Wednesday, March 15, 2017


Paul Robeson artist, scholar and human rights activist lived in Milwaukee in 1922.  He played football for the Milwaukee Badgers and studied law with a Marquette University law professor. The Badgers were one of the early NFL teams but folded in 1926.  Robeson was working on a law degree at Columbia in New York and played football to help meet expenses. Robeson graduate from the Columbia Law School in 1923. (1)

   Robeson was one of the most famous African Americans of the twentieth century.  He was an all American football player at Rutgers in 1917 & 1918; it could be argued that no one has ever performed a better Othello, and also he was an outstanding film actor.  However, most of his fame came from his advocating with passion for working people especially blacks through his rendition of Labor Songs and African American spirituals. 

“My purpose in life was to fight for my people, that they shall walk this earth as free as any man.” (2, p. x)

Robeson’s struggle generated fierce opposition from those defending the ‘status quo.’



Tailgunner Joe McCarthy, 
Photo from the 
Department of Special Collections and University Archives 
Marquette University Libraries 
Marquette Hilltop 1934 Yearbook

  In 1951 the U.S. government issued a travel ban against Robeson because of his relentless rhetoric abroad denouncing ‘Jim Crow’ laws in the U.S. and his positive estimate of Soviet Russia. The anti-communist movement that persecuted Robeson was led by Wisconsin Senator ‘Tail-gunner Joe’ McCarthy, a graduate of Marquette’s law school.  The anti-communist movement distorted Robeson’s legacy which can be refocused with a clear and realistic view of history.  Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois wrote:

“The persecution of Paul Robeson by the government …has been one of the most contemptible happenings in modern history.”  (3, p. xxx)

The travel ban was rescinded by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1958.  The Court stated:

“The right to travel, the court concluded, ‘is a part of the liberty of which a citizen cannot be deprived without due process of law under the 5th Amendment.’” (4, p. 255)

Paul Robeson said he believed in the principles of scientific socialism, but testified under oath that he was not a member of the communist party or part of any organized conspiracy. (5, p. 38-39)


   In 1922 Milwaukee was headed by a Socialist Mayor Daniel Hoan, and it hosted the National Socialist Convention.  Did Milwaukee have a role in Robeson’s formation as a socialist intellectual and activist?  Perhaps, but Milwaukee socialists were adamantly opposed to communism.  There was no sympathy for Soviet Russia.  Socialist congressman Victor Berger from Milwaukee wrote:

“The Milwaukee Socialists are not Communists and never were. And from the first day of the Bolshevist revolution we looked upon communism as a dubious experiment.” (6. p. 211)

Berger, who was of Jewish decent and an immigrant from Austriawas Milwaukee’s Congressman from 1910 –12, 1919-21, and 1923-1929.  He died in 1929, and his widow Meta Berger switched to the communist party in 1934.

   Robeson’s formation as an intellectual and political activist is explained in his book, Here I Stand.  At his base – in his heart – Paul Robeson was a man of faith.  His father was a runaway slave and became a Presbyterian minister with a classic education. His mother was a woman of mixed races and a Quaker from Philadelphia. The Robeson family had an ecumenical world view which was expressed in Paul’s gifted voice and spirit.  Milwaukee Socialist Carl Sandberg stated:

When Paul Robeson sings spirituals… ‘That is the real thing - he has kept the best of himself and not allowed the schools to take it away from him!’ (7. P.5)    
   Time in England expanded Robeson’s understanding of faith.  Love of neighbor meant love of stranger. (Lev. 19)  He identified with Welsh miners. He learned to sing the songs of the oppressed workers in their own languages including Yiddish.


In testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee Robeson exposed the racism of interrogator congressman Francis Walter. Robeson stated that Walter’s  immigration law, the Walter – McCarron Act of 1952  restricting people of color from entering the U.S., indicated  that Walter did not want any people of color in the U.S. Walter admitted as much.  (8. p. 238) The law also restricted eastern and southern Europeans. 

Robeson wrote:

“Under the Walter – McCarron law, with all its provisions to reduce ‘non-Nordic’ immigration the number of Negroes who can come from the Caribbean or anywhere else has been drastically cut down.” (9. p. 83)


   As the son of a former slave and activist minister, Robeson knew that faith was not enough; action was needed.  He praised the work of African American Churches.

…the Negro church is still the strongest base of our power of organization. (10. p. 96)

He saw labor as an important ally, both black and white “to battle for the liberation of our people.”  (11, p. 97)

   Paul Robeson was well aware before his death in 1976 that we had not yet reached the ‘promised land.’ Racial equality was still in the dream stage. He was fearful of nuclear war and promoted the politics of peace.  At a 67th birthday party in 1965 he expressed the desire for peace between socialism and communism.  Robeson said understanding among people was possible through art especially through music.  However instead of singing to finish his talk he read a translated version of a Yiddish resistance song from the Warsaw ghetto.  

Never say that you have reached the very end,
When leaden skies a bitter end portend:
For surely the hour for which we yearn for will yet arrive
And our marching steps will thunder ‘We survive!’” (12, p.290)

Bibliography:  Marquette Law Faculty Blog, Paul Robeson and the Marquette Law School, J. Gordon Hylton, 2010/06/04 (note 1)
Here I Stand, Paul Robeson, 1958, Preface L.L. Brown 1971 (notes 3, 5, 9, 10, 11).  Paul Robeson a Watched Man, Jordan Goodman, 2013 (notes 2, 4, 7, 8, 12)  The Sewer Socialists, Elmer A. Beck, 1982 (

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