The House Un-American Activities Committee was an American judicial commission that was established in 1938 under the Roosevelt presidency. HUAC vociferously attacked FDR even though the majority of the nation supported FDR and his social reforms at a time when the nation was emerging from a deep economic depression. HUAC targeted the growing peace movement in the United States, leading inquisitions against freedom-fighters like Paul Robeson and W.E.B. Du Bois, among others, for their support and sympathy with the cause of the Soviet Union. Like the people of the Soviet Union who overcame tsarist rule, Robeson and Du Bois were engaged in the world-wide struggle to free human labor from imperialist exploitation–a struggle which they found to be inextricably linked to the struggle for African-American freedom, recognizing slavery, imperialism, and segregation as the sine qua non of American ‘democracy.’
In 1959, HUAC led an injunction against the United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA), accusing the organization of collaborating with the Communist Party. The UPWA had lent its support to the South Christian Leadership Conference during the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1957, led by King. UPWA representative, Russell Lasley, during the founding meeting of the SCLC in January 1957, remarked that it “an extreme honor and privilege to represent UPWA in a conference of leaders who have dedicated their lives to the cause of freedom and the establishment of a society free of racial injustice and second class citizenship.” In turn, during the UPWA’s annual convention in 1962, King addressed a roomful of union members and asserted that, “If labor as a whole, if the administration in Washington matched your concern and your deeds, the civil rights problem would not be a burning national issue, but a problem long solved, and in its solution a luminous accomplishment in the best tradition of American.” principles.” Thus, the UPWA would play an important role in the March on Washington for jobs and freedom in 1963.
Retaliating against their support for the Montgomery bus boycott and as result of the growing friendship between American labor and the civil rights movement, the U.S. Congress charged the UPWA of advancing the cause of communism. On July 31, 1959, King attended a meeting of the UPWA’s Public Advisory Commission in Chicago and issued a statement in support of their agitations. The statement is significant for our historical consideration because it confirms King’s commitment to the struggle for labor’s emancipation, recalling his insistence that all human labor has dignity, that we are dependent on the labor of others for our daily existence. As he puts it in his influential sermon, “Three Dimensions of a Complete Life”:
“Most of us will have to be content to work in the fields and in the factories and on the streets. But we must see the dignity of all labor.
When I was in Montgomery, Alabama, I went to a shoe shop quite often, known as the Gordon Shoe Shop. And there was a fellow in there that used to shine my shoes, and it was just an experience to witness this fellow shining my shoes. He would get that rag, you know, and he could bring music out of it. And I said to myself, “This fellow has a Ph.D. in shoe shining.”
What I’m saying to you this morning, my friends, even if it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, go on out and sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures; sweep streets like Handel and Beethoven composed music; sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry; (Go ahead) sweep streets so well that all the host of heaven and earth will have to pause and say, “Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.” And when you do this, when you do this, you’ve mastered the length of life.”
King’s Statement on House Committee on Un-American Activities Hearings on the United Packinghouse Workers of America, June 11, 1959
After discovering that the House Committee on Un-American Activities had conducted hearings in the matter of alleged Un-American activities in the Union of the United Packing House Workers of America, the Executive Committee of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference voted unanimously to publicly express its confidence in the integrity of this union.
The officers and members of the United Packing House Workers Union have demonstrated a real humanitarian concern. They have worked indefatigably to implement the ideals and principles of our democracy. Their devotion to the cause of civil rights has been unswerving. This union has stood out against segregation and discrimination not only in public pronouncements, but also in actual day to day practice. They have given thousands of dollars to aid organizations that are working for freedom and human dignity of the South. Because of the forthright stand of the Packing House Workers in the area of civil rights, they have aroused the ire of some persons who are not so commited. But in spite of this they have continued to work courageously for the ideal of the brotherhood of man. It is tragic indeed that some of our reactionary brothers in America will go to the limit of giving Communism credit for all good things that happen in our nation. It is a dark day indeed when men cannot work to implement the ideal of brotherhood without being labeled communist.
