In his time, he was arguably the best known American performer in the worldeven without the qualifiers singer or actor or black/African-American. Critically and popularly acclaimed, he was also a scholar, artistically gifted, a superb athlete, and humanitarian.
But his country turned on him. A man whose social commitment, eloquence, intelligence, and concern could have made him as important to the cause of civil rightsnot just in the US, but everywhere; not just for blacks, but all people of coloras Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
But Paul Robeson was not allowed to be that man. He was silencedas much as could be, barring imprisonmentby the country whose ideals of freedom, liberty, and the dignity of man he wished to spread to people to the world. This man, whose stage presence proved a black man could do Shakespeare as well as anyone, whose singing voice was loved by millions, made two mistakes.
He was an outspoken advocate of civil rights and self-determination, especially of blacks in the US and in Africa, and he felt a strong affinity with the ideals of Communism. At the beginning of the Cold War, this was performance suicide and he paid dearly.
1898 to 1915
Paul Leroy Bustill Robeson (Bustill was his mother's maiden name) was born on 9 April 1898 in Princeton, New Jersey. The youngest of the Robeson children (four boys, one girl).
His father, Reverend William Drew Robeson, had been born a slave in North Carolina before escaping via the Underground Railroad. He graduated from college before marrying and subsequently becoming a pastor. His strength, integrity, eloquence, and passion would serve as a guiding inspiration all of Paul's life and his respect for learning helped shape his education. His father taught him that "success in life is not measured in terms of money and personal advancement, but rather the goal must be the richest and highest development of one's own potential."
Robeson's mother, Maria Louisa Bustill, was of mixed heritage ("Negro, Indian, and white Quaker stock"). A school teacher, her family history went back to the early days of the country. A great-great grandfather helped bake bread for George Washington's troops, was a leader of blacks in Philadelphia and founded the Free African Society (the "first mutual aid organization for American Negroes"). She came from a family of teachers and educators and true to her Quaker roots, members of her family helped run the Underground Railroad.
In 1901, Robeson's father, also outspoken on social injustice, was forced to resign from being pastor at the church he had tended for twenty years and was called a "misfit" causing "general unrest and dissatisfaction on the part of others" (www.rutgets.edu). He still supported his family by driving coaches and hauling ashes. Three years later, tragedy struck when Mrs. Robeson's clothes caught fire while tending the stove. She burned to death, leaving the Reverend to raise the children.
The family moved to a smaller town with a smaller minority community in 1907. It was there young Paul would attend his first integrated school (too few blacks to warrant a separate school). Many of the people in the new town were working class and, in Paul's words, could "see in a workingman of a darker skin a fellow human being," and while that fellow might be paid less and compete for the same jobs, "not a person of a totally different caste." His father would also return to preaching, eventually building a strong community of worshippers.
His early years at school were also relatively free of the racism that was part of the fabric of American society. He excelled in his studies and was encouraged in things like glee club (already his talent for singing was apparent), sports, and the drama club. Some of his teachers were fondly remembered for the support, encouragement, and lack of prejudice. On the other hand, he was well aware that, despite his acceptance, he was always part of the "Negro community," the division of class and color always being beneath the surface only to rise up on occasion. He learned that a black person should always act "grateful" and "above all, do nothing to give them cause to fear you" (emphasis in original).
High school also saw Paul achieving academically, artistically, and athletically. There he ran into one of the first people to hate him. The principal, according to Robeson, did nothing to hide his hostility and the more he achieved that "worse his scorn." He even opposed the music teacher's decision to make Paul the soloist in the glee club. Despite that, he earned the friendship and admiration of many of the other students and faculty.
1915 to 1933
When he was 17, he took part in a statewide competition to win a four-year scholarship to Rutgers College (as it was then known). He won and in 1915 enrolled. At the time, he was only the third black student to attend there. He continued his pursuit of excellence and achievement. He was admitted to Phi Beta Kappa his junior year (one of only four), was elected to honors societies, took part in singing and drama, and oration.
