INTERVIEW WITH PAUL ROBESON, JNR.
INTERVIEWER: Roll 10114, interview with Paul Robeson, twelfth of February. Now can you describe for me what it was about your father's political stance and beliefs in the late forties and his standing as an American and as an actor, you know, that made him a prominent figure and how the sort of grounds, how that changed by the end of the late forties.
PAUL ROBESON: Dad's status in American in the 1940s, especially the middle forties, is important to understand in order to figure out what happened later. He was a unique black figure, in the sense that he was a dominant cultural figure and in 1944 he had done Othello, he had established himself as one of the leaders of the American stage, the concert stage, legitimate stage, movie industries, so he was an unprecedented Negro, as they called us then, as we called ourselves then too. As a matter of fact, in 1944 there was the magazine 'The American' called Paul Robeson as America's number one Negro, whatever that means. But in any case, he was viewed not only as a great black artist, but as a great artist and as a spokesperson for black people. When there was the Herald Tribune forum, they called on dad to speak for black America, rather than the head of the NACP. So he was a personal friend of the Roosevelts and so on. So from this immense stature, he challenged really the, you'd have to say, the cultural foundations of racism in America. He would not accept the idea, well, we'll let you through as a talented individual, don't worry about all your folks back there, just play the game and everything'll be fine. He said, oh, no, no, no. Any system that doesn't give my entire people equal opportunity is not a legitimate system. So from that vantage point of being that popular, of challenging very basic issues, he was controversial in the mid-forties, at the very height of his popularity. Interestingly enough the FBI was busily investigating him, at the same time as being invited to the White House, in some cases unbeknownst to the administration. But in any case, the whole situation changed when the Cold War began and all of a sudden from respected ally, the Soviet Union became the Cold War enemy, the evil empire, Iron Curtain, Churchill's speech in 1946. And dad continued his challenge to Cold War. He felt that peaceful relations with the Soviet Union were perfectly possible and he continued his attitude of friendship towards the Soviet Union. And that, combined with his, well non-racially correct stance on racial issues, you might say, for the establishment, that was too much. So the combination of those two things made him from everybody's all-American into, by 1949, as the events we'll talk about later on will show, America's sort of enemy-number-one. America's number one dissident, you might say, America's Andrei Sakharov, if one wants to make an analogy.
INT: That's great. Now you mentioned the FBI surveillance, would you be able to tell me a little bit about you know what you saw of that and, you know, how it affected his life?
PR: On the FBI surveillance of dad when he was at the peak of his career, what's interesting is we have a Freedom of Information Act, by which you can request documents from the government, including FBI documents, and I got thousands of them, of course many are missing, a lot of them are heavily edited, but they show that in the early 1940s he was under close surveillance, indeed in 1943, when he was at the peak of his popularity, Hoover illegally placed him on something called the Custodial Detention List, that in an emergency he would be gathered up and put in a concentration camp as a dangerous subversive. This at the same time he's being invited to the White House. And it was against the law actually and was not cleared by the Attorney General, then the Attorney General in the Roosevelt administration. So Hoover did this... J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI did this quite on his own.
INT: Right. And would you have any sort of evidence at all of FBI, you know, tampering with his car or actually interfering with his concerts, that sort of thing...
PR: (Interrupts) Later. After the real break came, after the Cold War, I would say beginning of 1948, 1949, he made a tour through the South on behalf of the Progressive Party in 1948 and on the way there, there was a car accident in which he fortunately was not injured, but the left front wheel came off the car. Fortunately, it didn't swerve, it would have gone into the on-coming traffic, it was on a highway. And there's little doubt in my mind that the FBI was responsible for it, because the surveillance shows that they had the car under surveillance and the driver under twenty four hour surveillance, so it's difficult to assume that they didn't know about the sabotage. So by 1948, the FBI was trying to not only neutralise him, but if an accident happened to him, so to speak, they would be very happy.
INT: And what was the incident with his passport being withdrawn? Was that a common thing to do to people?
PR: That's only after... Actually, that happened in 1950, after the Korean War began, and what led up to it were the incidents in '48 and '49 particularly, when dad challenged both the Cold War policies of the US towards the Soviet Union, the US support of colonialism abroad and challenged the treatment of African Americans here at home. As a matter of fact, he told President Truman that if there wasn't an anti-lynching bill, that African Americans in the South would avail themselves of their constitutional right to armed self-defence and compel military intervention by the federal government. That led to an immense clash, matter of fact, President Truman jumped up and shook his finger at dad and dad simply stood up calmly and waited for Truman to finish, but the Secret Service men on either side of him actually stepped forward and opened up their jackets, showing their 45s. So that was the atmosphere on issues like that. So by then, by the time he lost his passport, he was immensely... probably one of the most controversial people in the United States and already branded as traitor to the country, enemy number one Communist agent, black super militant, everything under the sun. Precisely because of the incidents in '49 and confrontations like the one with Truman that I described over what was happening to blacks, after they had fought in the Second World War for democracy and came back to the same kind of discrimination.
