Paul Robeson, Eugene Debs, and Labor History
October 20 marks the anniversary of the day in 1926 when legendary labor leader and Socialist Party candidate for President Eugene V. Debs died. Debs spoke out courageously against U.S. involvement in World War I. He was reviled by many and ultimately jailed by the government for his opposition to that war. His brave stand set a standard that was more than equaled during the McCarthy era by labor champion and world-famous performing artist Paul Robeson, who spoke out vehemently against U.S. intervention around the world and the denial of basic rights here at home. Because October is a good month to remember both these extraordinary figures, we reprint below excerpts from a speech which does precisely that. It was given by Noel Beasley, an international executive vice president of UNITE HERE (and manager of the Chicago and Midwest Regional Joint Board of UNITE HERE), at an international conference held in 2005 to honor the memory of Paul Robeson.
Paul Robeson’s upbringing in the small towns of New Jersey, surrounded by tightly bound communities of working-class African Americans, provided him with role models of brave families struggling for happiness against the two-headed monster of economic deprivation and racial prejudice. Certainly his father, as an articulate, highly principled religious leader compelled to make a living by hard labor, instilled in young Robeson an innate respect for the daily difficulties faced by workers. In later years, Paul continually cited his personal experiences at his earliest, most menial jobs, as the adhesive that bound him to workers wherever he encountered them. There is nothing romantic about Robeson’s vision of either work or the working class; in particular as an African American, he not only knew but he could effectively express the challenges of maintaining one’s self-respect against the odds of the twentieth century workplace.
But Robeson did not depend on his personal experiences alone to shape his capacity to represent workers. There are very few leaders of the U.S. working class who have managed to achieve the scholarly accumulation of knowledge that Robeson commanded. This enabled him simultaneously to feel totally comfortable with working people and their leaders and at the same time to have the capacity to establish the objective distance that is required when it comes time to make difficult decisions, to choose sides when sides must be chosen.
Courage and the ability to be defiant are also important characteristics of those who lead workers and Robeson possessed these in abundance. Robeson constantly rose to the occasion when workers needed his assistance and when reactionary forces needed to be challenged. This required both physical courage (as when Robeson traveled with the troops during the Spanish Civil War or when he performed his concerts at Peekskill, New York) but also intellectual and moral courage as demonstrated most dramatically in his appearances before various government tribunals during the struggle to regain his passport and his freedom to travel.
These expressly political acts of courage and defiance, when combined with his achievements in such a broad array of other endeavors, made Robeson a genuinely inspirational leader, one who explicitly made it possible for others also to become leaders as well. His humility and willingness to share his knowledge and talent with others has been thoroughly documented but the extent to which he utilized his skills as a cultural artist to bring the spirit of the struggle to workers and in particular to their unions is unprecedented. The labor movement has had many noble troubadours but never before or since has an individual of Robeson’s skill and fame traveled to so many mines and mills, to so many small towns and union halls in such an unselfish display of support and commitment.
Robeson went to the center of the most vital labor struggles of his time and on each occasion brought to the workers an indispensable sense of the importance of their fight, of the political and cultural contexts within which it occurred, and often used his appearances to create public recognition of and public support for their cause. For Robeson and his audiences, a concert tour was a political act as important to the immediate struggle as an unwavering picket line. Whether it was auto workers in Detroit, agricultural workers in Hawaii or miners in Wales, Robeson inspired workers with songs and words to be strong and to act in militant solidarity with other workers around the world.
Robeson’s Unique Qualities in His Times
Paul Robeson had the ability to express the transcendence of the human spirit above all attempts to confine and crush it. He demonstrated in his person and his actions that no matter the color or ethnic origin of workers, they shared a common destiny and a common enemy. He exhorted workers not to fall into the false divisions that so effectively undermine the unity necessary them to be victorious. By virtue of being an African American, he spoke and sang of the horrors of fascism with an inescapable sense of authority. His visceral understanding of the historical linkage of Southern slavery in the U.S. and of fascism in Germany, his outspoken repugnance for the stars and bars and the swastika, made him the perfect spokesperson for the continued fight for civil rights and civil liberties in the post-World War II period. This also made him the biggest target for government persecution. It is more than ironic that the U.S. government chose the tactic of travel restriction, of passport revocation, as the instrument of torture for Robeson. For the son of a slave who had used the Underground Railroad to escape the imprisonment of slavery, the withdrawal of rights of passage was more than an attempt to stifle Robeson’s ability to earn a living (though it certainly was that too). It also was an imposition upon an African American of one of the key terms and conditions of slavery, confinement. The world wide response to fight for the return of Robeson’s passport was led to a great degree by trade unions in dozens of countries. The great concerts of the 1950’s at the Peace Arch on the U.S.-Canadian border and via transatlantic telephone to Welsh miners were vivid acts of combined defiance by Robeson and his trade union supporters. These exhibitions of global solidarity across all lines of color and race but consistently within the line of class were the end result of decades of performances by Robeson in support of and on behalf of workers everywhere.
Robeson demonstrated concretely his respect for all nationalities of workers by learning their languages, appreciating their cultures, and singing songs in words they would understand. This multinational expression ultimately for Robeson became transnational in the sense that class transcended color and ethnicity by celebrating the cultural differences rather than denying or stultifying them. Ever the champion of African American rights and freedoms, Robeson again and again placed that specific fight within the general worldwide struggle for rights and dignity. No other figure of the twentieth century fought for that vision with the eloquence of Robeson.