We sincerely hope that nothing will happen to deter the significant work being done by this dedicated labor organization. Again we express our confidence in the integrity and loyalty of the officers and members of the United Packing House Workers of America.
1. “6 Accused as Reds Balk at Hearing,” New York Times, 6 May 1959. UPWA president Ralph Helstein denied any Communist influence within the union. Following the HUAC hearings, the union distributed a questionnaire to union members accused of being Communist Party members prior to 1949 and who may have been in violation of the AFL-CIO’s Ethical Practices Codes. The codes stipulated that “no person should hold or retain office or appointed position in the AFL-CIO or any of its affiliated national or international unions or subordinate bodies thereof who is a member, consistent supporter or who actively participates in the activities of the Communist Party or of any fascist or other totalitarian organization” (Russell Lasley to Sir and Brother, 10 July 1959). HUAC was established as a standing committee in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1938 to investigate Communist and fascist influence within American institutions.
2. Russell R. Lasley (1914–1989) was an officer in UPWA Local 46 in Waterloo, Iowa, and served as UPWA international vice president from 1948 until 1968.
3. At the third meeting of the fledgling civil rights group on 8 August 1957, King announced the start of a voter registration campaign. SCLC treasurer Ralph Abernathy estimated that $200,000 was needed to finance the campaign. In October, UPWA president Ralph Helstein presented King with a check for $11,000 at their convention in Chicago (Art Osgoode, “Negroes Rap State Solons in Resolution,” Montgomery Advertiser, 9 August 1957; Ralph Helstein, Remarks at the fourth biennial wage and contracts, third national anti-discrimination, and third national women’s activities conference of the United Packinghouse Workers, 2 October 1957; see also UPWA, “Program proposals for 1957,” 21 June 1957). King later agreed to serve on the UPWA’s Advisory Review Commission of Public Citizens set up to monitor the union’s compliance with the AFL-CIO Ethical Practices Codes (Helstein to King, 8 July 1959).
As revolutionary India entered the world stage as a free nation in 1947, The Hindu, a widely read Indian newspaper, condemned the banning of Paul Robeson’s public performance in Peoria, Illinois as a consequence for his agitation for world peace and the freedom of oppressed peoples everywhere. “If Paul Robeson is un-American, so much the worse for America,” declared the writer of the piece. The article was republished on the first page of The Baltimore Afro-American on May 24, 1947
In 1956, Robeson would be viciously targeted for his support of the erstwhile Soviet Union and his lifelong admiration for the Russian Revolution as well as the revolutions of Asian and African peoples for independence from colonial rule by the House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities, which was established in 1938 in efforts to quell the rising tide of communism as the American nation struggled against a deep economic depression. Robeson’s heroic defense at the investigation against the encroachments of the virulent Jim Crow, anti-communist regime:
Could I say that the reason that I am here today, you know, from the mouth of the State Department itself, is: I should not be allowed to travel because I have struggled for years for the independence of the colonial peoples of Africa. For many years I have so labored and I can say modestly that my name is very much honored all over Africa, in my struggles for their independence. That is the kind of independence like Sukarno got in Indonesia. Unless we are double-talking, then these efforts in the interest of Africa would be in the same context. The other reason that I am here today, again from the State Department and from the court record of the court of appeals, is that when I am abroad I speak out against the injustices against the Negro people of this land. I sent a message to the Bandung Conference and so forth. That is why I am here. This is the basis, and I am not being tried for whether I am a Communist, I am being tried for fighting for the rights of my people, who are still second-class citizens in this United States of America. My mother was born in your state, Mr. Walter, and my mother was a Quaker, and my ancestors in the time of Washington baked bread for George Washington’s troops when they crossed the Delaware, and my own father was a slave. I stand here struggling for the rights of my people to be full citizens in this country. And they are not. They are not in Mississippi. And they are not in Montgomery, Alabama. And they are not in Washington. They are nowhere, and that is why I am here today. 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 for the steelworkers too. And that is why I am here today. . . .
