A panoramic view of the United States of America at the end of the Second World War and the decade that follows (1945-1955) points up the surfacing of a number of political and social contradictions of such a magnitude as to leave their indelible mark on the present period in our national history.
The development of the Freedom Movement of Black Americans since Montgomery, Alabama, is much better known to the average movement activist and citizen of our country. However, it is impossible to understand in any comprehensive way the journey we have traveled "from Montgomery to Memphis" without dealing with the events of that critical decade before the dawn that was Montgomery. For it was in that ten year period that the die was cast. The confluence of our Freedom Movement with the mighty tidal wave of liberation from colonialism engendered by the peoples of Africa, Asia and Latin America, and the role of the U.S. Government as the chief defender of the old dying colonial regimes, became an objective law of development of American society. It is a functional operative process, the final outcome of which is still being determined in today's struggles.
By the time the Second World War had ended, it was the industrial working class of the black community whose organizational strength was making the most profound impact on the outlook and style of the Freedom Movement. Drawing upon the accumulated experiences of the Depression years, in which hundreds of thousands of black workers had helped to build a militant trade union organization (CIO [Congress of Industrial Organizations]), their influence in the larger Freedom Movement was now on the rise.
The battering ram for beginning to break down the economically profitable corporate-sponsored tradition of racial prejudice and racist practice was these class organizations of industrial workers. Our movement for equal rights and freedom had shifted sharply to the left during the Depression years. The direction of this shift was away from the nationalist-separatist trend of the 1920s, as represented by the Garvey movement, to the class struggle organizing trend in such unorganized heavy industries as steel, packinghouse, longshore and auto. Black and white workers got together, and that was power.
Other long established and respected organizations of the Freedom Movement, such as the NAACP, Urban League, and local groups like the Booker T. Washington Trade Association continued to play a constructive role but one of secondary importance. These traditional organizations represented the indigenous black middle class and the intellectual spokesmen drawn from this class.
The real power, the real dynamism of the Freedom Movement in this period centered in the bold, energetic, "together" movement created by the working class. That movement was not dominated by the George Meanys of the day. It was the heart of the general movement for social change in our country which had emerged and come to maturity during President Roosevelt's New Deal, and Paul Robeson as artist, citizen, and freedom fighter identified with this.
Another far-reaching and significant change affecting the general features of our Freedom Movement in this period was the growth in the number of NAACP chapters in the small towns and rural areas of the South. The big cities, like Atlanta, New Orleans and Memphis, had for years developed strong NAACP chapters. Now with the close of World War II, a pattern of chapter organization had spread to places like Monk's Corner, South Carolina.
Robeson had returned to America, the land of his birth, in 1939 after more than a decade of active participation in the cultural life and social movements in Europe. A highly successful concert and acting career on the European stage and an important body of experience gained from being involved with various antifascist movements had prepared him well to make a unique contribution to the struggles developing here.
Above all, the world scene was beginning to undergo profound political changes as millions of people broke away from world capitalism's long established system of colonialism and became politically independent. Under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, the Indian National movement re-established India's political independence from Britain in 1947, and the following year Burma took the same path. A general uprising of the Indonesian people which lasted for three years (1946-1949) ended centuries of Dutch political rule, while the Democratic Republic of Vietnam declared its independence from France and went on to fight for that independence under the revolutionary leadership of the venerable Ho Chi Minh. This Asian drama reached a crescendo of achievement in 1949 with the victory of the Chinese people over the feudal landlords and foreign rule, resulting in the establishment of the Chinese People's Republic. With more than a billion people in Asia now on the road to social emancipation, freedom from colonial slavery would inevitably spread to the African continent as well.
Confronted with these massive developments on a world scale, combined with the devastation which World War II had produced in Europe, the old European colonial powers were in bad shape. Britain's currency was devalued from $4.85 to $2.85; the British electorate dismissed Churchill, the wartime leader, in favor of a Labour Government. France and Italy now had huge leftwing political parties opposed to capitalism, well rooted in the trade union movement and capable of pulling up to 40 per cent of the vote in any election; and with Britain unable to increase its rate of investment in South Africa, the right-wing Afrikaner government was beckoning to United States corporations to fill the gap.
