Now,the VOA Special English program, PEOPLE IN
AMERICA. Today, Shirley Griffith and
Steve Ember finish the story of the life of Paul Robeson. He was a singer and
international political activist.
By the late nineteen twenties, Paul Robeson had become
the most highly praised black actor and singer of the time. During the nineteen thirties, he became involved in national and international movements for peace, equal rights for black Americans, and better labor conditions. He traveled around the world singing his songs to support these struggles. However, his friendship with the Soviet Union brought strong
opposition from conservative groups in the United States.
Many people in the United States opposed Robeson's
political beliefs as too liberal or extreme. As early as nineteen forty-one, American government agencies, led by
the Federal Bureau of Investigation, reportedly had targeted
him as dangerous. They
considered his political activism to be against the best interests of the American government.
During World War Two, the United States and the Soviet
Union were allies fighting against Nazi Germany. Robeson recorded several Russian songs to honor the Soviet people's defense of
their land against the Nazi invasion. These recordings were broadcast in the Soviet Union.
Many Soviet soldiers were said to have heard Paul
Robeson's voice before going into battle.
This is one of those songs. It is called "Native Land."
After World War Two, relations between the United States
and the Soviet Union became tense. In the late nineteen forties, Americans feared communism as a threat to their way of
life. The people in the Soviet Union were denied the freedoms that Americans enjoyed.
The United States joined with other nations to try to halt the spread of communism around the world.
In addition, the crimes of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin
became public. These
included the killing of millions of people in the Soviet Union who opposed his policies. As a result, many former American supporters of communism stopped supporting the
Robeson, however, continued to support the Soviet
Union. He still believed in the idea of communism. And he believed in friendship between the United States and the Soviet
Union. A congressional committee began investigating Americans who supported communism or who were friends of people who
supported it. The committee
questioned Robeson. He refused to say if
he was a communist.
Robeson saw the questioning as an attack on the democratic rights of everyone who worked for
international friendship and for equality.
Robeson also was condemned in the United States because
of his criticism of the United States government. He spoke at the World Peace Conference in Paris in April, nineteen
forty-nine. He was reported to have said he did not believe black Americans
would fight for the American government that oppressed them
against the Soviet Union.
This statement brought a strong reaction against him from
some people in the American press, government and public. It led to rioting at a concert in New York State where Robeson was
to appear. Hundreds
of people were injured when crowds threw stones at people attending the concert.
In nineteen fifty, the American State Department withdrew Robeson's travel document because of the political ideas
he expressed. This
prevented him from leaving the United States to perform in other countries. The State Department said his travel to other countries would not be in the best interest of
the United States.
Robeson also was barred from performing in many places in
the United States. His
concerts were canceled. His records were withdrawn from stores.
Record companies refused to produce new recordings of his songs.
Robeson said the actions against him were attempts to silence artistic expression. He said they were attempts to control whom people could hear and what they
In nineteen fifty-two, the Mine, Mill and Smelters Workers
Union of British Columbia, Canada, invited Robeson to attend
its yearly meeting. Americans
do not need a passport to enter Canada.
But the United States government barred him from entering
Canada anyway. So the
union invited him to sing at an outdoor concert in the United States.
The concert was held at Peace Arch Park. The park is in the northwestern state of Washington, on the border between
the United States and Canada.
Robeson sang to more than thirty thousand people in both countries. Here is a recording from that concert.
Robeson sang a famous labor union song called "Joe Hill."
Robeson performed at another outdoor concert at Peace
Arch Park the following year.
At the end of the program, Robeson spoke to the thousands of people attending. He promised to continue the fight for freedom as long as he could. Here is part of that speech.
Nineteen fifty-eight was an important year for Paul
Robeson. His regained his passport that year after a Supreme Court
ruling on a similar case. The
Supreme Court ruled that the State Department could not withhold passports of American citizens because
of their suspected beliefs or the groups they joined. A book he wrote about his life, "Here I Stand," also was
published. And, that same year, he performed in a concert at the famous
Carnegie Hall in New York.
It was his first appearance there in eleven years. Every seat
in the hall was filled. Paul Robeson sang
an African American spiritual called "Didn't My Lord
Deliver." Here is a recording from that concert.
Paul Robeson and his wife Essie moved to London where he continued to sing and act. They also visited the Soviet Union often. In nineteen
sixty-three, they returned to the United States. Paul
Robeson was suffering from physical and mental problems. He
retired from public life because of his bad health. Paul Robeson died in nineteen seventy-six, in
In nineteen forty-nine, Paul Robeson had written these
words: "I shall take my voice wherever there are those who want to
hear the melody of freedom or the words that might inspire
hope...in the face of...fear. My
weapons are peaceful, for it is only by peace that peace can be attained. The song of freedom must prevail."
You have been listening to the story of the life of
singer and political activist Paul Robeson.
This Special English program was written by Shelley Gollust and produced
by Lawan Davis. Your narrators were
Shirley Griffith and Steve Ember. I'm
Bob Doughty. Listen again next week for
PEOPLE IN AMERICA program on the Voice of America.