On June 27, 1938, a large crowd of supporters welcomed Jawaharlal Nehru, the future Prime Minister of independent India, and Paul Robeson, African-American artist, leader, and freedom-fighter, at London’s Kingsway Hall. Rajani Palme Dutt, an Indo-Swede who served as the foremost journalist and theoretician of the Communist Party of Great Britain delivered the opening address. In just two short years, Nehru had raised the membership of the Indian National Congress from half a million to over three million. In his remarks, Dutt (who would tragically criticize Gandhi’s civil disobedience strategy in 1922 and defend Trotsky in 1926) seems to have had a change of direction, to some extent: at the 1938 India League meeting, he congratulates Nehru’s capacity to reach and retain the commitment of the Indian masses to the broad movement for national independence. In his address to the crowd, Robeson emphasized the necessity of uniting the democratic and progressive forces throughout the world against imperialism. He noted that the African-American people, who were seeking political and economic freedom in Jim Crow America, were closely watching “the Indian struggle and have been conscious of its importance to us.”
As Martin Duberman writes in his biography of Robeson, during their stay in London, Paul and Eslanda Robeson met frequently with Nehru. In fact, there is some evidence in the history of the exchanges between Eslanda and Nehru of a possible romantic involvement between the two. Essie, Nehru writes, “would dash in occasionally into my flat and announce in the American way, that she was feeling like a million dollars. I am sure she has that capacity of feeling that way whatever happens.” Eslanda would herself remark that she thought Nehru rather dashing. After a luncheon with Nehru following the India League rally at Kingsway Hall, Essie presented Nehru with her biography of her husband, Paul Robeson, Negro. She would also become a good friend to Vijaya Laxmi Pandit, Nehru’s sister, with whom she corresponded throughout her life. Vijaya Laxmi had accompanied Nehru to England in 1938.
Earlier that month, Robeson would act in A Plant in the Sun, a political play about young workers in the shipping department of a sweet factory in New York organizing to stage a sit-in when a co-worker named Peewee–played by Paul Robeson–is fired for expressing pro-union sentiments. Nehru, Vijaya Laxmi, and Krishna Menon, the Secretary of the India League, were all present in the audience.
The play’s plot-line underscores the importance of political solidarity across race as well as class lines. As Henry Winston, the Du Boisian-Leninist leader of the American Communist Party, beloved by his people as “Winnie,” emphasizes, “There are no substitutes for the class unity of the working class as a whole. This requires the equality of joint Black and white leadership of the Black liberation movement and all components of the working class leading all the oppressed and exploited against corporate monopoly.” Winston’s words remind us that the preservation of unity is key to the sustenance of any broad liberation strategy for genuine world peace–a peace rooted in the freedom of all those oppressed by neoliberalism and Western civilization, a peace opposed to the specious Pax Americana that impedes our present struggle for freedom.
The intimacy of relations between the leadership of the African-American and Indian people’s independence movements is not uncoincidental. As I have previously suggested, after Du Bois, we must think of the unity of Pan-Africa and Pan-Asia when considering the movement of human history in the past two thousand years. Such an approach is vital to the defense of our common future, which must begin, first and foremost, with the liberation of the dark proletariat in unity and struggle with–but not subservient to–the white proletariat, which, in turn, must, as Winston emphasizes, join in sincere dialogue and empathy with the Black workers of the world in order the identify their common oppressor.
“Our Black Brother, Paul Robeson” is a folk song quilled by Bengali singer and composer Hemanga Biswas (1912-1987), a freedom-fighter, and man of the people. I am not entirely certain of the date when it was written, but I’d guess sometime in the late 40s, though I could be mistaken. Biswas was born in British Assam, in a region that is now Bangladesh. In college, Biswas embraced the principles of communism and composed a variety of plays and poetic pieces on questions pertaining to truth, equality, and justice. He began arranging “Gana Sangeet”–anthems dedicated to the liberation of his beloved India from the bitter yoke of British oppression.
