Born in Princeton, New Jersey on April 9, 1898, Paul Robeson was the fifth and last child of Maria Louisa Bustill and William Drew Robeson, the latter of whom was a former slave. Paul attended Rutgers University, where he earned Phi Beta Kappa honors, and lettered in football, baseball, track, and basketball. He graduated as the valedictorian of his class in 1919.
Robeson went on to earn a law degree from Columbia University Law School in 1923. Deeply influenced by the Harlem Renaissance and the black cultural awareness that it had sparked in African Americans, he pursued a career in music and drama rather than jurisprudence. In 1924, he was cast by Eugene O’Neill in his play, All God’s Chillun Got Wings, and would later star in yet another O’Neill play, _Emperor Jones_. Robeson’s most important role was that of Othello in the Broadway play of the same name. His films included Emperor Jones (1933); Sanders of the River (1935); Showboat (1936); Song of Freedom (1937); Jericho (1938); Proud Valley (1939); and Tales of Manhattan (1942). From the 1920s through the 1940s, he was one of the world’s leading stage and film performers.
From 1927-1939, Robeson lived in London, where he was introduced to socialist ideals by his friend Bernard Shaw and several leaders of the British Labour Party. He read the classic Marxist writings and became a devoted Communist, though he never formally acknowledged being a Communist Party member.
Historian Paul Kengor writes, “Paul Robeson Sr. was an unflagging admirer of Joseph Stalin, one of the most prolific killers in history. It was this that brought Robeson under congressional scrutiny in the 1930s when the Democrats ran Congress, the White House, and the attorney general’s office—long before Joe McCarthy emerged on the scene. Even the New York Times once called Robeson ‘an outspoken admirer of the Soviet Union.’ He was dedicated to the Communist Party USA goal of fundamentally transforming America into a ‘Soviet American Republic.'”
In 1934 Robeson and his wife Eslanda Goode visited the Soviet Union, where they encountered William Patterson, a leader of the American Communist Party. The Robesons also met with two of Eslanda’s brothers, John and Frank Goode, who had decided they preferred life under Joseph Stalin to life in America. Said Robeson of his stay in the USSR: “Here, for the first time, I walk in human dignity.” He soon became a dedicated Stalinist, the first world-renowned performer to become a political activist during the peak years of his show business career.
After his pilgrimage to Russia, Robeson lauded that nation in an interview with the Moscow-funded Daily Worker in a piece that was published on January 15, 1935 under the headline, “‘I Am at Home,’ Says Robeson At Reception in Soviet Union.” In the article, Robeson spoke of the “feeling of safety and abundance and freedom” he found “wherever” he turned in Stalin’s homeland. When asked about Stalin’s purges, Robeson replied: “From what I have already seen of the workings of the Soviet Government, I can only say that anybody who lifts his hand against it ought to be shot!”
Robeson, writes Paul Kengor, “was enamored with what he found in Stalin’s state, so much so that he moved his family there—his son included. They lived there, where they were given excessively special treatment. The Soviets rolled out the red carpet, literally.”
Like other Communists, Robeson condemned British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain for his appeasement of Adolph Hitler in 1938 but vigorously defended Stalin’s signing of the Nazi-Soviet nonaggression pact, whose terms divided Poland between Stalin and Hitler and allowed the Nazi dictator to begin World War II.
In 1941, Robeson joined Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Vito Marcantonio in a campaign to free Earl Browder, the leader of the American Communist Party and the head of a Soviet espionage ring, who had been imprisoned for passport violations.
At the beginning of World War II, Robeson argued against U.S. intervention in the conflict. But his opinion made an abrupt about-face on June 22, 1941, when Germany launched a surprise invasion on the Soviet Union; his first loyalties were to the Soviets.
In 1948 Robeson worked for the presidential campaign of Progressive Party candidate Henry Wallace, who had served in the cabinet of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
During a concert tour of the USSR in 1949, Robeson learned of Stalin’s planned liquidation of Soviet Jews (a liquidation that would aborted by Stalin’s death in 1953). He asked to see with the imprisoned (and soon-to-be-executed) Russian Yiddish poet Itzhak Feffer, who he had met in the United States six years earlier. When Robeson saw Feffer — in a room bugged with Soviet government listening devices — Feffer, without speaking aloud, drew his fingers across his throat, indicating that he and others would soon be murdered (which they were).
