Grave of the Week: Paul Robeson, Colin Kaepernick, and the Meaning of America

On September 4, 1949 – 77 years ago today – a concert in Peekskill, NY by a man named Paul Robeson ended in a violent riot. The violence was committed by mobs of angry white protesters who saw Robeson as anti-American for statements he made concerning racial equality in the United States. For these statements, Robeson was threatened, blackballed, investigated, and even denied travel in the fevered anti-Communist climate of the late 1940s and early 1950s. I’ve been reminded of Robeson this week as I watch the continuing fallout from and coverage of Colin Kaepernick’s silent protest of the national anthem and his statements on racial inequality that followed. Kaepernick and Robeson both fit into a long and troubling history of protest over racial injustice being labeled anti-American by white society.

Paul Robeson was as close to a modern day Renaissance Man as it’s possible to get in modern America. As a student at Rutgers – where he was, at the time of his matriculation, the only African American there – he was a brilliant football player, an award-winning debater and singer, and a top student who overcame racist treatment throughout his time at Rutgers and eventually wound up as valedictorian. After graduation, and while attending first NYU and then Columbia Law School, Robeson played for the nascent National Football League, acted and sang in shows both domestic and international, and – increasingly – spoke out against the racism he saw all around him. In the years before World War II, Robeson’s internationalism, anti-fascism and anti-colonialism led him to admire the Soviet Union, which – at least before Stalin – was a champion of those causes, at least to a degree. Robeson spoke out against Franco’s fascism, and against British imperialism. He also frequently spoke out against Jim Crow and lynching in the United States. During World War II, Robeson’s strong anti-racism fit the narrative of a nation at war with racial supremacists, but afterward – during a period of increasing red terror – Robeson’s views frightened and troubled a wide swath of the American public, leading to near universal condemnation.

On June 20, 1949, Robeson spoke out against American racism in an address in Paris. He alleged to have talked of an America built “on the backs of millions of black people” and brought racial and class struggles together as he proclaimed a desire for peace with the Soviet Union; also allegedly, he called it “unthinkable” that African Americans would fight a Soviet Union that Robeson saw as a force for racial equality. There remains some question exactly what Robeson said, as there are questions about the AP report filed that day, but the views reported were not widely different from Robeson’s own. Regardless of what was actually said, the reaction in the United States was explosive. Figures as different as Eleanor Roosevelt, the NAACP, the United States State Department, and Jackie Robinson publicly opposed Robeson’s words. Concert venues immediately canceled virtually every concert Robseon had scheduled in the US in 1949. His passport was revoked. He was a pariah.

One of the few concerts he had remaining was in Peekskill, NY in August 1949. However, the concert was protested violently by a number of groups including the American Legion and VFW, and elements of the KKK. It was postponed. A new concert, scheduled for September 4, was held without incident, but afterward violence descended: concertgoers were attacked in their cars, Robeson was burned in effigy, and one motorist – a former WWI pilot who had been decorated by the Army but was mistaken for Robeson – was severely beaten. Robeson’s public career, which had been at its height only a few months earlier, was suddenly in tatters because of what the public saw as unpatriotic speech.

Robeson’s story is not the only one that ended with this conflation of anti-racism and anti-Americanism. The story of black protest has forever been one that challenged America’s dominant narrative of a land of liberty and equality. This was true when Frederick Douglass delivered his blistering “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” speech in the years leading up to the Civil War. It was true when A. Philip Randolph called on African Americans to avoid service in World War I, and when Randolph threatened FDR with a public protest march if the President didn’t tear down segregation in government jobs during World War II. It was true when Martin Luther King and other Civil Rights leaders were regularly accused of being spurred on by Communists in their midst because only Communists, it was believed, could have achieved such disruption. It was true when Muhammad Ali gave up his title rather than fight in Vietnam, against someone who “never called [him] nigger.” It was true when Jackie Robinson wrote, in his autobiography, that he could not stand for the anthem or recite the pledge because his country didn’t recognize him as a person. It is true of Kaepernick, whose silent and dignified protest has been met with a deluge of derision and scorn. The flag has been used, time and time again, as a gag for those who point out the fundamental flaw in the American experiment.

American nationalism is a funny thing: it’s the firm belief that whoever we recognize as a citizen is morally superior. The problem is in where we draw that boundary. It is not yet nearly wide enough to encapsulate everyone who aspires to live within it, and those who find themselves on the outside looking in are a constant reminder to the majority that they are not as egalitarian as they’d like to believe. Not many people will remember Colin Kaepernick’s protest seventy seven years from now, just as few have ever heard of the Peekskill Riots. But unless there is a sea change – in policy, in structural racism, in attitudes and in our sense of self and community – there will be other Kaepernicks, other Randolphs, other Kings, other Douglass, and other Robesons there to challenge that exclusionary exceptionalism that celebrates our freedom to protest, unless that protest is inward; that trumpets a right to free speech, as long as it isn’t too radical; that reminds us of the rights and demands of the minority, unless it challenges the power of the majority.

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