Paul Robeson is the reigning muse of this sangeet, whose lyrics I include below in Bengali and English. The Indian people cherish Robeson’s example of revolutionary humanity at its most developed and salute him as their black brother in struggle–“Negro bhai aamar Paul Robeson” They don’t allow us to raise our voices, Robeson,” they plead to him accusingly, pointing to their British oppressor. The recurring refrain invoking Robeson as a moral anchor in the song, as witness at the scene of the crime, ought to remind us of the gravity of Robeson’s moral authority in matters concerning Black racial progress in the world labor movement. Robeson is repeatedly called upon to bear witness to the suffering of the Indian masses. He was beloved by Indian workers, who saw, like Nehru and Vijaya Laxmi, in Britain, that their destinies were bound up in each other’s, so much so that a young Bengali college student was compelled to compose an anthem in his name. The song continues to remain a popular folk song on the subcontinent.
The people of the India are a musical people. Thus, they are not a people capable of tolerating silence for very long and so, they are socially prone to raising their voices in song at various intervals of daily life. Music, moreover, sustains human work throughout the world, having accompanied it for millennia, with the African-American spiritual and labor songs bequeathed to us by Robeson being some of the most beautiful examples of songs wrought in love and struggle. So we can see why in “Our Black Brother Paul Robeson,” Biswas’s chorus of workers, from whose perspective the song is imagined, summon Robeson to the scene of labor itself in order to draw attention to how the raised voices of the people in unity pose a threat to the ever-encroaching master who diligently oversees their work.
“Ora Aamader Gaan Gaite Deyna” or “Our Black Brother Paul Robeson”
ORA AAMADER GAAN GAITE DEYNA NEGRO BHAI AAMAR PAUL ROBESON
AAMRA AMADER GAAN GAI
ORA CHAY NA ORA CHAY NA
NEGRO BHAI AAMAR PAUL ROBESON
ORA BHOY PEYECHHE ROBESON
AAMADER KUCHKAOAJE BHOY PEYECHHE
AAMADER ROKTO CHOKH KE BHOY PEYECHHE HIMMOTER SHOKTI KE BHOY PEYECHHE ROBESON
NEGRO BHAI AAMAR PAUL ROBESON.
ORA BHOY PEYECHHE JIBONE ORA BHOY PEYECHHE MORONE ORA BHOY KORE SEI SMRITI KE
ORA BHOY PEYECHHE DU: SWOPONE.
ORA BHOY PEYECHHE ROBESON.
They don’t allow us to raise our voice.
My black brother Paul Robeson.
We sing in our raised voice.
They don’t like, they don’t like
My black brother Paul Robeson.
They’re fear-struck Robeson.
They’re fear-struck as they hear our war cry.
They’re fear-struck as they see our red eye.
They’re fear-struck as they feel our vigor of bravery, Robeson. My black brother Paul Robeson.
They are afraid of living.
They are afraid of dying.
They are afraid of remembering.
They are afraid of dreaming.
They are afraid Robeson.
Paul Robeson was a great admirer of Dr. W.E.B Du Bois and was acutely sensitive to the significance of Du Bois’s contributions to literary, scientific, and philosophical inquiry in the common struggle of the dark nations against Western imperialism in large part because of their shared service to African America and humanity in the world peace movement. He shared a unique affinity and sympathy with Du Bois’s sacrifices in the freedom struggle, given the similarity in the charges leveled upon both men under the virulently anti-communist McCarthyite regime in America, but also because he was greatly admired by Du Bois’s second wife, Shirley Graham Du Bois.
Over the course of the nineteenth century, the violence of white civilization–its destruction of Africa, devastation of the Americas, and plunder of Asia–was obscured, or else rationalized, by a growing accretion of lies about the darker races and their civilizations, lies masquerading as truth, as Western art and science were directed towards the ideological consolidation of European values of beauty, truth, freedom, innovation, and development. Such values negated the presence of these aspects of human civilization amongst the darker races, given that the peoples of Africa, Asia, the Americas, and the islands of the sea, were progressively deemed peoples without history and civilization as European colonialism took root in humanity’s common soil. Nineteenth-century Europeans advanced what Martin Bernal in Black Athena has termed the “Aryan model” of history in order to consolidate their commercial interests in Africa, Asia, and the Americas, falsely positing Europe as the apex of humanity’s historical development . As such, it is important to underscore the significance of black political philosophers and artists like Robeson and the Du Boises, for like other leaders of national liberation movements in the dark world, they knew that the struggle against European imperialism had to be waged on both the material as well as the ideological front. For the denial of oppression is part and parcel of the oppressor’s strategy to maintain dominance amongst the masses. We know this because the people armed with the correct ideas and objectives, then and now, pose the greatest threat to the oppressor.
