When President Donald Trump embroiled himself in the Colin Kaepernick kneeling debate, it was not the first time the government attacked an athlete for highlighting racial injustice in the United States. Muhammad Ali was famously convicted and sentenced to prison after refusing induction into the military in 1967. Half a century earlier, in 1913, Jack Johnson was convicted for violating the Mann Act when he transported Lucille Cameron, a white woman he eventually married, across state lines. He chose to flee the country and lived in exile for almost a decade, residing in Canada and Europe before returning to the United States to serve his sentence.
Albeit many years after his athletic career ended, one of the most prominent athletes to face the wrath of the U.S. government for speaking out against racism, and to suffer consequences to his freedoms as a result, was Paul Robeson. In 1950, with the country firmly in the grip of Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy’s “Red Scare,” the U.S. State Department cancelled Robeson’s passport in retaliation for his advocacy for social justice. It took eight years and multiple court battles before Robeson was allowed to travel again, but by then permanent damage had been done to his reputation, his income and his health.
The son of a runaway slave turned preacher, Paul Robeson might be one of the most impressive Americans ever. In 1915, he enrolled at Rutgers University, and despite hostility from his teammates, he became its first African-American football player. He was a two-time All-American in football and, in addition to his signature sport, earned fifteen varsity letters in baseball, basketball, and track. He was so dominant on the gridiron that in one famous contest against the Newport Naval Reserve, he scored two touchdowns and was an immovable wall on defense. He almost single-handedly defeated the previously unbeaten Newport squad, a team that featured eleven All-Americans.
Robeson was not simply a remarkably versatile and talented athlete; he was also academically gifted. When Robeson graduated in 1919, he did so as valedictorian, with his Phi Beta Kappa key, and as a member of the Cap & Skull Honor Society. He played professional football while earning his law degree from Columbia University, appearing with both the 1921 Akron Pros of the American Professional Football Association, and the 1922 Milwaukee Badgers, a founding team in the National Football League. After graduation he found employment in a New York City law firm. Frustrated by the racism he encountered, he left the practice of law. Fortunately, in addition to his athleticism and brilliant mind, he also had a world class voice and acting skills, ultimately performing as a singer and actor in front of audiences across the globe.
Robeson did not limit himself to simply performing and winning awards; he used his platform to speak on the issues of social justice that he thought most important to the United States and to the world. In fact, he saw the problems of his own country reflected in others and, in many ways, was a global citizen and activist. According to scholar Mark Alan Rhodes II, Robeson’s activism was anchored in his commitment to anti-colonialism, socialism, and human rights. Robeson saw racism in colonialism and was deeply outspoken in his opposition to both. In his autobiography Here I Stand (1958), he wrote, “Can we oppose White Supremacy in South Carolina and not oppose the same vicious system in South Africa?” He so annoyed the apartheid government of South Africa that in 1949, it banned his records.
His commitment to socialism began, in part, because the only labor unions in the United States in the 1930s which worked with African-American labor were socialist and communist groups. As a gesture of his commitment, he moved beyond raising money for organizations: he required the venues in which he performed both be racially integrated and provide free or reduced cost tickets to those in the community who could not afford to attend. Robeson’s support of human rights was reflected, among other places, in his role as head of the American Crusade to Stop Lynching. In 1946, he met with President Harry Truman in a vain attempt to persuade him to support federal anti-lynching legislation. Robeson’s activism and travel put him on the FBI watchlist in the late 1930s, but his opposition to the fascists of Europe and support for the Allied efforts in World War II kept him largely on the good side of the U.S. government. But, in 1949, the governmental goodwill vanished.
In April 1949, Robeson participated in the Congress of Partisans of Peace (aka the Paris Peace Conference). The week prior to the event, the New York Times reported that Communist Party members were organizing the gathering and that the 104 Americans participating, including Robeson, were suspected Communists. Given that this was during the height of the Red Scare, this was a serious assertion. The next day, the Times reported that the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), whose purpose was to investigate Americans suspected of being Communists, believed that the Peace Conference was a plot to convince American scientists to stop their research and to give nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union. The article specifically noted that Robeson had ties to as many as 50-60 Communist affiliated organizations.
Robeson’s appearance in Paris was largely unscripted, singing some songs and giving an impromptu speech. He later said that he had advocated for peace, asserting that no one should go to war. The New York Times reported that Robeson talked about the problems of racism in America and claimed that black Americans were not eager to go into battle. Biographer Martin Duberman confirmed the gist of the Times’ report, claiming that Robeson had said that black Americans “will not make war on anyone. We will not make war on the Soviet Union.”
It is possible that, despite this potentially inflammatory idea, Robeson could have avoided the government’s wrath were it not for an Associated Press report that was filed before Robeson spoke, which misquoted the activist. That story, which was picked up widely and became the common understanding of the speech, claimed that Robeson had said that black Americans would refuse to fight against the Soviet Union and would sit out World War III if and when it came. The difference seems to be a matter of emphasis: was Robeson suggesting that black Americans would not fight anyone because they wanted peace, or was he suggesting that they would not fight the Soviet Union specifically because they were Communist sympathizers?