Robeson won first prize in the oratorical contest all four years of college, the one of his junior year being notable. That was year his father diedthough not before encouraging his son to go through with the competition. His speech was on the lack of adequate opportunities for education for blacks.
In addition to academic and performing achievements, he was the star (American) football player. This wasn't easy, as success on the field was not always mirrored by acceptance off of it. Resentment, racism, and even violence were suffered from teammates. Using the strength he had learned from his father, he was able to press on. In 1916, Robeson's coach reluctantly benched him when another team refused to take the field with him playing (college administration also pressured the coach). The next time this happened, the coach backed him up. In both 1917 and 1918, he was named to the All-American team. In all, Robeson earned 15 varsity letters in baseball, basketball, football, and track.
Chosen for the Cap and Skull Society for being "one of four men who best represent the ideals of Rutgers," he also graduated valedictorian. A growing sense of social responsibility was shown in his commencement speech when he advocated the idea that the best government would be one that held that "character shall be the standard of excellence" and "black and white shall clasp friendly hands in the consciousness of the fact that we are brethren and that God is the father of us all" (www.rutgers.edu). Stirring words and all the more significant since they came not during the civil rights' years, but in 1919.
In 1932, he would receive an honorary master's degree from the school.
Following graduation, he attended Columbia University Law School, paying his tuition by tutoring Latin (the coach's son) and playing professional football (1920 to 1922)he also worked briefly as a postal clerk. A visit to the hospital due to an injury resulted in the meeting of Robeson and a young pathology technician, Eslanda ("Essie") Goode. A year later they were married.
At her suggestion, Robeson took the title role in a play at a local YMCA. Though he wasn't overly serious about the performance, it caught the attention of some of the theater community. The next year, he made his professional theatrical debut. So successful was the performance that he was offered the chance to act in a British production of the play in London.
Having earned his law degree, Robeson managed to get himself hired as the only black man at a New York law office. Belief in his ability is in evidence by his being given the task of preparing the brief for Jay Gould's will (presumably the George Jay Gould, son of the famous railroad tycoon/robber baron). His short career in law ended when a (white) secretary refused to take dictation from him. This was probably a turning point. From then on he would pursue his career(s) in the arts.
In 1924, Robeson acted in the lead role of Eugene O'Neill's All God's Chillun Got Wings opposite a white actress playing his wife. This was such a shocking event at the time, that there were threats of rioting and bombs that delayed the opening. He also played the lead in The Emperor Jones (also O'Neill), about a con man who eventually becomes a ruler of a Caribbean nation. He would reprise the role in 1933 for the motion picture version. Robeson was sometimes criticized for the role (usually by fellow blacks) because it enforced certain black stereotypes. Also in 1924, he acted in his first film (he eventually made 14, two of which only his voice was used). Of his stagework, one critic wrote that he was "one of the artists to whom his race may point with pride" (www.rutgers.edu)a rather backhanded compliment but quite impressive for its day.
The next year, Robeson would launch his singing career with a concert of 16 songs. All black spirituals, making him the first performer to ever do a major concert entirely of such material. Unlike his professional acting debut, he was lauded and the show was a big success, leading to getting an agent, a tour, and a four-record set of recordings. One critic wrote of the performance that it was "a turning point, one of those thin points of time in which a star is born and not yet visiblethe first appearance of this folk wealth to be made without deference or apology."
More accolades awaited outside of the US when following the opening night performance of The Emperor Jones, he was called back for twelve ovations. England would long be a place where he felt welcome and appreciatedusually more than in the US. According to his wife, there they could, "as respectable human beings, dine at any place" (www.rutgers.edu). The couple lived there for a while on more than one occasion.
Robeson would continue to tour (as far away as Green Bay, Wisconsin and Kansas) and act, though he often decried the lack of opportunities and roles for black actors. In 1927, he toured Europe, where at the opening night in Paris, the audience included no less an icon than James Joyce. That year would also see the birth of his only son, Paul Robeson, Jr.
