Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Knight: In Red Scare, African-American Activist Suffered Fools, Black and White
By Bill Knight
Opinion columnist
Nov 20, 2018 at 12:51 AM 

Sixty-seven years ago this month, the NAACP’s Crisis Magazine condemned world-renowned African-American athlete, entertainer and activist Paul Robeson, and a new book rekindles memories of his travails – including a Peoria incident that seems to have started his blacklisting.

That episode involved the area’s Communist-hunting Congressman, too, but such criticism also came from cautious leaders from the labor and black communities, local and national.

The Crisis article (written pseudonymously by Earl Brown of the black newspaper the Amsterdam News, family said) called Robeson a “Kremlin stooge” adding, “Robeson is a tragic figure.”

Others disputed such denunciations.

In the book “No Way But This: In Search of Paul Robeson,” Jeff Sparrow writes, “Paul Robeson possessed one of the most beautiful voices of the 20th century. He was an acclaimed stage actor. He could sing in more than 20 different languages; he held a law degree; he won prizes for oratory. He was widely acknowledged as the greatest American footballer of his generation. But he was also a political activist who, in the 1930s and 1940s, exerted an influence comparable to Martin Luther King and Malcolm X in a later era.”

The campaign to silence him came from rabid, Right-wing Red-baiters, but also timid unions and cautious black groups. Earlier in 1951, NAACP president Walter White in Ebony magazine wrote, “Robeson was a victim of an evangelic acceptance of a new system of society. [Russia. He’s] a bewildered man,” and that December Crisis editor Roy Wilkins blasted Robeson in American Magazine. Black newspapers including the Pittsburgh Courier and Baltimore Afro-American joined the attack, condemning the popular talent and outspoken advocate of equality.

Today, Robeson’s mostly remembered for singing “Ol’ Man River” in “Showboat” on stage and film, but he also starred in “The Emperor Jones,” “Othello,” “The Proud Valley” and eight other memorable movies. Performing concerts in Europe, he appreciated better race relations there and for a time lived in London, befriending James Joyce, Emma Goldman and other artists and activists. During the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War (a proxy foreshadowing of World War II), he became involved, backing the anti-Fascist Loyalists. Thereafter, he was openly supportive of anti-Fascist and Communist causes, though he never became a Communist.

“The artist must take sides,” Robeson explained in 1937. “He must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice.”

That choice angered conservatives in the 1950s McCarthy Era, from Washington to Peoria.

There, Robeson was booked to perform in April 1947, but some politicians and military veterans crusaded against it.

“Two days before a scheduled concert in Peoria, Robeson and nearly 1,000 others were cited by the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) for ‘supporting the Communist Party and its front organizations’,” wrote Georgia State University researcher Barry Everett Lee.

Despite support from the ACLU, the United Electrical union, and a Ministerial Alliance, opponents of the show included local columnists, a labor council, and a white American Legion post (an all-black Legion post defended Robeson). The radical United Farm Equipment and Metal Workers union (FE) backed the appearance, and Peoria Mayor Carl Triebel initially defended Robeson’s free-speech rights but gave in to the uproar, and the City Council voted to ban the appearance of anyone who espoused “un-American” views.

So, Peoria FE leader Ajay Martin and an 11-person, mixed-race committee hosted an informal appearance at Martin’s home.

“The Peoria affair is a problem bigger than me,” Robeson said then.

Later, anti-Communist hysteria increased nationwide. Joe McCarthy in the U.S. Senate and Peoria-area Congressman Harold Velde in the House held hearings accusing people of being Communists, which led to many people prevented from working. Robeson testified before Velde’s HUAC in 1956 and bristled when asked why he didn’t move to the Soviet Union: “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 not being tried for whether I am a Communist. I am being tried for fighting for the rights of my people,” he said. “I am here because I am opposing the neo-Fascist cause which I see arising in these committees. You are the un-Americans, and you ought to be ashamed of yourselves.”

Sparrow, with admiration, sees how Robeson in 1940′s film “The Proud Valley” dramatized how prejudice can be broken down by common interests, writing, “In the film, the solidarity of the workplace overcomes the miners’ suspicion about a dark-skinned stranger. ‘Aren’t we all black down that pit?’ asks one of the men.”

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