everywhere he went.
“The Many Faces of Paul Robeson” – National Archives. Paul Robeson and his wife Eslanda Goode, an accomplished woman in her own right, went to Spain in January 1938 in support of Republican forces. Almost 40,000 volunteers from over 50 countries, including 2,800 Americans, were helping the government forces in fighting the fascist army rebels under General Francisco Franco. To read more about this visit, see the section titled “Reaching Spain and Fighting the Fascists” in this diary I wrote many years ago – Condemned as “Premature Anti-Fascists.” Is There Ever a Bad Time to Oppose Fascism? – Part I and Part II. “Robeson in Spain” Sketch credit: Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives.
The 3,000 American volunteers who fought with Republican forces against General Francisco Franco’s Nationalists in Spain were viewed with suspicion and those returning home classified as “Premature Anti-Fascists” by the United States Government. For his outspoken advocacy on their behalf, the survivors made Paul Robeson an honorary member of the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (ALB).
As I wrote about these men and women in my diary about the Spanish Civil War.
Over a third of the ALB volunteers were killed in Spain. No one forcibly drafted them. They weren’t coerced in any way. No pressures were put on them to risk their lives for another country. Many had never fired a gun let alone receive any formal military training. They were certainly not motivated by profits or other commercial concerns but, rather, simply cared a great deal about their fellow human beings. These brave and largely-forgotten men and women traveled to a land most had never seen before nor had any familiarity with. They went to Spain because they believed deeply in their cause.
Those who were lucky enough to survive and return home were labelled “Premature Anti-Fascists” by their government. Doesn’t that oxymoronic term imply that the ALB volunteers were prescient in their contempt for Fascism? No matter the period and the circumstances, I don’t think it is ever inappropriate to oppose a deadly and discredited Rightist ideology like Fascism.
What in the world was our government thinking?
In the above photograph, Paul Robeson is in the middle listening to Oliver Law on the right. Law was the first African-American who commanded American forces consisting of white men in a war and was killed in battle in 1937. Photograph source: “Oliver Law” – Spartacus Educational (U.K.). Flag source: Legends of Our Time.
Returning Home to America Before World War II and Jim Crow Laws
I had never put a correct evaluation on the dignity and courage of my people of the deep South until I began to come south myself. I had read, of course, and folks had told me of strides made… but always I had discounted much if it, charged much of it to what some people would have us believe. Deep down, I think, I had imagined Negroes of the South beaten, subservient, cowed.
But I see them now courageous and possessors of a profound and instinctive dignity, a race that has come through its trials unbroken, a race of such magnificence of spirit that there exists no power on earth that could crush them. They will bend, but they will never break.
I find that I must come south again and again, again and yet again. It is only here that I achieve absolute and utter identity with my people. There is no question here of where I stand, no need to make a decision. The redcap in the station, the president of your college, the man in the street—they are all one with me, part of me. And I am proud of it, utterly proud of my people.
“Paul Robeson and the Globalization of African Culture in London in the 1920’s” – Cambridge Forecast Group Blog. He made these remarks before an integrated audience in New Orleans, Louisiana on October 19, 1942 at the Booker T. Washington School auditorium. I am fully aware that some of you will be offended by the above image. I deliberately chose it to provide context and highlight an unpleasant truth: this was the harsh every-day reality faced by millions of Americans in the first half of the twentieth century. Photograph credit: Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University. Learn more about the museum, whose mission it is to “promote racial tolerance by helping people understand the historical and contemporary expressions of intolerance.”
With the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Robeson returned to the United States. Years later, he said, “I learned my militancy and my politics, from your Labor Movement here in Britain… That was how I realized that the fight of my Negro people in America and the fight of oppressed workers everywhere was the same struggle.” More importantly, living in England had solidified his commitment to the sufferings of the poor and oppressed. It was as if he had found his purpose in life.
Upon his return, Robeson’s political activities grew on behalf of labor unions and many minority groups. Fervently anti-Fascist, he was also an initial opponent of American involvement in World War II but he supported the war effort with a great deal of enthusiasm once Germany attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941. His acting and singing career blossomed and soon he was one of the most recognizable entertainers in the country. Robeson’s demands for racial justice both at home and abroad also would gain him many enemies.