The U.S. empire builders whom President Roosevelt had earlier characterized as the "economic royalists" then embarked upon a course of action which the American people are still paying for. Their strategy consisted of two concurrent parts. First, breaking up the New Deal coalition which was still intact and scattering it before it began to be influenced by the revolutionary currents developing in the world. Secondly, launching a concerted drive to take over their colonial markets and sources of raw material from the faltering European Powers. In the course of this, they hoped to reverse the anti-colonial struggle.
The Four Freedoms which President Roosevelt had committed the U.S. to pursue as a goal of foreign policy were now scrapped, while the rhetoric was retained. The Biblical ideal which they embodied, that "The meek shall inherit the earth," was now translated to mean that General Motors, Standard Oil and the Chase National Bank would attempt to inherit the earth.
Central to the success of this overall strategy was the need to intimidate and brutalize the Negro community, thereby "putting them back in their place." A National Administration made up of Southern segregationists was now in power headed by Truman of Missouri as President, James F. Byrnes of South Carolina as Secretary of State and Tom Clark of Texas as Attorney General. A wave of mob violence and lynchings was unleashed in the South in Columbia, Tennessee; Monroe, Georgia; and elsewhere. It was the old terror formula which had been used following the First World War and was now being revived.
Into this turbulent milieu, a milieu so full of hope for the oppressed and so full of dangers that our aspirations for freedom would be drowned by the counter-revolution, stepped Paul Robeson.
Huge in physical stature, eloquent and fearless in his castigation of the racist American-way-of-life, always communicating a quality of integrity and devotion to our struggle by putting his immense prestige and achievements on the line for Freedom, and being sufficiently black in skin color to satisfy the psychological need our community had to identify, Robeson emerged as the prototype of a folk hero. The outreach of his cultural achievements included having mastered the languages and music of many peoples. This gave us as a people a special link, through him, to an understanding with the peoples of Africa, Asia and the growing socialist world community in that critical period in world history. Then too, Paul knew as personal acquaintances many of the newly emerging leaders of Africa and Asia whom he had met while living abroad.
At any rate, the issues were joined. The New Deal was over as power sections of American big business interests moved boldly to push the country to the right. Robeson understood this political fact of life and its implications for the people of our country perhaps better than any other black leader with a popular following. By comparison, most spokesmen for the Negro community did not clearly discern the sharp shifts taking place in the country, were honestly still caught up in the euphoria created by the New Deal. Others were just plain opportunistically "playing it safe" and leaving themselves open to the illusions being reinforced by Truman's skillful demagogy, pretending to be a "civil rights President."
Because of his almost legendary record as a black athlete and his role as a militant spokesman, Robeson was immensely popular among the youth, particularly on the college campuses in the south. He was particularly close through his association with the Southern Negro Youth Congress, the organization which in a historical sense was a forerunner of SNCC. Paul was an inspiration to the many youthful freedom fighters who got their earliest experiences in the struggle as members of SNYC. 
Robeson once told a group of us who were members of the Miami Chapter of [the] Southern Negro Youth Congress and had gone out to meet him at the airport upon his return from a concert tour in Panama, "I wouldn't believe these boys were playing so rough if I wasn't looking at them." That was early spring 1947.
Later that year, he canceled a series of eighty concerts in the Scandinavian countries and an anticipated fee of $100,000 rather than appear under the auspices of [a] Scandinavian newspaper which had editorially endorsed the NATO alliance [North Atlantic Treaty Organization]. "I will not appear in concert under the auspices of any organization which supports NATO," he declared, "because the guns of NATO are ultimately pointed at the African people struggling for their independence." Anyone who seriously doubts the correctness of that political judgment made nearly a quarter of a century ago need only to answer the question, where indeed does Portugal get its guns to shoot down the freedom fighters in Mozambique, Angola and "Portuguese" Guinea today?
Events moved swift apace. Winston Churchill, long a spokesman of the Conservative political school of British imperialism, was invited over to speak in Fulton, Missouri, as President Truman's guest. On this' occasion, Churchill laid down the "cold-war" line, posing that the Soviet Union, which had suffered thirty million casualties during the Second World War, and had an area of its country as large as the distance between Chicago and New York City destroyed, was now the main enemy of the so-called "free world."
