Paul Robeson defied racism in Peoria

Sixty-seven years ago this month, the NAACP’s Crisis Magazine published a harsh denunciation of world-renowned African-American entertainer and activist Paul Robeson, and a new book rekindles memories of Robeson’s travails – including the 1947 Peoria incident that some say was the start of his blacklisting.

Besides Robeson, the episode also involved a local labor leader, the area’s Communist-hunting Congressman, and a wave of criticism from cautious black leaders as well as zealous conservatives.

The Crisis article (written pseudonymously by Earl Brown of the black newspaper the Amsterdam News, it was alleged) called Robeson a “Kremlin stooge” and wrote, “Robeson, Moscow’s No. 1 Negro, spouts Communist propaganda. Robeson is a tragic figure.”

Earlier in 1951, NAACP president Walter White wrote in Ebony magazine “Robeson was a victim of an evangelic acceptance of a new system of society. [He’s] a bewildered man.” That December, Crisis editor Roy Wilkins in American Magazine blasted Robeson in a piece titled “Stalin’s Greatest Defeat.”

It was a betrayal of sorts, condemning a popular, talented and outspoken advocate of equality decades before the Civil Rights Movement. Attacks ranged from the FBI and State Department (which reproduced the Crisis article for distribution in colonial Africa) to black newspapers such as the Pittsburgh Courier and Baltimore Afro-American.
In the book “No Way But This: In Search of Paul Robeson,” Jeff Sparrow writes, “Paul Robeson possessed one of the most beautiful voices of the 20th century. He was an acclaimed stage actor. He could sing in more than 20 different languages; he held a law degree; he won prizes for oratory. He was widely acknowledged as the greatest American footballer of his generation. But he was also a political activist who, in the 1930s and 1940s, exerted an influence comparable to Martin Luther King and Malcolm X in a later era.

“He was temperamentally sympathetic to the underdog.”

Today, Robeson may mostly be remembered for his version of “Ol’ Man River” in “Showboat,” but he also starred on stage and in films including “The Emperor Jones,” “Othello,” “King Solomon’s Mines” and “The Proud Valley.” Traveling and performing in Europe, he appreciated better race relations there and for a time lived in London, befriending George Bernard Shaw, James Joyce, Emma Goldman and other artists and activists. During the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War (a proxy conflict foreshadowing World War II), he became more politically involved and publicly backed the anti-Fascist Loyalists. Thereafter, he was openly supportive of anti-Fascist and Communist causes, though he never became a member.

“The artist must take sides,” Robeson said in 1937. “He must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice.”

That choice angered conservatives in the 1950s “Red Scare,” from Washington to Peoria.

Here, Robeson had been booked to perform on April 18, 1947, at the Shrine Mosque (now Riverside Community Church) by the late Allen Cannon, a World War II veteran, Bradley University professor and Peoria Symphony violinist. However, the press attacked Robeson for his outspokenness on human rights, racism and labor, and influential interests campaigned to stop the show.

“Two days before a scheduled concert in Peoria, Robeson and nearly 1,000 others were cited by the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) for ‘supporting the Communist Party and its front organizations,’” wrote Georgia State University researcher Barry Everett Lee.

Despite support from the ACLU, the United Electrical union, the League of Women Voters’ first Peoria president (Julia Proctor White) and the Ministerial Alliance, opponents of the show included the Peoria Trades & Labor Assembly, the VFW, local columnists and a white American Legion post (an all-black Legion post defended him). The United Farm Equipment and Metal Workers union (FE) backed the appearance, but “FE representative Mary Sweat reported being ‘refused time on the air’ and being ‘unable to buy space in the newspapers’ to advertise Robeson’s concert,” wrote University of Illinois researcher Jason Kozlowski.

Peoria Mayor Carl Triebel initially defended Robeson’s First Amendment rights, but soon gave in to the uproar, and the City Council voted to ban the appearance of anyone who espoused “un-American” views. On the day of the show, when spring temperatures were in the 60s, police were sent to the train station to chill Robeson’s arrival from Decatur, and civil rights advocate C.T. Vivian and others “saw armed American Legion members patrolling the streets,” Lee said. But Robeson came by car to find no venue. So Peoria FE leader Ajay Martin and an 11-person, mixed-race committee hosted an informal appearance at Martin’s home on Shipman Street.

“The Peoria affair is a problem bigger than me,” Robeson said. “The whole town’s under a wave of terror.”
Historian Scott Saul, author of “Becoming Richard Pryor,” wrote, “The event marked the beginning of the blacklisting of Robeson.”

Later, anti-Communist hysteria increased nationwide. Joe McCarthy in the U.S. Senate and Peoria-area Congressman Harold Velde in the House held hearings accusing people of being Communists, and fear-mongering publications such as the American Business Consultants’ “Counterattack” fueled the fear and fury. Even progressives who weren’t members of the Communist Party, like Robeson, were persecuted as “fellow travelers.”

“Equating struggles for civil rights and immigrants’ rights with the revolutionary overthrow of the U.S. government, anti-Communists declared that challenges to their views resulted from the contaminating influence of the ‘Comugressive Party’,” said University of Oregon professor Carol Stabile.

African-American baseball great Jackie Robinson in 1949 was pressured to testify against Robeson before HUAC, although he stated that “the fact that it is a Communist who denounces injustice in the courts, police brutality, and lynching when it happens doesn’t change the truth of his charges.” In his autobiography Robinson wrote, “I do have increased respect for Paul Robeson who, over the span of 20 years, sacrificed himself, his career, and the wealth and comfort he once enjoyed because, I believe, he was sincerely trying to help his people.”

Martin wasn’t called, but in two 1954 hearings in Chicago and Washington, Velde interrogated witnesses who named the young Peoria organizer as a Communist, according to the Congressional Record. Martin was forced to resign from his post with the FE, which was ousted from Caterpillar and replaced by the United Auto Workers union.

Robeson, subpoenaed to testify before Velde’s HUAC in 1956, bristled when asked why he didn’t move to the Soviet Union: “Because my father was a slave, and my people died to build this country, and I am going to stay here, and have a part of it just like you. And no Fascist-minded people will drive me from it. Is that clear?

“I am not being tried for whether I am a Communist. I am being tried for fighting for the rights of my people,” he said. “I am here because I am opposing the neo-Fascist cause which I see arising in these committees. Jefferson could be sitting here, and Frederick Douglass could be sitting here, and Eugene Debs could be here.

“You want to shut up every Negro who has the courage to stand up and fight for the rights of his people, for the rights of workers, and I have been on many a picket line,” he continued. “You are the non-patriots, and you are the un-Americans, and you ought to be ashamed of yourselves.”

Sparrow writes, “Robeson had reached out to Welsh miners when his career was at its height [in the 1930s]. They came back to him at his lowest ebb, almost two decades later, at a time when all he’d achieved seemed to have been taken from him. In the midst of the Cold War, the FBI prevented Robeson from performing at home. He’d proclaimed his sympathy for the Soviet Union ever since the mid-30s. That leftism now made him a target, effectively silenced in his home country. Worse, the U.S. State Department confiscated his passport, so he could not travel abroad. He was left in a kind of limbo: silenced, isolated and increasingly despairing.”

In “The Proud Valley,” Robeson dramatized how prejudice can be broken down by common interests. Sparrow writes, “In the film, the solidarity of the workplace overcomes the miners’ suspicion about a dark-skinned stranger. ‘Aren’t we all black down that pit?’ asks one of the men.”

Bill Knight



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