By the late 1940s, the domestic political environment was also about to dramatically change for Robeson with the onset of the Cold War, growing concerns about the perceived external and internal threats posed by Communism, and the beginning of the paranoid McCarthy Era during which loyalties of millions of Americans were openly questioned. A concert to benefit the Civil Rights Congress at Peekskill, New York in 1949 resulted in a riot and contributed significantly, if unfairly, to him becoming the target of militant ant-communists.
Robeson was not injured during the riot that ensued.
In 1949 Robeson embarked on a European tour and in doing so spoke out against the discrimination and injustices that blacks in American had to confront. His statements were distorted as they were dispatched back to the United States. Although Robeson got mixed responses from the black community, the backlash from whites culminated in riot before a scheduled concert in Peekskill, New York, on August 27, 1949; a demonstration by veteran organizations turned into a full-blown riot. Robeson was advised of this and returned to New York. He did agree to do a second concert on September 4 in Peekskill for the people who truly wanted to hear him.
The concert did take place but afterwards a riot broke out which lasted into the night leaving over 140 persons seriously injured. With such violence surrounding Robeson’s concerts, many groups and sponsors no longer supported him.
Pete Seeger was to perform at the concert, along with several folk singers and musicians, before Robeson appeared. Seeger arrived early, at 11 a.m. The line of 2,500 union members was forming around the field like a human wall…
“It may sound silly now, but we were confident law and order would prevail,” said Seeger in an interview. “I had been hit with eggs in North Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi, but this was New York State. “We heard about 150 people standing around the gate shout things like ‘Go back to Russia! Kikes! Ni**er-lovers!’ It was a typical KKK crowd, without bedsheets,” Seeger said.
The police confiscated some baseball bats from the concert guards, and prevented a few clashes during the concert, which went on peacefully. Seeger sang folk songs, playing his banjo, and the program ranged through Mozart and Handel before Robeson came on… Seeger left the concert grounds with his wife and children, his wife’s father and another couple. One of the concert guards told them to roll up their windows. A policeman in the road waved them south toward Peekskill. Around the corner was a man standing next to an immense pile of baseball-sized rocks. He took aim and hit the Seegers’ car.
The stones came faster, and Seeger told everybody to get down. The windows smashed inward. A woman in the car was hit. Danny Seeger, 2, was huddled under the Jeep seat. He was covered with glass… South of Peekskill, the rock-throwing continued through Buchanan, Montrose and Croton along Route 9 as the smashed and dented cars and buses headed back to New York City.
“The Robeson Riots of 1949” by Steve Courtney of the Reporter Dispatch (White Plains, New York), September 5, 1982. Read more about this concert and riots that followed in an excellent account of the events that took place that day – “A Rough Sunday at Peekskill” by Roger M. Williams, American Heritage, April 1976 (pp. 72-79). Sketch credit: Living Music. There’s more about Seeger’s musical contributions in preserving the legacy of the Republican cause during the Spanish Civil War in the section titled “Reaching Spain and Fighting the Fascists” in my diary about the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.
“You Are the Un-Americans, and You Ought to be Ashamed of Yourselves”
Many African-American witnesses subpoenaed to testify at the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) hearings in the 1950s were asked to denounce Paul Robeson (1898–1976) in order to obtain future employment. Robeson, an All-American football player and recipient of a Phi Beta Kappa key at Rutgers, received a law degree at Columbia. He became an internationally acclaimed concert performer and actor as well as a persuasive political speaker. In 1949, Robeson was the subject of controversy after newspapers reports of public statements that African Americans would not fight in “an imperialist war.” In 1950, his passport was revoked. Several years later, Robeson refused to sign an affidavit stating that he was not a Communist and initiated an unsuccessful lawsuit. In the following testimony to a HUAC hearing, ostensibly convened to gain information regarding his passport suit, Robeson refused to answer questions concerning his political activities and lectured bigoted Committee members Gordon H. Scherer and Chairman Francis E.Walter about African-American history and civil rights. In 1958, the Supreme Court ruled that a citizen’s right to travel could not be taken away without due process and Robeson’ passport was returned.