The "Iron Curtain" which Churchill declared had descended over Europe camouflaged the fact that indeed an Iron Curtain of repression was being lowered over the civil rights and liberties of the American people. An all-sided attack on the New Deal coalition and against all dissent was now unfolded by the Truman Administration over the course of a very few years. As had been the case in Hitler Germany, first the leadership of the Communist Party was jailed under the charge that they were "conspiring to teach and advocate the overthrow of the government by force and violence." This charge originated as one of the provisions of a piece of legislation passed in 1940 called the Smith Act whose author was Congressman Howard Smith, a segregationist from Virginia. In fact, the Smith Act had been slipped through Congress as a rider to an oleomargarine bill.
The jailing of the leaders of the Communist Party then set the stage for the next moves by the federal government. Every organization in Negro life which was attacking segregation per se was put on the "subversive list" by Attorney General Tom Clark. The National Negro Congress, a civil rights protest organization of the '40s, which had submitted a petition to the United Nations, seeking UN support for our cause in 1946, was one such organization.
Then there was the United Negro and Allied Veterans Association made up mostly of World War II vets who refused to join the Jim Crow American Legion Posts. There was the Council on African Affairs, whose co-chairmen were Paul Robeson and Dr. Du Bois and whose activities involved publishing a news letter and organizing public support for various struggles on the African continent. And of course the Southern Negro Youth Congress whose activities were a thorn in the side of the monolithic southern segregationist clique. These and many other organizations were declared to be "Communist fronts" by the government, while state and local politicians quickly picked up the signal. A virtual dragnet of arrests, blacklistings and firings followed.
The range of attacks victimized screenwriters and actors in Hollywood, teachers in the public schools, and professors' in colleges, and clergymen like some of the leaders of the Methodist Federation for Social Action. Many seamen and longshoremen were denied the right to work by Coast Guard "screening" programs. Foreign born residents of many years who had not been allowed to become naturalized U.S. citizens because of their trade union or civil liberties activities were now being deported by the government on the grounds that they were not citizens, but "undesirable aliens."
The once militant CIO was split and a number of unions representing nearly a million members were expelled from the body on the unfounded charges of being "Communist dominated." The kind of hysteria generated among the public reached such proportions that even the Cincinnati Reds baseball team, for a time, changed their name to Redlegs. Such was the state of the American public mind in those glorious days of Truman's "Fair Deal" administration. Out of this later grew the era popularly referred to as "McCarthyism." The animal had turned on itself as McCarthy charged members of the Truman Administration as being Communists or "soft on communism."
Despite the carefully calculated atmosphere of repression, the Movement found the strength to fight back, and this spirit of fighting back took many forms of organization and initiative. A mass mobilization in Washington, D.C., demanding that Congress pass a fair employment practices bill, took place in 1946 with Paul Robeson the central figure. There is a famous picture taken on that occasion of Paul standing in the midst of this huge crowd in front of the White House, and the policeman with his hand on his pistol holster telling him that he may not go in to see President Truman.
Two years later were the presidential elections and the history making campaign conducted by Henry Wallace's Progressive Party. Robeson accepted the vice-chairmanship of the Progressive Party and for several months in 1948 set aside all of his concerts so as to give full time to that election campaign. One of the most significant features of the activities of the Progressive Party was its impact on the south,
A group of us in New Orleans had formed a Seamen for Wallace Committee, and worked with the larger Progressive Party movement in Louisiana to get the Party on the ballot. Paul came down in the early summer to give a fund-raising concert and 1,500 people came out to the concert at the old Coliseum. Robeson sang some of the songs for which he was most famous, performed excerpts from Othello, and spoke of the program of the Progressive Party and why he had made the choice to become involved in it.
The audience was completely unsegregated. Everything else in New Orleans was segregated but not the Coliseum that day, for Robeson never accommodated to the Jim Crow laws at his concerts in the south. The lasting impact of the Progressive Party was the initiative and vehicle it provided for a number of pioneering efforts by black citizens running for public office. Larkin Marshall ran for the United States Senate from Savannah, Georgia, oh the progressive Party ticket. Mrs. Sonora Lawson was a candidate for the Congress from Richmond, Virginia. Professor Rudolph Moses of Dillard University was a candidate for Secretary of State in Louisiana, and there were many others.