INT: Sure. You told me before about the concert series, I can't remember which year it was in, but there was a whole tour of the United States set up for him to do that concert series and then that was cancelled effectively.
PR: Actually the most controversial year of dad's life began in 1949. At the end of 1948, Truman had won the election and dad had backed the Progressive Party, which lost badly, but Truman, President Truman co-opted the domestic programme of the Progressive Party, that's why he won, instituted FEPC, desegregated the army and so on, combined that with a very aggressive foreign policy, anti-Soviet foreign policy. But dad felt very encouraged at the end of 1948 and he'd taken a year off to do concerts for civil rights causes, union causes and said, well now I feel the danger of Fascism here has averted, has been averted and I'm going to go back to my career and do my concerts and, you know, I've done my political stint, I'm going to go back to work. So he had a hundred and some concerts scheduled and was looking forward to resuming his artistic career. Actually, becoming less political, not more political. And it so happened that all of the concerts were cancelled, not because of the concert agency, but because the FBI had literally put pressure on the local agents, threatening them that if they had a Robeson concert, that they, the FBI, in collaboration with local political leaders, would put these agents out of business. So they were intimidated and cancelled dad's tour. So, he was suddenly under siege. He couldn't... you know, he couldn't function as an artist, a artist in the United States. Again, it so happened that that same month, I guess it waJanuary... no around Christmas 1948, he got an offer from a British concert impresario, who invited him with the highest fees ever paid a concert artist to do a European tour, England, Scandinavia, France and so he accepted and interestingly enough, he got his passport and so he left on this tour and there begins the story of the 1949 tour and a peace conference in Paris and the most controversial remarks that my father ever made.
INT: Great. So you mentioned the European tour was at that point set up. Can you tell me what happened, just briefly what happened at the Paris concert.
PR: The Paris Peace Conference was something that dad had planned to go to, he was a member of the World Council of Peace and the gathering was quite controversial, because it was sponsored by the Soviet Union and by pro-Communist and Communist organisations all over the world. But dad had decided to go and actually he went and spoke and sang, because he felt that the Cold War was not inevitable and that there was some way that the West and East could resolve their major differences, particularly since he felt that we were headed towards World War Three. It turned out from later official documents, that he was correct. That in 1949, the US was actually considering Project Broiler, which was an atomic first strike against the Soviet Union, to take them out before they could recover from World War Two and in any event, in a very tense situation, dad, still a very popular artist in the United States and especially all over Europe, including England, went to the conference as a spokesman in the American establishment view, as a spokesman for world Communism, quote unquote. So his appearance there was very controversial and the second aspect was he sang 'Joe Hill' and spoke extemporaneously about the progressives in America did not want war against the Soviet Union and so on and so forth, nothing really unusual, accept challenging the foundations of American policy, but nothing seemingly too controversial. What came over the wires was that Paul Robeson said that black Americans would not fight for the United States in a war against the Soviet Union. What's fascinating about that dispatch is that it turns out from my research that the AP had put the dispatch on the wires as dad was stepping up on the rostrum. So, it appeared in American evening papers before he had any idea that he had been quoted like that and it was made up out of whole cloth, not quite out of whole cloth, they used bits and pieces of speeches he'd made elsewhere on this tour, stitched them together in a way that sounded like his style of speaking, added this phrase, Negroes will not fight for the United States in a war against the Soviet Union and put it on the wires. And immediately the State Department and the machinery of government here spread this Robeson has said thus and so, he's a traitor to the country and pressured black leaders to denounce him and pledge loyalty to the United States. Many did, some didn't, but it became issue number one. Paul Robeson, Communist traitor to the US. And dad went on with his tour, went to Oslo and Denmark, to Norway, Denmark, Sweden and with no idea really that this was going on till they called him from New York and said, hey, you'd better say something, that you're in immense trouble here in the United States. He decided to not make any comment about it till he got back and to make things even tougher, he decided to go on and accept his invitation to the Soviet Union. So in the midst of this he turns up in Moscow and thereby hangs a fascinating tale.