Robeson recognized Du Bois as a leader in the world peace movement, the movement away from a society founded on war, rape, and theft of dark civilization. Indeed, it was their decisive role in the fight for such a society that led to both Du Bois’s and Robeson’s indictments. Speaking of the “victorious and glorious conclusion of the case of Dr. W.E.B Du Bois” Robeson observed:
It was indeed wonderful to feel the underlying joy and happiness in the hearts of all. There were knowing smiles, handshakes, and congratulations. For this was one of the historic points in the Negro people’s struggle. The attempt to stop Dr. Du Bois from speaking was at the same time aimed to silence him in his defense of the rights of his people to voice their grievances, to call for vast improvements and changes in their condition of second class citizenship. Time and again one returned to the inspiring figure of Dr. Du Bois, to some evaluation of what this history means and can mean. Here was a most illuminating expression of the people’s power, of the people’s will of peace.
Robeson understood that that taken together, Du Bois’s scientific contributions, literary innovation, and historical insight served as an enduring political intervention in the greatest affliction facing humanity in the twentieth century: the problem of the color line. Du Bois’s intervention was a concretely imagined program for peace and the civilizational renaissance of the darker races throughout the world. For us, civilization was not the province of white folk, but the duty of dark folk to humanity. Under imperialism, science and art are deployed in the interest of war and oppression; by contrast, in the struggle for a positive peace in the dark world, they are put in the service of truth, freedom, and humanity. Indeed, this aspiration is also foundational to Robeson’s own artistic ambitions as a singer, linguist, jurist, orator, folklorist, actor, dramatist, and historian.
The two would also serve on the Council on African Affairs, which was as an important Pan-Africanist mouthpiece in the mid twentieth century. Robeson was appointed chairperson for most of the organization’s tenure, while Du Bois served in the capacity of vice-chairperson. The Council linked the struggles of the African-American nation for freedom in the United States to the struggles of the darker races against imperialism throughout the world. Alphaeus Hunton, who then taught English and Romance languages at Howard University, served as the Educational Director and editor of its publication New Africa. In 1953, the Council on African Affairs became the target of the Smith-McCarran Act, though the U.S. Federal Bureau Of Investigations began surveilling the group as early as 1942. Members were charged and indicted. Hunton would spend six months behind bars for his role.
Finally, that Shirley Graham wrote the definitive biography of Paul Robeson–titled Paul Robeson: Citizen of the World–deepens the connections between Du Bois and Robeson. The biography is itself a work of art, compositionally speaking, in that it is a grand synthesis of her musicological, literary, and political genius. Formally, she contends with constraints and possibilities of the biographical form, the challenges and complexities of limning with sufficient complexity the shape of a life. Her account of Robeson’s life is simultaneously operatic, novelistic, and epic in structure and represents a new kind of narrative in my personal study of twentieth-century world literary production. It parallels Du Bois’s The Souls Of Black Folk, in many ways, though particularly with respect to its incorporation of music theory and form into narrative form. James Joyce’s Ulysses attempts to do something similar. Graham Du Bois’s portrait of Robeson situates him in his milieu, as a character on the world stage and a decisive authority on his civilization. As Robeson himself said, “Artists are the gatekeepers if Truth. We are civilization’s radical voice.” Of Robeson’s pursuit of a career in acting, Graham Du Bois, herself a prominent playwright, writes:
This was then what the theater offered him–to speak to all men.
In Western literary criticism of the Romantic period, we often hear about the relationship between Byron, Percy Shelley, and Mary Shelley–its political and creative implications. The novel Frankenstein, for instance, was born out of a story-writing competition between the three during a mountain retreat. We must consider the literary consequence of the relationship that flowered between Robeson, Du Bois, and Shirley Graham over the course of their lives with equal weight.