Robeson was not a perfect human being. Though never a member of the Communist Party of the United States, his admiration of the Soviet Union was the direct cause of some of his troubles with rightist elements in this country. Such was the price paid by many political activists caught in the cross-currents of Cold War politics. It is important to note that the J. Edgar Hoover-led FBI maintained a large dossier on him and his wife for over three decades starting in 1941 – well before the Cold War had started and during the World War II years through 1945, a period during which the USSR was officially an ally of the United States. If you are familiar (as I am) with the leading American press publications – and particularly leftist newspapers and magazines like PM, Daily Worker, and the New Leader – of the 1941-1945 period, you know well that stories about the “heroism” of Soviet soldiers fighting the Nazi war machine were as common in that day as are escapades of the Kardashians in today’s newspapers.
Accused of being a Communist by his many critics and refusing to sign an affidavit to validate this charge, Robeson was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) on June 12, 1956. To say that he held members of this committee in low regard is to grossly understate the contempt he had for them. During his testimony, he was constantly badgered in the “America, love or leave it” manner reminiscent of contentious debates a decade later during the Vietnam War.
In Robeson’s mind, the committee was filled with racists, bigots, and ultra-nationalists. There was strong available evidence to validate his suspicions.
The main objective of the HUAC was the investigation of un-American and subversive activities. Soon after his appointment Dies received a telegram from the Ku Klux Klan: “Every true American, and that includes every Klansman, is behind you and your committee in its effort to turn the country back to the honest, freedom-loving, God-fearing American to whom it belongs.”
The original intention of the HUAC was to investigate both left-wing and right wing political groups. In a statement made on 20th July 1938, Dies claimed that many Nazis and Communists were leaving the United States because of his pending interrogations. The New Republic argued that the right-wing Dies, who it described as “physically a giant, very young, ambitious, and cocksure” would target those on the left. It was no surprise when Dies immediately announced that he intended to investigate aspects of the New Deal that had been established by Franklin D. Roosevelt…
Eventually Ernest Adamson, the HUAC’s chief counsel, announced that: “The committee has decided that it lacks sufficient data on which to base a probe.” John Rankin added: “After all, the KKK is an old American institution.” Instead, the HUAC concentrated on investigating the possibility that the American Communist Party had infiltrated the Federal Writers Project and other New Deal projects.
HUAC soon came under attack from those who saw [it] as a method of blocking progressive policies being advocated by Franklin D. Roosevelt. This was reflected in the comments made by Congressman Vito Marcantonio (D-NY). “It has become the most convenient method by which you wrap yourselves in the American flag in order to cover up some of the greasy stains on the legislative toga. You can vote against the unemployed, you can vote against the W.P.A. workers, and you can emasculate the Bill of Rights of the Constitution of the United States; you can try to destroy the National Labor Relations Law, the Magna Carta of American labor; you can vote against the farmer; and you can do all that with a great deal of impunity, because after you have done so you do not have to explain your vote.”
“Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC)” – Spartacus Educational (U.K.). The above HUAC poster is from 1960, not long after McCarthyism had been discredited. Poster source: Wisconsin Historical Society.
Here are a few excerpts from Robeson’s testimony before HUAC in exchanges with the Committee Chairman Francis Walter (D-PA), Congressman Gordon Scherer (R-OH), and HUAC Counsel Richard Arens, an aide to Senator Joe McCarthy (R-WI).
Reenactment of the Testimony of Paul Robeson before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, June 12, 1956. The voice heard is of actor James Earl Jones.