The next year he would play what is, perhaps, his best known role in Show Boat. He would also play the part in the 1936 film version. His bass-baritone voice was perfectly suited to the song "Ol' Man River," which would become one of his signature pieces. During tours in central and eastern Europe, he became fascinated by folk music and the universality of it. He felt it to be "an emotional product developed through suffering" (ww.rutgets.edu). Folk songs of different cultures would become a regular part of his repertoire.
Robeson played the role of Shakespeare's Othello (1930). While the production got mixed reviews, he felt it to be one of the most fulfilling of his acting career. There were 20 curtain calls opening night. Around that time, problems with the marriage arose almost led to divorce in 1932 (his mistress broke things off; Paul and Essie would remain married the rest of their lives).
He continued touring and becoming more interested in the art and history of African culture. This would lead to later activism and studying (he would go on to learn a number of languages, some of African tribes). He had a goal to find "an Art that is purely Negro, that is not dependent on Western and European influence" (www.rutgets.edu). On the other hand, he would never turn his back on those influences. Robeson believed in integration and sharing on all levels.
1934 to 1938
An activism fully awakens
As early as 1934, Robeson began to speak out publicly on human and civil rights issues (not just for American blacks). That year he came out condemning the Nazi treatment of Jews in Germany. His dissatisfaction with the portrayal of blacks in film resulted in him looking outside the US for outlets for expression. It also resulted in another turning point in his life: an invitation to visit the Soviet Union by the great director Sergei Eisenstein.
Robeson liked the socialist aspects he saw there. He saw numerous cultures seeming to get along without the taint or racism or tribalism. He saw old cultures becoming industrialized and the illiterate learning to read. It made a strong impression on him, so much that he said, "Here for the first time in my life, I walk in full human dignity" (www.rutgers.edu). He even considered moving his family there for a time. On his return he began acting in more socially conscious plays.
Robeson continued his study of language and culture (particularly African), noting that "all Peoples are not nearly as different from one another as textbooks would have it" (www.rutgers.edu). He also starred in two films which showed a certain dignity in the black characters (and extras) that was missing from most cinema at the time. In 1936, he returned to the Soviet Union and decided to enroll his son in a school there, hoping that he would be able learn without the spectre of racism hanging over him.
The following year, he helped found the Council on African Affairs (CAA), which would advocate the end of colonialism in Africa and support self-determination and rule by Africans in their own land (apartheid in South Africa was a main target). He also became involved in the fight against fascism during the Spanish Civil War (1936 to 1939). He sang concerts to help raise money and awareness of the struggle and to help those left homeless by the conflict. He went to numerous rallies, singing and speaking.
At one in San Francisco, he gave the stirring speech:
Every artist, every scientist, must decide now where he stands. He has no alternative. There is no standing above the conflict on Olympian heights. There are no impartial observers. Through the destruction in certain countries of the greatest of man's literary heritages, through the propagation of false ideas of racial and national superiority, the artist, the scientist, the writer is challenged. The battlefront is everywhere. There is no sheltered rear. The artist must take sides. He must elect to fight for freedom or for slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative. The history of the capitalist era is characterized by the degradation of my people: despoiled of their lands, their culture destroyed, they are in every country, save one, denied equal protection of the law, and deprived of their rightful place in the respect of their fellows. Not through blind faith or coercion, but conscious of my course, I take my place with you.
The following year he would visit the men fighting in Spain despite the danger to himself. He also applauded the Soviet Union's support for the cause.
During that time, the tension in pre-WWII Europe caused the Robesons to take their son out of the school and place him in another Soviet school in London. He also brought his convictions to the stage by changing the wording of his most famous song from "I'm tired of livin' and tired of dyin'" to "I must keep fightin' until I'm dyin'" Robeson also got involved with causes in China and the independence of India (both he and Essie became friends with future prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru). Despite warnings from his agent that jumping into politics could harm his performing career, Robeson continued and the people he met cheered him on. In 1938 he was polled as being one of the top ten British film and recording stars.
