This summer — before the tragedy of Ferguson rekindled (yet again) the discussion of race in this country — I had the good fortune of seeing an incredible one-person play based on the life of Paul Robeson. It was hosted at a small, local theater although the performance from Jason McKinney was nothing short of Broadway-worthy. McKinney’s acting and deep baritone voice brought to life this complex and fascinating public figure whose life illustrated some of the most historical events of the 20th century. We take a brief look at this iconic American as our September Progressive Profile.
He was a scholar, an athlete, an orator, a singer, a lawyer, an actor, and an activist. And he was an African-American who came of age less than two generations removed from the end of the Civil War in a time when the Supreme Court sanctioned racial segregation (Plessy v. Ferguson). In 1923, Robeson earned a law degree from the Columbia Law School but his legal career was short-lived when he left the firm when a white secretary refused to take dictation from him. He then shifted to using his artistic talents in theater and music to promote African and African-American history and culture. What followed was a brilliant profession as an actor and concert singer that spanned nearly four decades. Most notable of his stage successes were Show Boat, Porgy and Bess, and Othello.
He became a “citizen of the world” in part due to the racial segregation and intolerance that prevailed in the United States in the 1920s and 30s. He took his talents to London and his theatrical career was heralded throughout all of Europe. He sang for peace and justice in 25 languages throughout the US, Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Soviet Union.
His brilliant life was rooted in fighting Jim Crow laws, embracing his African heritage, standing in solidarity with workers around the globe, and remaining a defiant persona to those who would try to stifle his unforgettable voice as it spoke out against injustice to humanity. It would be impossible to try to capture the essence of his great life in this brief summary. Instead, we highlight here his collegiate days at Rutgers. Perhaps it was the death of Michael Brown in the month before young people head off to college that prompted us to think….what must it have been like for an African American male to have ventured off to college 100 years ago. Paul Robeson was just the third “Negro” to have attended Rutgers. What fear was in his mind as he headed into an almost all-white environment?
Paul Robeson enrolled at Rutgers with a student body of 500 males almost exclusively white in 1915. Not a single other African-American student registered with him so Robeson was not permitted to live in a dormitory his first year. He was forced to live with another African-American family off campus. How anxious, one wonders, was he as he rode a trolley car to school or strode the campus?
His athletic, forensic, and scholastic gifts blossomed while in college. By his junior year he was invited to join the prestigious Phi Beta Kappa honor society; his oratory skill led the Rutgers debate team; and his booming voice delighted the home audiences who came to hear concerts from the glee club. However, the Phi Beta Kappa group rejected him for any social functions and the glee club said it was too complicated for him to travel with the group because of segregation. Paul Robeson had run smack into what W.E.B. Du Bois labeled “the color line.”
So too did the “color line” exist in the burgeoning game of football, where Robeson gained perhaps his most prominent recognition while at Rutgers. The game had barely moved east from its foundational days at Yale. Segregated train travel was still the norm. And despite his incredible athletic ability, his all-white teammates threatened to strike if he was allowed to play football. It wasn’t only the “silent treatment” given to him by his teammates but the blatant physical punishment that he endured. In a time when lynch mobs could murder black American citizens, how could he be protected on a football field? At one scrimmage Robeson remained on the ground after making a tackle. With his vulnerable right hand exposed, a player deliberately crushed his cleat into Robeson’s fingers, prying out a fingernail in the process. On the next play, Robeson lined up with his arms extended and lifted the player who had inflicted the injury into the air. Robeson later recalled, “I got Kelly in my two hands and I was going to smash him so hard to the ground that I’d break him right in two. And I could have done it.” Rutgers coach Foster Sanford rushed to the gridiron and yelled at Paul that he had made the team. At that point, Robeson released Kelly.
Robeson finished his athletic career at Rutgers with 14 varsity sports letters; having excelled also at track, basketball, and baseball. He was named to Walter Camp’s All-American lineup in 1918 and Camp described Robeson as “the greatest defensive back ever to trod the gridiron.” Despite that, Robeson endured a contest in 1916 against Washington and Lee College in which the southern school refused to play Rutgers unless Robeson was benched. Coach Sanford obliged and with no Robeson on the field, the game ended in a tie. Outrage from African American fans ensued and when West Virginia made a similar request the following year, Rutgers refused. (In 1995, Robeson was inducted posthumously into the College Football Hall of Fame.)
Robeson was named valedictorian of his 1919 graduating class and despite all he had endured, he delivered a commencement address that called his fellow classmates to work for equality. Titled, “The New Idealism,” the address, coming at the end of World War I, in which African-Americans had proved their allegiance to their country, Robeson remained hopeful that the same spirit that had won the war would lead to a “reconstructing of American life” at home. In it he never criticized the “favored race” hoping instead a new spirit would emerge.
“We of the less-favored race realize that our future lies chiefly in our own hands. On ourselves alone will depend the preservation of our liberties and the transmission of them in their integrity to those who will come after us.”
An artist committed to fundamental social change seems to simple a statement to describe this incredible human being. Yet nearly 100 years since he endured the “color line” of his day, we still await the fundament social change in this country he sought.
We invite you listen to Paul Robeson’s powerful voice below and we urge you to research and read more about this American icon.