peekskill @ 65

Paul Robeson in 1938. Public domain.

Paul Robeson in 1938. Public domain.

Paul Robeson was, in the 1930s and 40s, was one of the best known Americans on the planet. His magnificent voice channeled the songs of the slaves; he performed to much applause, Othello and the Emperor Jones; he was able to defy Hollywood stereotyping in several starring roles in movies.

By the mid-thirties he was speaking out politically—going to Spain to sing for the International Brigades, going to the USSR which he experienced as moving beyond racism and then, during the war, performing ‘songs  of free men’ on record and radio, to rally opposition to fascism.

In the post war years, Robeson was a leading critic of American cold war policy, supporting the 3rd party presidential run of former vice president Henry Wallace, vocally defending the Soviet Union, identifying with the anti-colonial struggle in the 3rd world, and militantly seeking to end Jim  Crow in the US.

A big benefit concert by Robeson, planned for an outdoor site at Peekskill NY on August 27,1949 was prevented by mobs, some chanting racist epithets. Determined not to be stopped from performing, Robeson agreed to a second date, sponsored and protected by several progressive unions. That event took place, attended by 20,000,  only to be followed by a wild mob onslaught on those leaving the venue, attacks largely unchallenged by the police. Robeson, now depicted as a communist tool, had some 80 concert dates cancelled, and eventually was totally blacklisted—losing record contracts as well as concert bookings and barred from any foreign travel.

The 65th anniversary of these events provides reason to remember all that, and to listen to Robeson’s voice, down through the years—in his heyday and in the years of fighting back.

culture of protest thurs 8/21/14 6 pm pdt kcsb 91.9fm