World War II
During tours in Scandinavia, many of the events turned into anti-Nazi rallies. When the Nazi-Soviet pact was announced, Robeson refused to condemn it (he reasoned it as a security issue for the USSR). Another bit of "evidence" against him.
When the war officially began with the invasion of Poland in September 1939, Paul Jr. was taken from school and the family left London, where they had been living, for the States. Later that year, Robeson sang a patriotic song, "Ballad for American's," on radio which was so well received that he was able to perform it the next year before a crowd of 30,000 at the Hollywood Bowl. A recording of the song also hit the top of the charts. All along, he continued acting on stage and making the occasional film. He even had time to help found the Negro Playwrights' Company (with Richard Wright among the co-founders).
Robeson spent his time working both worlds of activism and the arts (and combining them whenever possible). Even though he was a big star (in 1940, Collier's magazine named him "America's No. 1 Negro entertainer"), he still ran up about prejudice and racism in his own country, being denied rooms in hotels or service in restaurantsall while getting standing ovations from audiences and praise from critics.
Robeson was also beginning to make enemies in high places. He was first placed under surveillance by the FBI in 1941 as a suspected Communist, following his becoming chair of the CAA. It wouldn't be long before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) had him on their list. Meanwhile he continued doing things that must have "red"-flagged him. He opposed war aid to Britain and France because he felt the end result would be continued colonial control of Africa. Support for other leftist or antifascist causes didn't help (especially protesting the imprisonment of the leader of the US Communist Party). Nor did speaking in support and attending strikes by auto workers. This all despite being given a citation from the Secretary of the Treasury for "distinguished and patriotic service to our country."
On the racial front, he decided to stop making Hollywood movies after playing a stereotyped sharecropper in Tales of Manhattan (1942). It would be the last time he appeared in a film (outside of archival footage and one other where he provided his voice). During a concert in Kansas City, Missouri, he halted the show because he saw the audience was segregated, only continuing "under protest." Most of the white audience members walked out.
He also did shows in support of the US war effort and used it as a means to decry segregation in the armed forces. Later he took on segregation in sports, saying (of baseball) that he understood the fears of the owners but that from his experience it was unfounded and that "Because baseball is a national game, it is up to baseball to see that discrimination does not become the American pattern" (www.indianarep.com).
In 1943 and he received another award: the Abraham Lincoln Medal for his notable and distinguished service in human relations. This did not deter the FBI from considering him a leading Communist and giving him a custodial detention card. This would allow him to be arrested if there was a national emergency.
So many turned out for Robeson's forty-sixth birthday event that 4,000 had to be turned away at the door. He starred in Othello on Broadway (quite significant for its time) and went on, not only to acclaim, but to be part of a record-setting run for a Broadway show (296 performances). As usual, these accomplishments were underscored by his campaigning for friend and Communist Ben Davis's bid for the New York City Council. He also campaigned for Franklin Roosevelt (which, to some, may have not been much better).
1945 to 1949
Following the war, he toured with the USO and saw first hand the devastation. He was also deeply affected when he saw the concentration camps, as well as the attitude the Allies took toward the Soviet Union.
Upon his return to the US, he toured the deep south and saw how few job opportunities were granted blacks and their living conditions. He also saw police brutality and an increase in lynchings which caused him to help found the American Council Against Lynching. He led a delegation to bring up the issue with President Harry S. Truman. The president felt it wasn't the right time to address it.
The same day, in a radio address, he remarked that
Democracy is the birthright of every Negro American. The defense of that birthright is the defense of every American's right to join a trade union, to practice any faith of his choice, to join any club, or fraternal organization, to exercise his voting franchise, to enjoy the privileges of the Bill of Rights and the United States Constitution.
