Amidst the celebration of Barack Obama’s inauguration as president numerous names of past heroes in the fight for African American rights have been cited, but, for some reason, the name of Paul Robeson has been ignored. Robeson towers over so many of those who fought for human rights because of the tremendous diversity of his career and his refusal to knuckle under to the forces of hate and discrimination. He was the first Negro All-American football player, a lawyer, a Shakespearian actor, a singer whose voice still remains among the greatest of the 20th century, an actor, and a nonstop fighter for human rights. He sang in over a dozen languages and was probably the first who sang the songs of the Chinese Communist soldiers. His voice can be heard singing in Yiddish the songs of concentration camp inmates, the songs of American freedom, and the songs of the fight for African American rights.
Robeson refused to sing before segregated audiences, and he would not take a hotel room in a segregated hotel. When he visited St. Louis he frequently stayed in the home of a friend of mine because Robeson preferred the company of social activists to the high and mighty of our land. He stood tall against the anti-Communist hysteria spawned by the infamous Senator Joseph McCarthy, and refused to name those who were in the Communist movement. Robeson for years was banned by the United States government from traveling around the world in an effort to stifle his songs of freedom.
This proud and brilliant man’s name was never mentioned on January 20, but his spirit was present and his struggles played a part in the ability of Barack Obama to become president of the United States.