None of these was elected, however, but it must be kept in mind that this was only four years after the Supreme Court decision outlawing the Democratic Party's white primary. These Progressive Party candidates, therefore, were an announcement to the nation that the black community in the south was returning to the political arena in the most serious way since Reconstruction. These pioneering black candidates were the forerunners of the now more than 300 black elected officials in the south today.
One of the main posters circulated by the Progressive Party campaign had the picture of a black child; the top of the poster quoted from a statistic of the period and said, " A black child born on the same day in the same city as a white child is destined to die 10 years earlier." Then at the bottom of the poster was the slogan, "We are fighting for those 10 extra years!" Henry Wallace's southern tour that autumn before the election electrified and inspired the campaign nationally. It is also of note that of the several cities Wallace visited, only in Shreveport, Louisiana, did he meet any mob violence.
It was also in the course of this election campaign that the vice-presidential candidate of the Progressive Party, Senator Glen Taylor of Idaho, was arrested by Police Commissioner "Bull" Connor in Birmingham. Senator Taylor was charged with violating the "Jim Crow" laws by refusing to enter a designated door of a church where a convention of the Southern Negro Youth Congress was being held. The white candidates who ran on the Progressive Party ticket were mostly southerners also. They too demonstrated courage and there was a small body of white supporters who remained firm in freedom's cause as some had during the Abolitionist Movement a century earlier. The finest expression of these is to be found among the dedicated leadership and staff of the Southern Conference Educational Fund (SCEF) who are an indispensable part of the Freedom Movement then and now.
Meanwhile, the NAACP was continuing to do some brilliant and effective legal work in the courts in the area of challenging the inferior conditions in the public schools in the South. Between 1945 and 1949, the NAACP in Atlanta filed a series of court suits asking the United States District Court to "issue a permanent injunction restraining the Board of Education from denying Negro school children in the city of Atlanta equal education opportunity and advantages as white children." The NAACP was attacking, in these suits, the real inequality present in the separate-but-equal formula. The underlying idea being that if there must be separate segregated schools for black and white children, they must be made equal in all respects. These and other suits were filed under the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
In Richmond, Virginia, in 1948 a leading NAACP official, Lester Banks, actually led some black students to the "for white only" King George High School and demanded admission. The superintendent of the area met him at the door and told him such a thing was "unthinkable."
The general struggle for Fair Employment Practices legislation was being duplicated at the state level especially in the North at this time. One of the by-products of this effort was the opening up of baseball to black athletes. Robeson's prestige as a pioneering sports hero came in good stead as he participated frequently in mass picket lines in front of the offices of the baseball club owners in various cities. The hiring of Jackie Robinson by the Brooklyn Dodgers was a direct outgrowth of both the mass action and the passage of FEP legislation in New York. This effort at forcing the major league ball clubs to stop discriminating against black athletes was of very significant long-term importance in the general struggle against racism, for this is the period in which television is introduced as a popular mass media and the impact of the visual presence of talented black athletes on the baseball field certainly makes its impact on the American public mind.
The voter registration thrust in the South was also a vital element in the fight-back movement against reaction. Under Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, the extreme right-wing of the Democratic Party in the South split the party over the civil rights issue and put forward its own Dixiecrat candidates in the 1948 Presidential election.
Our answer as a Freedom Movement was to accelerate the effort to increase the black vote which at that time was little over a quarter million registered voters. Some of the voter registration drives organized during this period became a model of organization. As Director of Voter Registration for the SCLC in 196I-63 I used one such model as the basis for our southwide voter registration drive. That model was the one developed by Dr. Clarence Bacote and the Atlanta Voters League in the 1946 Congressional elections during which thousands of black Atlantans were able to register to vote for the first time. The work of Professor Luther P. Jackson of Virginia in his systematic studies of the growth and voting patterns of the black electorate in Virginia was also important as a useful tool in building the black vote in the late' 40's. Professor Jackson's work was certainly qualitatively unlike most of the superficial nonsense and confusion which is passed off as social science in the United States today.
The Negro Suffrage Movement leaped ahead after the' 48 elections, painfully but deliberately, and today there are nearly three million black voters on the registration rolls in the South.