THE CHAIRMAN: Proceed…
Mr. ROBESON: Could I say that the reason that I am here today, you know, from the mouth of the State Department itself, is: I should not be allowed to travel because I have struggled for years for the independence of the colonial peoples of Africa. For many years I have so labored and I can say modestly that my name is very much honored all over Africa, in my struggles for their independence. That is the kind of independence like Sukarno got in Indonesia. Unless we are double-talking, then these efforts in the interest of Africa would be in the same context. The other reason that I am here today, again from the State Department and from the court record of the court of appeals, is that when I am abroad I speak out against the injustices against the Negro people of this land. I sent a message to the Bandung Conference and so forth. That is why I am here. This is the basis, and I am not being tried for whether I am a Communist, 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…
Mr. ROBESON: In Russia I felt for the first time like a full human being. No color prejudice like in Mississippi, no color prejudice like in Washington. It was the first time I felt like a human being. Where I did not feel the pressure of color as I feel (it) in this Committee today.
Mr. SCHERER: Why do you not stay in Russia?
Mr. ROBESON: Because my father was a slave, and my people died to build this country, and I am going to stay here, and have a part of it just like you. And no Fascist-minded people will drive me from it. Is that clear? I am for peace with the Soviet Union, and I am for peace with China, and I am not for peace or friendship with the Fascist Franco, and I am not for peace with Fascist Nazi Germans. I am for peace with decent people.
Mr. SCHERER: You are here because you are promoting the Communist cause.
Mr. ROBESON: I am here because I am opposing the neo-Fascist cause which I see arising in these committees. You are like the Alien (and) Sedition Act, and Jefferson could be sitting here, and Frederick Douglass could be sitting here, and Eugene Debs could be here.
THE CHAIRMAN: There was no prejudice against you. Why did you not send your son to Rutgers?
Mr. ROBESON: Just a moment. This is something that I challenge very deeply, and very sincerely: that the success of a few Negroes, including myself or Jackie Robinson can make up — and here is a study from Columbia University — for seven hundred dollars a year for thousands of Negro families in the South. My father was a slave, and I have cousins who are sharecroppers, and I do not see my success in terms of myself. That is the reason my own success has not meant what it should mean: I have sacrificed literally hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars for what I believe in…
Mr. ARENS: Now I would invite your attention, if you please, to the Daily Worker of June 29, 1949, with reference to a get-together with you and Ben Davis. Do you know Ben Davis?…
Mr. ROBESON: I say that he is as patriotic an American as there can be, and you gentlemen belong with the Alien and Sedition Acts, and you are the nonpatriots, and you are the un-Americans, and you ought to be ashamed of yourselves.
Read more of Robeson’s defiant testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee on June 12, 1956 as well as Seeger’s testimony before HUAC on August 18, 1955 – Pete Seeger Refuses to “Sing” for HUAC. Contrast Robeson’s and Seeger’s testimonies with those of Ronald Reagan’s and Walt Disney’s – “We Must Keep the Labor Unions Clean” – “Friendly” HUAC Witnesses Ronald Reagan and Walt Disney Blame Hollywood Labor Conflicts on Communist Infiltration. At the time, Reagan was President of the Screen Actors Guild and Disney had been a founding member of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (see the alliance’s “Statement of Principles” here). In June 1950, the pamphlet Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television accused 151 members of the entertainment industry of communist party affiliation and/or harboring sympathies for “subversive” causes. Read sample pages of this bulletin including lists of suspected organizations, individuals, and publications. The above propaganda poster maligning artists was first used by Senator Joe McCarthy in the mid-1950s. Photo credit: The Cultural Worker.
Notes About the Diary Poll
In the aftermath of World War II, Americans reacted with dismay as relations between the United States and the Soviet Union deteriorated, the Russians imposed communist control over much of Eastern Europe, and China was on the verge of going Communist. People worried that communists might try to subvert schools, labor unions, and other institutions. Government agencies and private groups began to look for evidence of subversive activity.
In this climate of fear and suspicion, the House Committee on Un-American Activities – which Herb Block had opposed since its inception in the 1930s – became active. And in 1950, a young senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, seeking political gain, began a well-publicized campaign using smear tactics, bullying, and innuendo to identify and purge communists and “fellow travelers” in government. Herb Block recognized the danger to civil liberties posed by such activities and warned of them in his work. He coined the phrase “McCarthyism” in his cartoon for March 29, 1950, naming the era just weeks after Senator McCarthy’s spectacular pronouncement that he had in his hand a list of communists in the State Department. His accusations became headline news, vaulting him into the national political spotlight. For four years McCarthy attacked communism, while in his cartoons Herb Block relentlessly attacked his heavy-handed tactics. In June 1954, McCarthy was censured and in December condemned by the Senate.
