Paul Robeson, Jr. was a civil rights activist, a Marxist, and a self-declared “black radical.” He was the only child of the famous entertainer and devoted Stalinist Paul Robeson (1898-1976).
Born in New York City in 1927, Paul Robeson, Jr. spent much of his young life traveling the world with his parents. He lived for some time in Moscow, where he attended school with Joseph Stalin’s daughter. He returned to the U.S. in 1939 and later attended both Rutgers and Cornell Universities, earning a degree in electrical engineering. By the time he graduated in 1949, he was well known for his radical political views.
Like his father before him, Robeson detested the United States, characterizing it as a nation rife with bigotry and injustice aimed at nonwhite minorities. “This is still a profoundly racist country,” he said, “meaning [that] the majority of white people are still racist, to one degree or another.... All institutions in this country are, to one degree or another, infected by racism.”
Robeson believed that the American government felt threatened by his father because the latter presented “an alternative value system of an unassimilated, automatically dissident culture.”
“He [my father] wasn’t the communist in the family,” Robeson said. “I was.” Robeson claimed that his father never officially joined the Communist Party because “he thought it would destroy his effectiveness.” “I, being a generation younger and not an artist,” added Robeson, “felt that the way to be effective was through an organization.” Robeson's claim about his father was a lie, however. Indeed the elder Robeson had been a longtime secret member of the Communist Party, as longtime CPUSA head Gus Hall proudly revealed in May 1998, the centennial of Robeson Sr.'s birth.
Paul Robeson Jr. was also a member of the Communist Party, from about 1948 to 1962. “It [the Party] was an instrument,” he later said, “a radical instrument that could help advance the interests of African-Americans.”
Robeson regularly attended meetings of the Vienna World Youth Festival (VWYF). Known for their intense, sometimes violent debates, these festivals were used by Robeson and fellow members of the international communist movement to indoctrinate as many youth as possible against America and in favor of Russia. Meanwhile, pro-American anti-communists such as Charlie Wiley, Herb Romerstein, and others tried to counter them. In 1959, Robeson and Wiley had a particularly contentious confrontation.
Wiley describes Robeson as a man who was “really hardcore,” “a hard, committed, austere communist”; a “mean, tough, no nonsense” individual; “not one to mess around with”; and "a worse America hater than his father." Wiley says that whereas he (Wiley) could personally trick other American communists into trusting him as an ideological kindred spirit, Robeson “didn’t trust me at all.” "The younger Robeson constantly gave [Wiley] a cold, hard stare," explains historian Paul Kengor. "He knew his way around. Unlike the wide-eyed liberals, Robeson was a committed radical leftist who was no sucker."
Wiley adds a noteworthy observation about Robeson's personality:
"As an interesting side-note, there was one funny thing I remember about Paul Robeson Jr. It’s funny what sticks with you, but I remember the language he used. He was the first male I ever encountered who swore in front of women with really foul language—rude, crude. I mean the 'F-word' and everything. You have to understand that men just didn’t talk like that in those days. Later on they would all the time, but not back then. Robeson was the first time where I saw that. It really struck me. It was very unusual."
On February 4, 1960, Robeson testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee, chaired by Pennsylvania Democrat Francis Walter. Historian Paul Kengor writes:
"Robeson Jr. ... was characteristically evasive, snide, unintimidated, and disrespectful. He refused to answer basic questions, including repeatedly refusing to affirm that he was a member of the Communist Party. He wouldn’t discuss his pro-Soviet work at the Vienna festival; to the contrary, he maligned the anti-communist Americans who were there. Amazingly, Paul Jr. accused them (the anti-communists) of agitating and turning the festival into a 'cold-war battlefield.' He said that they had come to 'disrupt,' 'discredit,' and 'subvert' the festival. They were a 'disgrace,' he snarled at the committee....
"Robeson then turned his guns on the House Committee itself, which he accused of 'harass[ing] those who fight for Negro equality,' of giving 'aid and comfort to segregationists,' of undermining 'the enforcement of civil rights of Negroes,' of 'never doing anything about civil rights,' and of being sympathetic to 'self-confessed Nazis and Fascist collaborators.'
"This was the typical smear tactic used by the communist left. And, of course, Paul Jr. accused the committee of 'attempting to poison the minds of young people with the ideology of McCarthyism.'"