The general climate of government-promoted repression reached a frenzied pitch at Peekskill, New York, a conservative upstate town, the weekend of Labor Day 1949. A week earlier, Paul Robeson's concert had been broken up by a racist mob and some of the concert goers beaten up. Robeson was an honorary member of our union, the National Maritime Union, by a vote of the membership. Like many other people, we on the New York waterfront were determined to do anything necessary to guarantee that Paul could have a concert anywhere without a lynch mob threatening his safety. This attack upon him at Peekskill represented, to us, Mississippi moving to New York.
Anyway, there was a massive mobilization all over New York City for the Labor Day concert the following week. Plans were well-laid for a peaceful concert if it was possible to have one, but other contingencies were taken care of also. The mobs were made up of American Legionnaires, Catholic war veterans, some Jewish war veterans, aided and abetted by the New York state troopers. A lot of us felt that the position of the Jewish War Veterans was indeed paradoxical since the mobs were calling the concert-goers "kikes" and "Communist nigger lovers." Some of these "patriots" even waved swastikas behind the backs of nonchalant state troopers.
Anyway, good planning resulted in the afternoon concert on that beautiful day going well. More than 25,000 people came to that concert in an open field in Peekskill by every conceivable means of transportation. The highways leading to Peekskill were jammed with bus loads of people from Harlem and elsewhere who never got to the picnic-grounds because of the traffic congestion. The trouble came at the end of the concert which had lasted all afternoon. As dusk was approaching and the automobiles were leaving the picnic ground they were pelted with rocks, windshields were broken, people suffered from broken glass.
Further down the highway, some cars were overturned by roving mobs, and of course none of this was interfered with by the state troopers. Paul Robeson had been able to hold his concert that day, and thousands of people had demonstrated by their presence a willingness to uphold freedom of speech in general and the right of this great artist to perform in particular. Nevertheless, the violence we confronted at the end of that day confirmed the fact that the hysteria in the country was still very much with us, aided and abetted by the government itself.
Peekskill will long be remembered, because once again Paul Robeson became the focus of the defense of civil liberties and at the same time the focus of ~he attack upon civil liberties as the policy of repression was being escalated.
By 1950 the contest between Human Rights and a growing native American fascism in our country had reached a critical point. Robeson's passport had been lifted by the government. The denial of his right to travel was an attempt to silence him. However, this was to become indicative of a more general pattern as the passports of other prominent black leaders were taken as well. Mrs. Charlotta Bass, publisher of The California Eagle in Los Angeles, a black newspaper, and Mrs. Theresa Robinson of the women's division of the Elks, one of our largest fraternal organizations, were cases in point.
Senator Joe McCarthy was now riding high with his illegal investigating committee. The NAACP was beginning to show signs of buckling under to the McCarthy hysteria. Its Boston Convention that year was somewhat hysterical with its anti-Communist resolutions. Up North the extradition of black men back to chain-gangs in Mississippi, South Carolina, Georgia and elsewhere in the south by "liberal" Governors was becoming rapidly a pattern of intimidation reminiscent of the Fugitive Slave Law of the last century. John Foster Dulles, a Republican and a member of the Wall Street investment firm, Dillon-Reade, had become a special advisor to President Truman. With five million unemployed, the Korean War began in June.
This event became the excuse and occasion for stepping up a deluge of jingoistic and national chauvinist propaganda. A rash of Confederate flags, the flag of slavery and the slave holders, became everywhere in evidence. It was flown from the masts of battleships and over the court houses in many southern states. The policy of staffing the national government with southern segregationists was extended as Millard F. Caldwell of Florida became the head of Civil Defense. In New Orleans the Jim Crow city buses were painted red, white and blue in an attempt to whip up a fervor of "patriotism" while the Confederate flag flew over the court house and the city jail.
More than 7,000 people, mostly sharecroppers, were dispossessed from their homes in Ellenton, South Carolina to make way for a new H-bomb project on the Savannah River. The following year began with Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois being arrested as (to quote the government) "an agent of a foreign principal," and the year ended with the bombing of the home of Mr. and Mrs. Harry T. Moore in Mims, Florida on Christmas night. This couple were NAACP leaders of the voter registration drive in that area and both were killed in the bombing.
However, business was good. General Motors opened its new twenty million dollar plant in Port Elizabeth, South Africa; the South African government received an eighty million dollar loan in return for American corporations to have "purchase rights to great quantities of uranium." General Lucius Clay, a director of the Newmont Mining Corporation, was able to report nine million dollars in profits for his company over a three year period on a seven million dollar investment in Southwest Africa, a country which was at that time under trusteeship to the South African government.