In 1946, Robeson made his first appearance before HUAC. At the time, he denied being a member of the Communist Party. Subsequently he refused to answer the question feeling this was a constitutional issue and he would take that stand on behalf of all Americans who deserved their constitutional rights. But he never toned done his convictions about what he called "scientific socialism" being "a form of society that is economically, socially, culturally, and ethically superior to a system based upon production for private profit." Or his feelings that socialist nations could help in the liberation of countries under the colonial yoke. (That there may have been more than a bit of naivete in his support for China or the Soviet Union is undeniable, though he was viewing things through his idealism and faith in mankind.)
Not long after, he was placed a list of 1,000 Communists. One of the wheels of his car came off while he was driving down the highway. While Robeson was uninjured, tampering was suspected. A few months later, he announced he would cease giving concerts except for "my trade union and college friends" (www.indianarep.com) and concentrate more fully on civil rights and race relations. He felt that "I must raise my voice, but not by singing pretty songs" (www.rutgers.edu).
In 1948 he campaigned for the Progressive Party and was even asked to run as vice president at the convention (he declined). He also fought against the Mundt-Nixon Bill, legislation that would require all Communist Party members and organizations to register with the government. He spoke out at Senate hearings and even picketed the White House.
Damage to his career was becoming apparent. He was denied performing in Peoria, Illinois. The Albany, New York Board of Education also refused him. The New York Supreme Court ruled that he could only perform if the program was strictly confined to singing. Meanwhile HUAC cited him as a Communist Party supporter.
Concerts continued to be canceled due to concern over protests or worsein 1949, a concert in New York State ended in a riot that destroyed the stage, torched the chairs, and resulted in twelve people being hospitalized. Robeson defiantly stated that "My people and I won't be frightened by crosses burning in Peekskill or anywhere else" (www.rutgers.edu). He returned for a second show, protected by trade unionists. When the concert ended, another riot broke out, injuring 150 people. Fallout also affected his family. His son and his bride (a Jewish womanwhich couldn't've helped) had their wedding procession threatened and taunted.
While J. Edgar Hoover was getting updates on his files, Robeson was being misquoted from a speech made at the World Peace Conference in Paris. Remarks that blacks should not fight for those who had oppressed them were conveyed as a statement that blacks would not fight against the Soviet Union. He was strongly criticized by both white and black leaders, even after a clarification was given. Surveillance by the FBI continued.
1950 to 1955
Into the 1950s and Cold War was in full "freeze." The crackdown on dissent within the US continued to grow, particularly in respect to anyone who questioned foreign and domestic policies of the government. In March 1950, Robeson had the dubious distinction to be the first American banned from television. He was scheduled to appear on a program ("Today with Mrs. Roosevelt") until NBC put a stop to it.
Things grew worse with the opening of the Korean Warthe first overt and acknowledged US military action to stop Communism. Robeson condemned the war, not only as a matter of peace and the same reason for which he had been misquoted earlier, but because he saw it as the beginning of a spread of military interventionism that could lead to Africa as it had to countries like the Philippines in the past. He felt the war for freedom should begin at home.
Because of statements he had made, the government took advantage of the Internal Security Act which allowed them to detain "subversives" in times of national crisis. Through it they asked him to give up his passport. He was then offered it back if he swore not to be a Communist. He refused and filed suit for its return. He was told he could use it on the condition that he would not give any speeches outside of the country.
Never one to stay idle, Robeson continued his activist work, co-founding the journal Freedom and co-wrote a column every month for five years. In 1951, he earned a place as honorary member of the National Negro Labor Council. He traveled the country making speeches on civil rights and freedom. Later that year, he headed a delegation to the United Nations, petitioning that charges of genocide be filed against the US for its treatment of blacks throughout its history.
