A champion for African freedom: Paul Robeson and the struggle against apartheid.

Author:Andrews, Penelope
 
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  1. INTRODUCTION

    On February 28, 2013, I was honored to deliver the Paul Robeson lecture at Columbia Law School, an annual event to commemorate the life and legacy of Paul Robeson, a graduate of Columbia Law School (Class of 1923). This article is a slightly expanded version of my lecture. (1)

    This article will have four components: first, it will highlight the achievements of this extraordinary man, an advocate for social justice, a world-renowned artist, and an accomplished sportsman. Second, in this article I explore Paul Robeson's connections and commitment to the African anti-colonial struggle, and in particular the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. Third, this article examines the legal developments in South Africa with the collapse of formal apartheid, and outlines the broad contours of the constitutional text, particularly the bill of rights and the constitutional and human rights jurisprudence of the Constitutional Court. Finally, the article will end with the question: what would Paul Robeson say about the contemporary moment that post-apartheid South Africa finds itself in?

    Professor Acklyn Lynch, in his 1976 article, Paul Robeson: His Dreams Know No Frontiers, said this of Paul Robeson: "Mr. Robeson was a man whose versatility has been unparalleled in American history as scholar, linguist, actor, singer, athlete, humanitarian, and whose striving for excellence in every undertaking was embroidered by a deep humility which endeared him to the hearts of millions of people around the world." (2)

    On February 19, 2001, the Columbia Daily Spectator, in an article to accompany the Paul Robeson Annual Lecture, said this about Paul Robeson:

    Paul Robeson, [Columbia] Law '23, struggled against racism his entire life. As a scholar he encountered intolerance while trying to achieve a higher education. As an artist he tried to unify people through music, once performing slave spirituals alongside Russian serf songs. And, most significantly, Robeson risked his entire artistic career to break down barriers of race not only in the United States but around the world as well. (3) II. BIOGRAPHY

    We know that Paul Robeson was born in Princeton, New Jersey on April 9, 1898, the son of a former slave who became a preacher. (4) He was a talented child who demonstrated great promise in academics, music, and athletics. (5) At the age of seventeen, Paul Robeson won a statewide writing competition that earned him a four-year scholarship to Rutgers University. (6)

    Paul Robeson was the third African-American ever to enroll in the university, and despite intimidation from his teammates, he joined the football team. (7) A two-time All-American for football, he also earned fifteen varsity letters in basketball, baseball, and track. (8) During his college career, Paul Robeson won the school's annual oratory contest four times, once speaking out against the inadequate educational opportunities for African-Americans. (9)

    After graduating from Rutgers, Paul Robeson was accepted to Columbia Law School, and to help pay for tuition, he played professional football and tutored in Latin. (10) He graduated from Columbia and worked briefly at a law firm, but he resigned when a white secretary refused to work for him. (11) Paul Robeson then vowed that he would never enter "any profession where the highest prizes were from the start denied to [him]," and turned to the stage. (12)

    1. An Internationalist Humanitarian

      Paul Robeson was one of those early twentieth century internationalist humanitarians who connected at a deep and profound level with the struggles of his own community in the United States, but also with those people everywhere who struggled against racism, fascism, colonialism, imperialism, and apartheid. (13) What is remarkable is his courage and determination, operating in the much diminished space for dissent during the Cold War era. (14) To talk about Paul Robeson is almost to peddle in cliches: a renaissance man, a fearless fighter for freedom, brilliant. (15) And yet, these words describe him so accurately. (16)

      There is no doubt that Paul Robeson set the stage for future generations of African-Americans to connect the struggle against racism in the United States to the global struggle for peace, justice, economic equality, and human dignity, including leaders like Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and others. (17) He participated very actively in the struggles for independence from colonial domination by organizing in 1937 the Council on African Affairs, which was dedicated to new relations with Africa. (18) At a rally sponsored by the Council at Madison Square Garden in 1946, Paul Robeson stated, "[t]he race is on in Africa as in every other part of the world--the race between the forces of progress and democracy on one side and the forces of imperialism and reaction on the other." (19) Paul Robeson's central influence in the global anti-colonial movement has been analyzed by international legal scholars (20) and scholars of Africa. (21)

      These are brief comments about the dedication of Paul Robeson to the anti-colonialist and anti-apartheid struggle. One indication of his profound contribution was the Tribute to Paul Robeson at the United Nations on April 10, 1978, what would have been his eightieth birthday. (22) In his tribute to Paul Robeson, Mr. Mfanafuthi J. Makatini, Representative of the African National Congress of South Africa at the United Nations, noted: "In South Africa, Paul Robeson is considered an outstanding champion of the emancipation of the country, no doubt, when the time comes, since victory in South Africa is now as certain as sunrise, he will be one of the first to be honoured by our people." (23)

      Paul Robeson was a brilliant man, astonishing in his many abilities, "who unfortunately had to pay dearly for the specifics of his politics," notes Professor Marcellus Blount, who continued:

      "That's always the difficult historical scenario, particularly when African-American leaders achieved a certain degree of notoriety, which can militate against their actual accomplishments. In that regard Paul Robeson is a product of American society of contradictions that his life story presents, which seems to me to be inherent in the African-American experience." (24)

      And Paul Robeson did pay for his political convictions, commencing in 1950, when his passport was revoked for speaking out against the Korean War and for his refusal to deny he was a

      Communist. (25)

      Although the passport was finally restored in 1958, Robeson was blacklisted for his political views. According to Blount, the backlash proved a double-standard. "What fascinates me is the way in which Americans, even today, are more inclined to respond to African-Americans who achieve a degree of artistic brilliance, but the spectrum of the black politician, especially the black male politician, produces anxieties. Paul Robeson's life is instructive of the American willingness to accept leadership in a certain context." (26)

      For his political views, particularly his unflinching commitment to justice and equality, Paul Robeson spent many years in political exile, vilified by the political establishment. (27)

    2. Testimony of Robeson and Mandela

      While I was preparing to deliver the Paul Robeson Annual Lecture, I unearthed the testimony of Paul Robeson to the House Committee on Un-American Activities. This testimony provided for me a point of comparison between Nelson Mandela's testimony in the dock during the Rivonia trial. (28) I abbreviate and summarize the two testimonies below.

      1. Paul Robeson's Testimony Before House Committee On Un-American Activities

      I have struggled for years for the independence of the colonial peoples of Africa.... The other reason that I am here today is ... that when I am abroad I speak out against the injustices against the Negro people of this land.... 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.... 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, Ala., and they are not in Washington, and 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. (29) 2. Nelson Mandela's Testimony at the Rivonia Trial

      The lack of human dignity experienced by Africans is the direct result of the policy of white supremacy. White supremacy implies black inferiority. Legislation designed to preserve white supremacy entrenches this notion.... [W]hites tend to regard Africans as a separate breed. They do not look upon them as people with families of their own; they do not realise that we have emotions--that we fall in love like white people do; that we want to be with their wives and children like white people want to be with theirs; that we want to earn money, enough money to support our families properly, to feed and clothe them and send them to school.... During my lifetime I have dedicated my life to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realised. But, My Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die. (30) I provide a comparison of these two men because of some similarities. There are the obvious ones; first are their identities as black men, highly educated, extraordinarily attuned to the second-class status of their communities. Second, both men were...

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