The challenges which the Korean adventure posed, the hypocrisy and racist arrogance which accompanied it and the general economic conditions of the black community as still the last hired and first fired shaped the program that the Freedom Movement had to mobilize around. And to mobilize meant to prevent McCarthyism from fragmenting the movement thereby rendering it impotent.
A newspaper was needed — a black newspaper — which spoke clearly to the issues and would itself be an organizer. To serve this need, Paul Robeson founded the paper FREEDOM, with Louis E. Burnham as editor-in-chief. Paul had known Lou Burnham over many years for he had been one of the leading organizers of the Southern Negro Youth Congress with its headquarters in Birmingham. For the next five years, FREEDOM played a major role in bringing clarity out of confusion even though publishing under difficult circumstances.
The summer of '51 saw the city of Chicago serve as host to a MIDCENTURY CONFERENCE ON PEACE AND JOBS. This meeting brought together some 2,500 delegates from around the country who had been active in developing the anti-war movement as well as civil rights workers and trade unionists. The purpose of the meeting essentially was to set a different direction for the nation, away from the developing of a war economy and towards a peace time economy that would address itself to the growing problems of adequate housing, medical care, etc. Paul Robeson, as might be expected, was invited to give the keynote address. at this Mid-Century meeting.
In October of that year, the founding convention of the National Negro Labor Council was held in Cincinnati. Here were black trade unionists from packinghouse, steel, the canneries, longshore, electrical manufacturing, auto. .They came from both coasts and the south. Some white unionists were also present. Their aim was to mobilize their power within the trade union movement on the issue of jobs, upgrading and more representation in official positions.
Ferdinand Smith, formerly the General Secretary of the National Maritime Union; William Hood, President of the big Ford Local 600 of the United Auto Workers; and Asbury Howard, of the Mine-Mill Union in Bessemer, Alabama, an International Vice President of the Union for the southern region, were among the outstanding leaders of this organization. The main thrust of this important founding convention was the launching of a nationwide petition campaign directed to Congress for the passage of national fair employment practice legislation. In addition certain companies were selected as targets to focus on job discrimination. Among them American Airlines, Sears Roebuck and the Statler Hotels. Picket lines, boycotts and of course negotiations were the techniques used. Paul was invited to give the keynote address to this founding convention as well.
Together with William Marshall, the actor, Paul headed the Performing Artists' division of the NNLC. This latter responsibility served to underscore Robeson's continuing interest in the performing arts and in the struggles black artists were initiating to end discrimination in television and on the stage. The leading organization in this effort was known as the Committee for the Negro in the Arts (CNA), in which two rising young stars were very active, Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier.
Paul also gave of his time and moral support to the Domestic Workers Union in Harlem. Some seventy percent of the Negro women workers in New York State were either in domestic work or farm labor, such were the limited job opportunities faced at that time. The average working day for them was thirteen hours. The Domestic Workers' Union was attempting to organize the workers for securing an 8-hour day and higher pay.
The wide range of offensive and defensive struggles undertaken by organized black workers in the early '50's is demonstrated by two examples. The Norfolk Movement in Virginia was organized around the issue of securing jobs for Negro workers above the janitor level at the new Ford Plant which had recently been built there. The company which had just secured a thirty-one million dollar "defense" contract had hired some 2,000 workers, which included only 10 Negro workers and these were confined to janitors and car washers.
This of course is the classic discrimination pattern that American industry has traditionally followed. We had the same problem with Lockheed Aircraft in Atlanta a decade later. Yet today our taxes are going in part to bail Lockheed out of its financial crises.
The Mine Mill Union among the ore workers in Alabama had to fight off a raid by the combined forces of the Ku Klux Klan and the United Steel Workers, who were attempting to break up this union. This was a bitter battle which covered several months, and in one encounter, Maurice Travis, one of the white brothers, lost an eye. The raiding policies which many unions with large black membership faced in this period were indicative of how far the once militant CIO had deteriorated in regards to its working class ethics. "AN INJURY TO ONE 15 AN INJURY TO ALL," the founding motto of the militant CIO, was no longer adhered to as a matter of principle by the top bureaucrats in the union structure. It had been replaced by anti-Communism, the policy dictated by the industrialists.