“Fire!” – Herblock’s History: Political Cartoons from the Crash to the Millenium. Cartoon credit: Library of Congress.
Simply stated, the McCarthy Era was one of the most disgraceful periods in 20th century American history. An air of suspicion hung over ordinary citizens if they were suspected of not conforming to the government’s interpretation of being a “good” American. Numerous Americans underwent investigation by federal authorities until Senator Joe McCarthy was censured by the United States Senate. He died a broken man a few years later.
“Guilty until found innocent” was often the approach used by investigators to tar many Americans with wild, unproven allegations of consorting with the enemy. Loyalties were questioned, reputations tarnished, careers destroyed, families uprooted, and lives ruined. Many notable Americans from the entertainment industry were put on lists which made their lives miserable.
During the Cold War era, the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) interrogated more than 3,000 government officials, labor union leaders, teachers, journalists, entertainers, and others. They wanted to purge Communists, former Communists, and “fellow travelers” who refused to renounce their past and inform on associates from positions of influence within American society.
Among the Committee’s targets were performers at events held in support of suspect organizations. Pete Seeger acquired a love of American folk music while traveling through the South in the 1930s with his father, a musicologist and classical composer, and as an employee in the Library of Congress’ Archive of American Folk Song.
As a folksinger motivated by concerns for social justice, cross-cultural communication, and international peace, Seeger performed songs from diverse sources to many kinds of audiences, and in 1948 campaigned for Progressive Party candidate Henry Wallace as part of the folk music organization People’s Songs.
In the following testimony before HUAC, Seeger refused to invoke the Fifth Amendment, protecting citizens from self-incrimination. Instead he insisted that the Committee had no right to question him regarding his political beliefs or associations. This strategy resulted in prison terms for contempt of Congress for the Hollywood Ten in 1947. Seeger himself was sentenced to a year in prison for contempt, but the verdict was reversed in 1962. Nevertheless, Seeger remained on a network television blacklist until the late 1960s.
“I Have Sung in Hobo Jungles, and I Have Sung for the Rockefellers”: Pete Seeger Refuses to “Sing” for HUAC, August 18, 1955 – History Matters. Photograph credit: Acoustic Live. The sketch is about The Crucible, Arthur Miller’s play detailing the late 17th century Salem Witch Trials in Massachusetts and an allegory of McCarthyism. Sketch credit: Pinterest. Read Miller’s HUAC testimony from 1956 and 1957 (pdf file) – Washington University in St. Louis. Refusing to name names of suspected Communist sympathizers, he was convicted on contempt of Congress, a conviction overturned the following year by the U.S. Court of Appeals. Read more about important political events during the McCarthy Era in this superb summary, “The Cold War Home Front: Political Reactionism” – The Authentic History Center.
To understand the effects that the House Committee on Un-American Activities had on American society, I would urge you to see this chilling documentary film made by Radical Films in 1962 by a private citizen challenging the government’s heavy-handed and, often, illegal methods. It covers the history of HUAC investigations from 1932 onwards, including those of the Hollywood Ten and others put on blacklists like the Red Channels List. It also includes extensive 1960 footage of the San Francisco City hall police water hosing protesters.
The language used in this documentary will remind you of hateful, violent, and nationalistic rhetoric used by many on the political right in recent decades. Where do you think today’s white supremacists and nationalists get their talking points from? It comes from decades of engaging in conspiracy theories and imagined threats to the “American way of life.” This feeling of paranoia and victimization persists to this day amongst many right-wingers.
If time permits do watch the full video and remember to take the diary poll.
The story continues in Part II of this diary. I hope to finish and post the diary either tomorrow (Mon 3/1) or next weekend. Thanks.