In the same way, Robeson brought the message of the necessity for global peace to the trade union and working class movements. The post-World War II period of the United States was fraught with every conceivable contradiction. Returning African American soldiers were denied the rights they had been willing to die for in Europe and Asia. Militant workers who had fought side by side with Russians to defeat fascism were isolated and ostracized as “alien communists.” The only country ever to attack another with atomic weapons held itself up as the only safeguard against nuclear annihilation. Robeson’s unrelenting exposure of these contradictions and his stalwart defense of those persecuted for opposition to the policies of the U.S. government cost him more than his mobility. The price of fighting for peace was the isolation and marginalization of Robeson and thousands of other Americans whom he represented and who saw him as one of their most articulate leaders.
Robeson was a partisan. He had to be. In the trade union movement of his era, one sector favored the continuation of Jim Crow policies and collaboration with the agenda of corporate America. Another sector insisted on integration of the workforce and resistance to assaults on workers’ rights. In every instance, Robeson sided with the unions and unionists who shared his vision of improving the world by improving the fate and future of the disenfranchised and the dispossessed. Robeson had to be suppressed by his enemies. For they too were partisans.
Paul Robeson today
There is no better time and no better place to come to grips with the legacy of Paul Robeson than the United States of America of today. As in the 1950’s, basic liberties are under assault, unjust wars are being waged by our government, and trade unions are being marginalized while workers’ rights are crushed. The lessons of Robeson’s leadership need to be studied and understood by anyone attempting to organize a counteroffensive.
Those who would be progressive leaders in contemporary times should begin with a close reading of Here I Stand, Paul Robeson’s political will and testament. From my reading of this essential work, I draw the following lessons, only a few among many:
Understand, appreciate and venerate your historical predecessors: Robeson constantly cites one of his great heroes, Frederick Douglass.
Understand the connection between suppression of African American rights and trade union rights and make no compromise with those who perpetrate it: We now live in a time in which the centrality of the oppression of African Americans must be explained clearly again; there is an historical amnesia on the part of the American people and most dangerously among American workers concerning the Civil War, the period of so-called Reconstruction and all that followed that is reinforced by the vapidity of what is presumed to be “popular culture” and the continual dilution of quality public education. Robeson, writing in 1958, could see it all plainly and so must we: “The interests of the overwhelming majority of the American people demand that the Negro question be solved. It is not simply a matter of justice for a minority: what is at stake is a necessity for all. Just as in Lincoln’s time the basic interests of the American majority made it necessary to strike down the system of Negro enslavement, so today those interests make it necessary to abolish the system of Negro second-class citizenship. … The upholders of ‘states’ rights’ against the Negro’s rights are at the same time supporters of the so-called ‘right-to-work’ laws against the rights of the trade unions. The reactionary laws which have undermined the gains of Roosevelt’s New Deal – the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act, the anti-foreign-born Walter-McCarran Act, the thought-control Smith Act – all were strongly backed by Dixiecrats in Congress. Until their political power is broken, there can be no real social or economic progress for the common people anywhere, North or South. Indeed, it is clear that not only will there be no progress, but there will be further retrogression unless this political cancer is removed from public life.”
Some may wish to argue that Robeson’s words are outmoded or passé; for those who do, I would urge them to look at the realities of our time … the numbers of African American youth in prison in relation to the rest of the populace, the deterioration of the public schools essential to African American advancement, the enforced economic conscription into the military of African Americans denied job opportunities. The so-called Patriot Act is the direct descendent of the legislation cited by Robeson above. And while the Dixiecrats no longer exist, the influence of Southern political leaders of both parties continues to hold back any progress for the working poor and the unemployed.
Continually emphasize the common history of oppression of all workers: As a leading representative of African Americans, Robeson utilized his authority and responsibility to illuminate the bridges between workers of diverse backgrounds and histories.
Never be silent: In Here I Stand, Robeson raises the imminent and pertinent question which he says “rolls around the world like thunder: When will Americans learn, that if they would encourage liberty in other countries, they must practice it at home?” He could have said those words from the center of Baghdad today. Our government continues to impose a false and cruel gargoyle of pseudo democracy wherever it needs to exercise dominance; at the same the minimal rights of freedom of assembly and speech are under full assault here at home.
Robeson and Debs
It is dangerous and uncomfortable to study the life of Paul Robeson. For those of us in the trade union movement, we have a special responsibility to restore Paul Robeson to his rightful place in the pantheon of labor’s heroes. Together with Eugene V. Debs, Robeson transformed in a material way the content of the trade union struggle in the United States in the twentieth century. While very different men in some ways, Debs and Robeson share an unrivaled record of achievement in working for the common good, an unprecedented skill in infusing the vision of the American working class with the desirability of fighting capitalism and attempting to establish a system more fair and generous and just. They also share the unqualified hatred of the rich and powerful and both were harassed and imprisoned (Debs literally and Robeson figuratively) by the powers of a state determined to silence them.
It is our shared responsibility to insure that the forces of repression do not triumph, that the words and deeds of our champions are enshrined and serve as precious examples to us of what is possible and necessary and ultimately essential if the promise of our great country finally is to be realized. We owe a huge debt to Paul Robeson that has been accumulating interest for too long. It’s payback time.
The articles on this page are written by Chris Mahin for the Education and Mobilization Department of the Chicago & Midwest Regional Joint Board of UNITE HERE and originally appeared on the Joint Board’s website.
Special thanks to Brother Mahin for allowing the Pennsylvania Federation access to his writings.