An additional struggle front of the Movement was opened up in this period by Dr. Mary Church Terrell, one of the greatest women activists in this century. It was in the early 50's after being a long-time Women's Rights Movement activist that Dr. Terrell, in her late eighties, began a campaign of organizing nonviolent mass demonstrations against segregation in the nation's capital. In doing so, she seized hold of one of the great moral contradictions of this society, the existence of the racist system of segregation in the very capital of the nation whose leaders were so loudly proclaiming their "leadership of the free world." Washington, DC, at that time was just like any other city in Georgia, but the movement led by this courageous black woman won important victories.
While Paul Robeson's mass support base in the Freedom Movement centered among the trade unionists, and sections of the church-going population in the big cities, the government's arrest of Dr. Du Bois increased the concern and active involvement of the black middle-class. Up to that point this class in Negro life and its spokesmen had stayed clear of Paul, at least in terms of public support. The fact of the matter is that Robeson's uncompromising militancy had loosened up some concessions for them that they were not about to put in jeopardy. The few niggardly handouts the rulers of the system were permitting looked like "manna from heaven." So, with few notable exceptions, they kept quiet or disassociated themselves from what the press was interpreting as Robeson's public position. However, when "the man" put handcuffs on Dr. Du Bois, even the most reticent among them said "this time the government has gone too far." Black college presidents and deans joined with the editors of student campus newspapers and other campus organizations demanding the government stop its persecution of Dr. Du Bois. Objectively this broadened the base of participation and strengthened the Freedom Movement significantly.
Paul Robeson's deep involvement in the many facets of the Freedom Movement throughout this period also served to enhance his growing international prestige. Despite passport restrictions, invitations from people and organizations around the world continued to come to him urging that he visit their country for concerts and speaking engagements. Invitations came from youth organizations and peace groups in Calcutta and Bombay, from Jamaica in the West Indies where two years earlier he had sung to 75,000 people, from the Executive Board of the Mine Workers Union in Scotland and many other parts of the world.
One invitation was accepted from Canada and on Sunday, May 18, 1952, Paul Robeson gave a concert under the Peace Arch on the Canadian border out on the West Coast. However, he could not step foot across the border without being in violation of an Executive Order issued by President Truman forbidding him to leave the United States and instructing border guards to apprehend him if he tried to do so. Forty thousand people assembled on the other side of the Canadian border to hear that concert.
These invitations from abroad were a form of pressure on the government for they demonstrated an international interest in the situation here in the United States at that time. Consequently, the State Department heads during both the Truman and Eisenhower Administrations proposed that Robeson could get his passport back if he would sign an affidavit agreeing that he would only sing but not speak abroad. What was being proposed is that he give up his right to freedom of speech as a citizen in order to be able to exercise the right to work at his chosen profession. Of course Paul Robeson rejected this. Like a tree standing by the water, he would not be moved.
Any serious review of the Movement, its life and thought in the decade under consideration, inevitably points to Paul Robeson as the central rallying figure of the Freedom Movement in one of the darkest hours of Our national existence on this continent. As such, his place in the long history of struggle by Afro-Americans is massive and secure. Contemporary writers and publishers of Black History texts and social studies materials who leave brother Paul out of the story are not writing our history. Let us be abundantly clear on that point. Nor was he just a singer and actor deserving a few lines of passing reference as some of the "better" Black Studies materials would have us believe.
This enormously talented and dedicated freedom fighter was the central rallying figure and charismatic personality of the Movement during a certain period. This is a role and responsibility only a mere handful of giant personalities in our history have successfully fulfilled. We are reminded that following Robeson that role was filled by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It is a role which has been invested with honor, sacrifice and the highest integrity. So it is not to be dismissed or rendered inconsequential by falsifiers who claim to be writing history.
A Rock in a Weary Lan', a Negro spiritual (that musical art form which he did so much to make widely known and appreciated throughout the world), perhaps best describes Paul Robeson's significance for the Freedom Movement in the decade before the Montgomery bus protest.
1. For a comprehensive account of the activities of this early youth organization in the South, see Augusta Strong's article "Southern Youth's Proud Heritage," Freedomways, Winter 1964.
Copyright © Jack O'Dell, 1971.