The latter is what white America heard, and blew up over. The New York Times reacted to the AP story with an editorial on April 25, 1949, essentially telling Robeson to shut up and sing. The column began by noting that Robeson was an “outstanding human being. He can do himself nothing but harm by making himself a propagandist for a party line.” Although the editorial condemned the proposal that he be banned from Connecticut, where his home was, it added, “He is mistaken and misled, as many other persons are and have been. We hope, profoundly, that his passion for a good cause will not lead him permanently into support for a bad one. We want him to sing, and to go on being Paul Robeson.” The editorial ignored that Paul Robeson was, and always had been, an activist. The black press was more mixed in its reaction with some support and some concern, but several prominent African-Americans condemned Robeson for his remarks. Robeson, in Europe performing, was initially unaware of the firestorm over his remarks, but later offered some clarifying remarks and then went on an unscheduled visit to the Soviet Union.
In July 1949, HUAC got more directly involved in the fray by inviting Jackie Robinson, the first black player in Major League Baseball, to address Congress about black Americans’ loyalty to the United States. Robinson, who had served in the military during World War II, and who had been court-martialed for refusing to sit in the back of a military bus, reluctantly agreed. In his testimony, Robinson called out the U.S. for its ongoing racial discrimination, and he acknowledged that Robeson’s Paris speech might have been inaccurately reported. But, he did say that the assertion that black Americans would not fight for the U.S. was “silly,” that black Americans had fought in every war for their country and would continue to do so. He added that they had “too much invested in our country’s welfare, for any of us to throw it away for a siren’s song sung in bass,” a reference to Robeson’s famous voice. The white press canonized Robinson and condemned Robeson again.
The FBI began following Robeson. In June of 1950, President Truman sent troops to Korea as the cold war with the Soviet Union threatened to burst into flames. Robeson spoke against U.S. involvement in Korea, and within days, the State Department cancelled his (and others’) passport, trapping him in the United States where he had largely been blacklisted. The New York Times reported that Robeson’s passport had been rescinded because his travel was “not in the interests of the United States,” implying he was too friendly with the Soviets and too opposed to the Korean War. Multiple countries expressed concern that Robeson’s travel had been restricted but to no avail.
Robeson filed a lawsuit (Robeson v. Acheson) in the Federal District Court in the District of Columbia on December 19, 1950, after attempts to negotiate the return of the passport failed. Robeson’s lawyers argued the cancellation of the passport was illegal and that as a result Robeson’s travel and business had been impacted. The District Court dismissed the case in April 1951, on the grounds that the State Department could use its discretion in turning down passport applications. The DC Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal in August 1952, noting that Robeson’s passport had expired in January 1951, and that they could find no evidence that he had attempted to renew it, which made the case moot. Even more absurd, the court added that it saw no evidence that he needed to travel anywhere a passport would be needed.
Robeson tried again. In 1953, he applied for a passport and was told that his application was rejected because of his Communist connections and that he could seek “further review.” The court noted that he had not done so. A year later, the same pattern played out. He then amended his application, but the passport office of the State Department said, in essence, that by failing to seek further review, he had declared himself “ineligible.” The State Department wanted Robeson to indicate via affidavit that he had no past or present connections to the Communist Party, but Robeson insisted that affidavit was not legally required for a passport. The two went back and forth for years, and Robeson filed another lawsuit (Robeson v. Dulles). This time, the appellate court sided with the State Department and said that Robeson’s refusal to sign the affidavit meant he had “failed to exhaust his administrative remedies.” Robeson remained trapped in the United States.
In June 1956, HUAC decided to investigate how the passport process was working and invited Robeson to speak before the committee. Mostly the hearing was devoted to quizzing Robeson about his ties to the Communist Party. Robeson manipulated the conversation beautifully. When asked a question, he mocked it, made his opinion clear, and then pled his 5th Amendment right not to incriminate himself. When asked for the names of Communists, he refused to name anyone who wasn’t already publicly identified as a leader, but he embraced those leaders as his friends and as good Americans. He called the committee, the topic, and the questions nonsense. Simply put, he spoke rings around the committee. At one point a Congressman, distracted by flashes from the photographers’ cameras, asked the committee chair to stop them, and Robeson jumped in to note that he was comfortable with cameras: should he pose and smile? Robeson was a lawyer, an actor, an orator, and a brilliant man, and the committee underestimated him. After he called them non-patriots and Un-American, the chair abruptly adjourned the meeting. Still, despite his deft handling of the affair, Robeson’s passport was not reissued.
Finally in June 1958, the Supreme Court ruled in Kent v. Dulles that the State Department had overreached its authority and that passports could only be denied if the person was not a citizen or was breaking the law in applying. Rockwell Kent, a white man from New York, had his own passport canceled for attempting to attend the 1958 meeting of the World Council of Peace. He was subjected to the same affidavits as Robeson, declaring he was not a communist, and he filed a suit against secretary of State John F. Dulles. The Court declared that if Congress wished to make more narrow regulations about denying passports because of associations, it could do so, but the State Department as part of the Executive Branch could not. Although Robeson was not directly involved in the case, the precedent impacted him. He received his passport within the week and left for England a few weeks after that.
That vindication, however, came too late. Paul Robeson, a man of consistency and integrity, had been broken by his battle with the government. His finances had suffered; some sources claim his income may have dropped from about $100,000 to $2,000 per year after the revocation. The stress of the process, the stress of being villainized–all of it took a toll on his physical and mental health. He returned to the U.S. in 1963, essentially retired from public appearances and public life. He died in 1976, and the world lost one of its most remarkable activists.
For further reading on the topics discussed in this article, click here.