125th Anniversary of the Birth of Paul Robeson – An Outstanding Personality of the 20th Century

125th Anniversary of the Birth of Paul Robeson – An Outstanding Personality of the 20th Century

“Like any other people, like fathers, mothers, sons and daughters in every land, when the issue of peace or war has been put squarely to the American people, they have registered for peace. […] In fact, because of this deep desire for peace, the ruling class leaders of this land, from 1945 on, stepped up the hysteria and propaganda to drive into American minds the false notion that danger threatened them from the East. This propaganda began before the blood of precious human beings stopped flowing in the mighty struggle against fascism.” – “Thoughts on Winning the Stalin Peace Prize,” Paul Robeson, Freedom, January 1953

April 9, 2023 marked the 125th anniversary of the birth of Paul Robeson, one of the outstanding personalities of the 20th century. He was not only a great U.S. scholar, athlete, lawyer, actor and singer but, most importantly, an ardent fighter for the rights of all who always upheld the sacred causes of peace, freedom and democracy, for his own people and for the peoples of the world.

On this occasion, a review of the documentary about his life, The Tallest Tree in Our Forest, and the documentary itself, are posted for the interest of the youth who seek to know about the lives and deeds of the heroes of the working class and peoples’ movement for emancipation in the 20th century. We also dedicate these to the generation who grew up with Paul Robeson and greatly admire him for his magnificent achievements in various fields of endeavor and contributed to the same to the best of their ability. He was greatly appreciated and admired by the working class and peoples of the U.S. and Canada and of the entire world for the love and devotion he always showed for just causes, in which he put his own people in first place, and contributed the same to the peoples of the world.

Paul Robeson stood tall when he was persecuted by the U.S. state, especially during the McCarthy inquisition, his fidelity to principles inspiring all who knew him or of him to strive for ever greater heights of peace, freedom and democracy.

At a time the U.S. state is once again carrying out egregious activities against all those who refuse to submit to its dictate, the example of Paul Robeson is more significant than ever.

The Tallest Tree in Our Forest
A Documentary

Robeson attended Rutgers University in New Jersey on a full scholarship, the university’s third black student and its first black football player.

The Tallest Tree in Our Forest is a 1977 documentary film directed and written by Gil Noble, about singer, actor and activist, Paul Robeson. The biography was shot on 16mm film and is comprised of interviews, film footage and photographs.

The film, in chronological order, shows how Robeson attended Rutgers University on a scholarship where he was a College All-American in football, the class valedictorian, debating champion and five times received honours from the Phi Beta Kappa academic honour society; received a law degree from Columbia Law School; played in the National Football League; spoke 20 languages; discovered common links in music through the pentatonic scale; acted in 11 films; was a bass-baritone concert singer; played the first African-American Othello and above all was a political activist.

His first acting role was in The Emperor Jones written by Eugene O’Neill. In 1922 while performing in a play in Liverpool, England, Robeson said, “I discovered I was a singer. I didn’t want to be a Wagnerian opera singer but sing the folk songs of my people. I wanted to have my voice come out of who I was.”

We are told that by 1935 his singing career was on its way and that in 15 years it would make him “the best known man in the world.”

“My concerts show the unity, the relationship of Negro music to music of all the world, the idea that all men are brothers because of their music. Folk songs from all the different countries have similarities because they have similar aspirations,” said Robeson in an interview.

Fellow actor, singer and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte, speaking about Robeson’s study of music said, “He was conscious of the highest form of the art to get the nuances so people would think he was from there.”

Uta Hagen and Paul Robeson in Othello.

Robeson changed the lyrics of the song for which he is most famous, Ol’ Man River, from “Tote that barge! / Lift that bale! / Git a little drunk, / An’ you land in jail ” to “Tote that barge and lift dat bale!/ You show a little grit / And you lands in jail.” And again, instead of, “Ah gits weary / An’ sick of tryin’; / Ah’m tired of livin’ / An skeered of dyin’, / But Ol’ Man River, / He jes’ keeps rolling along!” Robeson sang “But I keeps laffin’/ Instead of cryin’ / I must keep fightin’; / Until I’m dyin’, / And Ol’ Man River, / He’ll just keep rollin’ along!”

We learn, “Robeson became the first African American to play William Shakespeare’s Othello, with Uta Hagen as Desdemona, in the Theatre Guild production in New York in 1943. It became the longest running Shakespeare play in the history of Broadway.” Interviewed about the role, Robeson said, “What provoked Othello was the destruction of himself as a human being, of his human dignity. I related that dignity to my whole people in what Othello calls ‘his honour, his dignity.’”

It was at this time he visited the Soviet Union. “Robeson was particularly impressed with Russia at that time as he found no colour bar there. He was taken with the political system of the Soviet Union,” the narrator says.

The film says, “He went to Spain and was out among the Loyalist fighting men and played his part in the anti-fascist struggle by giving concerts.”

Paul Robeson sings for Republican troops in Teruel, Spain, 1938.

Later, “He was angry that in the 1930s there were still no blacks playing major league baseball, so he led a delegation before the major league club owners demanding that the colour bar be broken. Not long afterwards Jackie Robinson became the first African American to play in Major League Baseball.”

After World War II the anti-communist witch hunt began that targeted Robeson and many others. To this persecution he responded, “Nobody is scaring me.” Quoting his father he said, “Never compromise your principles no matter what, never take low.”

