The singer, actor, athlete and activist Paul Robeson dies at the age of 79 on January 23, 1976.
Robeson’s physical strength, size and grace made him one of the elite sports figures of his generation, but his stature in other fields—music, theater, politics, human rights— eventually overshadowed his athletic greatness. On stage and screen, his unique voice earned him universal artistic acclaim, but when he raised it in support of Civil Rights and social justice, his voice often aroused violent controversy.
Paul LeRoy Bustill Robeson was born in Princeton, New Jersey, on April 9, 1898, the son of a father born into slavery and a mother raised as a vocal abolitionist. Robeson’s academic and athletic achievements earned him a scholarship to Rutgers University in 1915, where he became not only a four-sport letterman and two-time All American football star, but a member of Phi Beta Kappa and class valedictorian—all of this while being only the third African-American student in school history. Robeson moved to Harlem after graduation, where he worked his way through Columbia University Law School as an actor and professional football player. By 1923, Robeson had passed the New York bar and earned critical raves on the London and Broadway stage. The lure of a promising career in law proved less compelling for Robeson than a career in the theater.
Over the next twenty years, Robeson established himself as one of the most important musical and dramatic performers of his day. The role of Joe and the song “Ol’ Man River” in Show Boat were written for Robeson’s famous bass voice; Robeson originated the title role in Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones; and he became the first African American to play Othello on Broadway. By the late 1940s, Robeson’s international artistic reputation was well established, but it was rivaled by his reputation as a political activist. Racism generally, and the horror of racial lynching particularly, were Robeson’s greatest concerns. If his outspoken views on segregation didn’t win him enough enemies in the United States, his openly leftist leanings certainly did. Robeson traveled repeatedly to the Soviet Union beginning in the 1930s—a history that led to the unconstitutional seizure of his passport and to his blacklisting following an appearance before the Joseph McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee in 1950. When asked during those hearings why he did not simply move to the USSR, Robeson offered a typically powerful response: “Because my father was a slave, and my people died to build this country, and I am going to stay right here and have a part of it just like you.”