Paul Robeson

Paul Leroy Robeson (April 9, 1898 – January 23, 1976) was an American concert singer (bass), recording artist, actor, athlete, and scholar who combined advocacy for the Civil Rights Movement with support for Soviet Communism. He gained international attention for his work in the arts and he merged his artistic career with political activism to speak out for the equality of minorities and the rights of workers throughout the world. His Communist affiliations at the outset of the Cold War and during the age of McCarthyism brought scrutiny, conflict and retribution from the American government. His public persona became diminished, his income plummeted and he faced isolation from the Civil Rights Movement in the second half of the 20th century. Robeson endured McCarthyism and briefly returned to the artistic spotlight, but the events in the 1950s combined with ongoing severe health breakdowns well into the 1960s virtually destroyed his health. Robeson lived out the last years of his life privately in Philadelphia.

Robeson won a scholarship to Rutgers College and there he was an All-American football player, and valedictorian of his class. He further advanced his education attending Columbia Law School, while playing professionally in the National Football League (NFL) and singing and acting in off-campus productions. He graduated from law school and had a brief stint working as a lawyer before focusing his career on the arts. He made singing tours of the US and Europe, and became an international star of stage, screen, radio and film.

He was the first major concert star to popularize the performance of Negro spirituals and, after Ira Aldridge, the second black actor of the modern era to portray Shakespeare‘s Othello with an otherwise all-white cast. As his artistic career progressed, he increasingly became a more out-spoken political artist. His promulgated political beliefs, with respect to American policy, caught the attention of the FBI, the CIA and the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), and also brought public condemnation in the US.

In 1950, his passport was revoked under the McCarran Act over his work in the anti-imperialism movement, his criticism of US civil rights policies, and his affiliation with members of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA). Though internationally acclaimed, he was blacklisted in the US from performing on stage, screen, radio and television and as a result, his income suffered because he was not able to travel overseas. His right to travel was restored in 1958, but his already faltering health broke down under controversial circumstances in 1963.

Paul Robeson