Robeson was to sing at the concert for the Civil Rights Congress in Peekskill, New York in August 1949. Nazis and Ku Klux Klan attacked and beat African Americans and Jews, burned crosses, and lynched effigies of Robeson disrupting the concert as the police stood by and did nothing.

A second concert in September was organized successfully by the Communist Party of the United States, World War II veterans and the trade unions, who protected Robeson and the 20,000 who attended.

Of that time Belafonte said, “[C]ommunism became clearly the target and they set up instruments to attack it and the most powerful was HUAC [House Un-American Activities Committee].”

“[…] then he refused to make statements saying he wasn’t a communist as it was being used against people – denying of passports etc. – he refused to take an oath because he was opposed to it in principle,” said Lloyd Brown, Robeson’s friend and biographer about the stand he took at the hearings.

The government revoked his passport, he was denied concert halls and theatres and blocked from appearing on U.S. television. “I was blacklisted as were many of my colleagues,” said Robeson. But then, he said, “My career was re-started by the Negro community, especially the churches where I gave many concerts.”

Much of the film’s material comes from the Robeson Archives Office established in 1973 then run by his son Paul Robeson, Jr. who tells the story of two renowned jazz musicians: “Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker stood on stage at a rally and said, ‘Paul is my friend, I don’t care what they say about him.’”

Paul was an internationalist and a prominent figure in the working-class movement singing wherever workers were fighting for their rights. Some memorable occasions were the sold-out concert organized by the Scottish Area of the National Union of Mineworkers at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh; singing for the construction workers at the building site of the Sydney Opera House; the famous Peace Arch concerts at the U.S.-Canada border south of Vancouver in 1951 and again in 1952, in front of tens of thousands of people; the trans-Atlantic concert arranged by the South Wales miners when Robeson was still without his passport. His was a special bond with the Welsh miners after starring in The Proud Valley, a 1940 film about Welsh coal miners.

Despite the U.S. government revoking his passport, Robeson held a famous concert at Peace Arch Park between Washington State and British Columbia on May 18, 1952, where he stood on the back of a flat bed truck and gave a rousing concert of progressive music to some 40,000 people gathered at the U.S.-Canada border.

Paul Robeson singing at the May Day rally in Glasgow’s Queen’s Park in 1960.

Robeson is warmly received during his visit to the Soviet Union in June 1960.

In 1958, after receiving his passport back Robeson made a momentous world tour – “the man of unbending principle had returned.”

The CIA poisoned Robeson in 1961 under their MK-Ultra program. Robeson was in Moscow and was planning next to meet Fidel Castro in Cuba before returning to the U.S. to join Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X in the civil rights movement. He was invited to a “surprise party” in Moscow set up by the CIA that was filled with anti-Soviet dissidents. There he was given LSD. Shortly after he left Moscow, he was admitted to the Priory Hospital in London, England. Within 36 hours of his arrival in London, and against the advice of Soviet doctors, Robeson was subjected to the first of 54 electro-convulsive shock therapy sessions. He never fully recovered and this ended his singing and political activities at the age of 63.

Turner Classic Movies (TCM) held a month-long retrospective of Robeson’s films entitled Star of the Month in September 2021. The films screened were Borderline (1930), The Emperor Jones (1933), Sanders of the River (1935), Show Boat (1936), Song of Freedom (1936), Big Fella (1937), King Solomon’s Mines (1937), Jericho (a.k.a. Dark Sands, 1937), The Proud Valley (1940) and Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist (1979), a TCM premier.

The TCM statement announcing the series reads: “Paul Robeson, was a man of immense talent and ability – actor, singer, academic, athlete, public speaker and civil rights activist. It was his efforts in the last-named capacity, along with his leftist politics, that further hampered his career in an age when opportunities for Black performers were already limited.”

A month after Joseph Stalin died in 1953 Robeson wrote a letter entitled To You Beloved Comrade.

He wrote, “Colonial peoples today look to the Soviet Socialist Republics. They see how under the great Stalin millions like themselves have found a new life. They see formerly semi-colonial Eastern European nations building new People’s Democracies, based upon the people’s power with the people shaping their own destinies. So much of this progress stems from the magnificent leadership, theoretical and practical, given by their friend Joseph Stalin.

“In all spheres of modern life the influence of Stalin reaches wide and deep. From his last simply written but vastly discerning and comprehensive document, back through the years, his contributions to the science of our world society remain invaluable. One reverently speaks of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin – the shapers of humanity’s richest present and future.

“Yes, through his deep humanity, by his wise understanding, he leaves us a rich and monumental heritage. Most importantly – he has charted the direction of our present and future struggles. He has pointed the way to peace – to friendly co-existence – to the exchange of mutual scientific and cultural contributions – to the end of war and destruction. How consistently, how patiently, he labored for peace and ever increasing abundance, with what deep kindliness and wisdom. He leaves tens of millions all over the earth bowed in heart-aching grief.”

He ends his letter with a verse from a Lewis Allan song:

To you Beloved Comrade, we make this solemn vow
The fight will go on — the fight will still go on.
Sleep well, Beloved Comrade, our work will just begin.
The fight will go on — till we win — until we win.

Paul was married to Eslanda Goode, a U.S. anthropologist, author, actress and civil rights activist. The film’s title, The Tallest Tree in Our Forest, was coined by Mary Jane McLeod Bethune an educator, philanthropist, humanitarian and civil rights activist.

The film makes a real contribution to the great Paul Robeson’s legacy as the director closes the film by saying, “We were able to come up with precious little news footage of this man shot here in this country. Not even the Library of Congress has much to offer on film. Where is that film, we ask.”