Graham Du Bois also discourses extensively on Robeson’s organic connection to the Tri-State region of the United States in lush and memorable detail. I was struck by how she coaxes the story of Robeson’s life out of the social landscape of his life, which she presents by way of a political economy and historical sociology of New Jersey and Pennsylvania, giving special attention to the migration patterns structuring labor relations In the region historically. I️ found this interesting for autobiographical reasons, being reminded of where I️ am presently stationed: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Much of the nation’s early history has been made in New Jersey. From the earliest days her land has served as a corridor between New York and Philadelphia. The old colonial post-roads grew hard with the passing of many feet. Her farmlands attracted immigrants during three centuries. To the colonial settlers Dutch, English, Scotch, and smaller numbers of French, German and Swedish had been added wave after wave of Irish, German, and Italian…from Ellis Island they could see the nearby fields and pleasant towns of New Jersey. They had converged on these growing towns and established communities in the shadows of the factories much as their peasant ancestors had clustered beneath the walls of the feudal manor. A few Negroes had been among the early settlers. Aided by state emancipation laws, they had passed from slavery into wage labor as coachmen, gardeners, house servants and tannery workers. They owned and operated barber shops, laundries and catering establishments. In such a community Paul Robeson’s father had pastored his church at Princeton. But about the year 1900 hundreds of frightened unlettered Negroes from the deep south began pouring into the state. They had no roots and were regarded askance by foreign- and native-born. It was to these people, thrown as they were among the newly arrived immi- grants, that Paul’s father took his ministry when he closed the door of the Princeton parsonage behind him.
When reading this highly literary biography, one gains a sense of Robeson as an actor in the world freedom movement and of the texture of the relationships that developed between thinkers and artists of the period–what they thought of each other, how they related each other’s work, where they grew up, their formative childhood experiences, and the arc of their hopes for the new world they sought to build. Shirley Graham Du Bois wields her pen with great control and yet her greatest gift is her commitment the principle of aesthetic freedom in all of its possibilities. Her ever so careful rendering of the deep impression left by Du Bois’s thought on Robeson leaves one with a palpable sense of the shadow cast by Du Bois as a member of the world intelligentsia. Shirley Graham also casts her husband in the biography with great alacrity, grace, and love. I️ will end with her reflections on a meeting of these two giants of African-American civilization at a Alpha Phi Alpha banquet:
Then came the last night of the year, when they came together for their closing banquet and to hear their most distinguished member, the internationally known savant, Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois.
Paul leaned forward studying this man of whom he had heard so much, whose books he had read. He observed the proud, handsome face which looked as if it had been chiseled in bronze, the piercing eyes, the haughty carriage of head. Here was a man who walked with dignity who spoke with authority, precisely, without emotion.
The truth shall make you free. There is no other way. Ours is the task of bringing about united action on the part of thinking Americans, white and black, to force the truth concerning Negroes to the attention of the nation.”
Each man listened attentively. Paul looked again down the long board.
“Scientific investigation and organized action among Negroes, in close co-operation, to secure the survival of the Negro race, until the cultural development of America and the world is willing to fight for Negro freedom as an essential part of human progress.”
He had concluded his speech. No flights of oratory, no impassioned peroration only the truth.
Paul was never to forget that evening. When but ten minutes of the old year were left everybody stood in a circle around the room, with arms crossed and each man’s hand grasping the hand of the man beside him. Standing thus they sang “Alpha Phi Alpha”
In our Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternal spirit binds all the
Noble, true and courageous.
Manly deeds and scholarship, Service to all mankind
Are the aims of our dear Fraternity.
–Shirley Graham Du Bois, Paul Robeson: Citizen Of The World
Peter Blackman, Robeson and Du Bois.
W. E. B. Du Bois, Shirley Graham Du Bois, Howard Fast, Paul Robeson, and others in New York, ca. 1950
Vito Marcantonio with Paul Robeson and sociologist W.E.B. DuBois in Harlem.
Shirley Graham Du Bois at her typewriter, c. 1945