Things were worse the more outspoken and vocal he became. The black press, which had long championed and backed him both professionally and in his activism, started to turn on him. The lawsuit was dismissed by the federal court (his lawyers appealed). In an attempt to go to Canada (for which a passport wasn't required) to speak to organized mineworkers, the INS stopped him. Robeson arranged to place a 17 minute phone call to the gathered workers that was played over a loudspeaker. Later in 1952, at the Peace Arch concert, 40,000 people gathered for the concert held at the border for all to hear whichever country they were in.
He also won the Stalin prize which didn't help as concerts were canceled and he was blacklisted from most venues. Even record companies refused to let him work. To counter, he started his own and released two albums. Despite offers from other countries, the lack of passport killed any chance of performing. Meanwhile, HUAC called Essie before the committee. Like her husband, she refused to bow before the pressure.
In 1953, fans and supporters in England started a "Let Robeson Sing" campaign which led to thousands of letters, petitions, and cables from all over the world demanding the return of his passport. Though there were rumors he would denounce Communism and the Soviet Union, it did not happen. What did was condemnation over the US intervention in Guatemala and other "anti-Communist" policies. Around that time he met with Albert Einstein to discuss peace.
But once again his passport was denied. Increased FBI surveillance and threats from racists caused him to move to Harlem and live with his brother (who had followed their father into the clergy) at the parsonage in 1954. The next year, claimed governmental harassment led to the disbanding of the CAA. Freedom also ceased publishing. A wheel on his car fell off again (something that would occur twice more in 1958). Twice he applied for his passport and twice he was denied. He was brought before a state committee investigating Communist fronting organizations. Robeson told them he was proud to be the director of the Civil rights Congress.
Later in the year, he had an operation for a prostate condition. At the same time, Essie had a mastectomy. They both spent time recuperating in Harlem where they had bought a home.
1956 to 1959
HUAC and Civil Rights
Robeson suffered an emotional collapse following Nikita Khrushchev's statements detailing Josef Stalin's crimes against humanity (possibly not coincidentally). He then spent two months going through manic depression. During that time, HUAC called him before the committee again. When asked about whether he wrote positive things about the Soviet Union, he replied:
I would say in Russia I felt for the first time like a full human being, and no colored prejudice like in Mississippi and no colored prejudice like in Washington, and it was the first time I felt like a human being, where I did not feel the pressure of colored as I feel in this committee today.
Asked why he didn't stay, he said
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 for peace with the Soviet Union and I am for peace with China, and I am not for peace or friendship with the Fascist Franco, and I am not for peace with Fascist Nazi Germans, and I am for peace with decent people in the world.
He was then told he was before the committee because he was "promoting the Communist cause in this country." Robeson shot back that "I am here because I am opposing the neo-Fascist cause which I see arising in this committee."
Asked about his "Communist connections," he once again refused to answer"I have made it a matter of principle to refuse to comply with any demand that infringes upon the Constitutional rights of all Americans" (www.indianarep.com, also above testimony). He then addressed the committee, calling them the "true un-Americans, and you should be ashamed of yourselves" (www.rutgers.edu). He was held in contempt, though the House of Representatives took no further action against him.
Though the State department relented and allowed him to travel to Canada, the US Supreme Court refused to hear his appeal on the passport issue. In 1957, Robeson was allowed to travel to countries not requiring a passport (he had already been giving concerts over the phone).
The Civil Rights era in the US had begun. The Supreme Court ruled against segregation and ordered integration will all possible speed, Rosa Parks helped start the great bus boycott which led to a ruling that segregation on public transportation is illegal, and Martin Luther King, Jr. was stirring up and inspiring nonviolent resistance and action in an attempt to bring real change to race relations in the country.
Too late and still silenced from mainstream discourse, Robeson missed his chance to be remembered as one of the great leaders of the movement. He did what he could, supporting King and encouraging others to join in his march toward freedom.