In 1986 Robeson was a signatory to a statement opposing the Reagan administration’s policy of aiding anti-Communist forces in Nicaragua. Drafted by the Campaign for Peace and Democracy/East and West, the statement was signed by such notables as Ed Asner, Noam Chomsky, Richard Falk, Allen Ginsberg, Todd Gitlin, Bernie Sanders, and George Soros.
In 1998 Robeson happily predicted that the 21st century would be “Marx’s time.”
Robeson advocated an all-out revolution that would topple America's existing social structure and usher in a Communist era. “Talk is cheap,” he said. “Revolutions never got made by talking. Revolution only happens when large groups of people spontaneously want it.”
Ultimately, Robeson called for a form of “economic justice” based on a massive redistribution of wealth; the U.S. government, he said, should spend “hundreds of billions of dollars” to elevate the income of every American earning less than the median income.
Robeson accused “reactionary” conservatives of having brought to the U.S. “a creeping Fascism that seeks to install power vested in big banks, business corporations, the President, and the army in place of power vested in the people and Congress.” The cure for “the disease of Fascism,” said Robeson, is a “peaceful anti-Fascist mass movement” comprised of a “coalition of Blacks, Latinos, labor, progressive whites, and Asians, which is committed to the political destruction of the Republican Party.”
In a January 2003 speech, Robeson told an audience of Dartmouth College students that the U.S. was becoming a nation of two separate cultures: one dominated by blacks, the other by “white, Southern Protestants.” Calling President Bush “part of a neo-Confederate government geared at destroying the Union,” he drew a parallel between Bush’s strong support among voters in America's southern states, and the fact that Adolph Hitler had been very popular in the southern regions of Germany.
In September 2005 Robeson wrote:
“The Republican Party has become a Confederate party with a program of ... unrestrained corporate greed, racism, anti-unionism, imperial war, and domestic fear. This Republican president has lied to the American people about 9/11, the Iraq war, the ‘war on terror,’ the domestic economy, and home security…. His Republican Party’s political gangsters have brazenly stolen two national elections by 2.3 million (in 2000) and 3.4 million (in 2004) popular votes.”
On February 4, 1960, Robeson testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee, chaired by Pennsylvania Democrat Francis Walter. Paul Kengor reports:
Wiley and Romerstein were fully candid in their testimonies. Romerstein, a former communist, deeply impressed the committee. Paul Robeson Jr., on the other hand, was characteristically evasive, snide, unintimidated, and disrespectful. He refused to answer basic questions, including repeatedly refusing to affirm that he was a member of the Communist Party. He wouldn’t discuss his pro-Soviet work at the Vienna festival; to the contrary, he maligned the anti-communist Americans who were there. Amazingly, Paul Jr. accused them (the anti-communists) of agitating and turning the festival into a “cold-war battlefield.” He said that they had come to “disrupt,” “discredit,” and “subvert” the festival. They were a “disgrace,” he snarled at the committee.
It was a grossly mendacious performance. It was also a blatantly pro-Soviet stunt. Moscow surely reveled in every minute of it.
Robeson then turned his guns on the House Committee itself, which he accused of “harass[ing] those who fight for Negro equality,” of giving “aid and comfort to segregationists,” of undermining “the enforcement of civil rights of Negroes,” of “never doing anything about civil rights,” and of being sympathetic to “self-confessed Nazis and Fascist collaborators.”
This was the typical smear tactic used by the communist left. And, of course, Paul Jr. accused the committee of “attempting to poison the minds of young people with the ideology of McCarthyism.”
According to Robeson, African Americans who supported Republican political leaders were “reminders of those house slaves and freedmen who loyally supported the Confederacy at the expense of the field slaves.”
In 2001 Robeson appeared with Pete Seeger in the documentary film Freedom Highway: Songs that Shaped a Century, about 20th century folk and protest music. In 2005 he appeared in 500 Years Later, a documentary film about the global impact of the transatlantic slave trade. Others in the cast included Molefi Kete Asante, Amiri Baraka, and Maulana Karenga. Robeson also wrote and co-produced a number of scripts for theater.
Robeson authored the 1993 book Paul Robeson, Jr. Speaks to America: The Politics of Multiculturalism, a collection of essays about “the culture wars” in America. He also penned A Black Way of Seeing: From “Liberty” to Freedom, a critique of the U.S. in the 21st Century (2007).
In his later years Robeson lectured on a variety of political, social, economic, and cultural topics throughout the United States and Europe.
He died of lymphoma on April 26, 2014.