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Rutgers U. spends week celebrating alumnus who championed communism

Rutgers University recently dedicated an entire week to celebrate Paul Robeson, an avowed communist who spoke out vehemently against the U.S. government during the post-WWII era.

Robeson, who graduated from Rutgers in 1919, once declared after a visit to the Soviet Union: “From what I have already seen of the workings of the Soviet government, I can only say that anyone who lifts his hand against it ought to be shot!”

The “I Am Robeson Week” Facebook page praised Robeson as “Rutgers University’s most esteemed alumnus” and “one of the most dynamic public figures of the 20th century with accolades as an athlete, actor, singer, cultural scholar, author, and international human rights activist.”

Blacklisted during the McCarthy era for his clear affiliation with communism and criticism of the U.S. government, the African American actor and singer was also investigated by the FBI for his advocacy of pro-Soviet policies.

Held last week, the commemoration included a talk entitled “Robeson: The Model Political Athlete,” a PaulRobeson.PBSbook signing with the author of “Paul Robeson: A Life of Activism and Art,” a screening of the movie of Robeson’s biography Here I Stand, and a tour of Robeson’s house in Philadelphia.

According to Biography.com, “Robeson earned a scholarship to attend Rutgers University, the third African American to do so, and became one of the institution’s most stellar students. He received top honors for his debate and oratory skills, won 15 letters in four varsity sports, was elected Phi Betta Kappa and became his class valedictorian.” And PBS notes Robeson “was one of the first black men to play serious roles in the primarily white American theater.”

Not all students believe the university should hold Robeson up as a hero without telling the whole story, however.

“Robeson gave aid and comfort to the enemy, which is the definition of treason, during a time when we were actively engaged with the Soviet Union — and the celebration of the week doesn’t acknowledge this,” Rutgers Law Student Matt Gilson told The College Fix in an interview.

The week was organized by the Paul Robeson Cultural Center at Rutgers, which is dedicated to the “heritage and diversity of the African diaspora” and pledges to “function as a safe haven…while celebrating Blackness in all of its expressions.”

Rutgers’ chancellor late last month increased the operating budget of the Paul Robeson Cultural Center by 50 percent. The “I Am Robeson Week” Facebook page states the week-long celebration will become an annual event.

Robeson’s primary affinity for the Soviet Union stemmed from its existence as a “really free society” and “the utter absence of any embarrassment over a ‘race question,’” according to an interview.

Continuing to affirm his support for the Soviet Union, he stated: “This is home to me. I feel more kinship to the Russian people under their new society than I ever felt anywhere else. It is obvious that there is no terror here, that all the masses of every race are contented and support their government.”

In April 1949, Robeson allegedly stated that African-Americans would be reluctant to fight on behalf of the U.S. against the Soviet Union and was investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee.

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About the Author
Kate Hardiman -- University of Notre Dame