Robeson chose not to tell anyone about Feffer’s fate or what he had learned about Soviet anti-Semitism, since to do so would have hurt the Soviet cause in the Cold War. Upon returning to America, he told the press that he had seen Feffer in good condition; that he had seen “Jewish people [living freely] all over the place”; that he had heard “not one word about” Soviet anti-Semitism; and that the rumors of Yiddish writers being executed were utterly false. He did not even tell his comrades in the American Communist Party what he knew of the USSR’s treatment of Jews.
Stalin recognized Robeson’s loyalty and thus awarded him the Stalin Peace Prize in 1952. After the dictator died in 1953, Robeson wrote him a tribute entitled “To You, Beloved Comrade,” which included these sentiments: “Forever will his name be honored and beloved in all lands. In all spheres of modern life, the influence of Stalin reaches wide and deep. … his contributions to the science of our world society remains invaluable. One reverently speaks of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin — the shapers of humanity’s richest present and future. … Yes, through his [Stalin’s] deep humanity, by his wise understanding, he leaves us a rich and monumental heritage. … How consistently, how patiently, he labored for peace and ever increasing abundance, with what deep kindliness and wisdom.”
Robeson remained a devoted Stalinist even after Stalin and the Soviets crushed national independence and democratic movements in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and elsewhere in eastern Europe; even after Stalin’s use of an illegal blockade in an effort to make the people of West Berlin submit to him; and even after the post-war purges inside the Soviet Union, the Communist invasion of South Korea, and Nikita Khrushchev’s 1956 “Secret Speech” detailing Stalin’s atrocities.
During a Soviet-sponsored World Peace Congress meeting in Europe, Robeson asserted that black Americans — because of their bitterness over the racism they faced on a constant basis — would refuse to fight on the side of their own country if the United States and the Soviet Union ever went to war. This claim became the subject of a House Un-American Activities Committee hearing, where baseball legend Jackie Robinson openly condemned Robeson. Eleanor Roosevelt also criticized Robeson, whose passport was taken away during the Cold War years so that he could not perform abroad.
One night in 1961 Robeson attempted suicide by slashing his wrists with a razor blade in his Moscow hotel room, but he survived. His son, Paul Robeson, Jr., alleged that this event was caused by CIA operatives who had slipped some synthetic hallucinogens into his father’s drink at a party — and thereby had caused him to become delusional.
In April 1973, more than 3,000 people gathered in New York’s Carnegie Hall to celebrate Robeson’s 75th birthday, though Robeson himself was unable to attend, due to illness. Among those on hand were Harry Belafonte, Ramsey Clark, Angela Davis, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Dolores Huerta, James Earl Jones, Coretta Scott King, Sidney Poitier, Pete Seeger, and Zero Mostel.
Paul Robeson died of a stroke in Philadelphia on January 23, 1976.
More than two decades after his death, it was revealed that Robeson in fact had been a secret member of the CPUSA for decades. In the March 21, 1998 edition of the Communist newspaper The People’s Weekly World —less than three weeks prior to the celebration of what would have been Robeson’s 100th birthday — CPUSA General Secretary Gus Hall announced: “We can now say that Paul Robeson was a member of the Communist Party. … During the period of McCarthyism, most of the Party was forced underground. Paul, and other trade union leaders were part of that.”
At a public meeting held in May 1998, Hall declared that he wished to give “Comrade Paul” a special “birthday present … that no one else could give.” That present was Hall’s revelation that “Paul was a proud member of the Communist Party USA” and a man of deep Communist “conviction.” Hall added that Communism was “an indelible fact of Paul’s life, [in] every way, every day of his adult life”; that Robeson “never forgot that he was a Communist”; and that Hall had fond memories of “when I met with him to accept his dues and renew his yearly membership in the CPUSA.”
Historian Ron Radosh puts these facts in perspective: “One has to understand how the Communist movement operated. Its major public figures were always told that to be effective, they had to deny their CP membership, and if accused of being a Red, to simply reply that the right-wing was again engaging in ‘Red-baiting.’ That was the tactic used by Robeson and by his son, when anyone — especially the press — made that accusation.”