The Cold War began to thaw for Robeson starting in 1958. Celebrations for his sixtieth birthday were held throughout the world (India declared a "Paul Robeson Day") and he launched a "comeback" tour which included his first concert in New York in a decade a sold-out appearance at Carnegie Hall. He published the book Here I Stand in which he discusses his life (though it is not, as some sources say, his autobiography) and his beliefs, detailing his troubles with travel, ideas on racism, and touching on his relation with Communism and the Soviet Union. On the other hand, except for parts of the black press and some leftist publications (and abroad), the book was ignored.
Later that year, his passport was restored after the Supreme Court ruled the State Department had no right to withhold a passport based on political beliefs. He promptly went to London and then Moscow, cheered and triumphed in both places.
1959 to 1976
Paul and Essie celebrated the coming of 1959 at a ball held at the Kremlin by Khrushchev. But less than two weeks later both would be hospitalized. Paul suffered again from exhaustion and Essie because of radium treatments she was undergoing. Later that year, he played Othello for another successful seven month run at Stratford-upon-Avon .
Into 1960, the couple would continue their political activities, going back and forth between England and the USSR to attend meetings, demonstrations, and rallies (and more awards for Paul). That year, he would leave for his final concert tour (Australia and New Zealand). After another collapse, he spent much of 1961 in hospitals (Moscow and London) while they tried to diagnose his problem. Though he was still hospitalized in 1961, he was faced with the expiration of his passport and had little choice but to sign an affidavit that he was not a Communist Party member, allowing him to remain in England.
The two returned to the US in 1963, after a Berlin clinic diagnosed Paul with Paget's disease. Essie was found to have terminal cancer (a fact kept from Paul). The next year was spent traveling between his sister's home (Philadelphia) and Essie in Harlem. He also made his first public appearance since the Moscow collapse to give a eulogy for his friend Ben Davis.
The final years
The next year would be a bad year. Though he managed a few public appearances, including the eulogy for playwright Lorraine Hansberry and singing in churches, the 67 year old Robeson was declining in health and energy. His relative recovery was canceled by another setback and he was hospitalized, this time for depression and arteriolosclerosis. In August, Essie learned she only had a few months to live. Shortly after the news, Paul almost died from double pneumonia. Two days before she was to turn 70, Essie Robeson succumbed to cancer.
Robeson moved in with his sister who took care of him (she was 71, herself). In 1972, Ebony magazine declared him one of the ten greats of black history. For his seventy-fifth birthday (1973), a "Salute to Paul Robeson" was held at Carnegie Hall. He was unable to attend but sent a message of thanks and appreciation, adding that "Here at home my heart is with the continuing struggle of my own people to achieve complete liberation from racist domination, and to gain for all black Americans and other minority groups not only equal rights but an equal share" (www.indianarep.com), and praising African movements fighting for liberation from their histories of colonialism. Coretta Scott King praised him for speaking about civil rights decades before her husband did.
Finally, in 1974, the FBI came to the conclusion that "no further investigation is warranted" (www.rutgers.edu). As usual, too little, too late.
Paul Robeson, after suffering from two strokes in less than a month, died on 23 January 1976. Over 5,000 mourners attended his funeral four days later where they listened to him sing spirituals on the loudspeaker.
Robeson never got a chance to give a "I have a dream" speech. In the epilogue of his book, one can find something akin to one. In it he is writing about the children of Little Rock, Arkansas, attending an integrated school in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education.
You are our children, but the peoples of the whole world rightly claim you, too. They have seen your faces, and the faces of those who hate you, and they are on your side. They see in you those qualities which parents everywhere want their children to have, and their best wishesthe love of all good people for childrengoes out to you.
Yes, Americathese are your children, too, and you ought to be very proud of them. The American dreamthe spirit of Jefferson and Lincoln, of Emerson and Twainis given new life by the children of Little Rock. These children must ever be cherished, for they are not only the hope and the promise of my people: with them stands the destiny of democracy in America.
The silence ends now.
(Sources: Paul Robeson 1958 Here I Stand, all unattributed quotes taken from here; www.rutgers.edu/robeson/main.html; www.indianarep.com/StudyGuides/Robeson/robeson_timeline.htm)