The Legacy of Paul Robeson

It would be hard to find many people alive who may remember Paul Robeson, the base baritone artist who memorialized the song Ol’ Man River in a Broadway revival of the musical Showboat, which was popular in the 1930s. When I was a kid, I remember my father playing the Victor record over and over again. It was truly a remarkable performance. Robeson was much admired as a football hero, a graduate of Rutgers, a football star, a lawyer and a civil rights activist. Yet, he was also controversial for his political ideas about civil rights and world peace, including his leanings towards the Soviet Union at a time when there was hysteria in this country regarding communism.

Although he was much admired for his artistry, his political ideas boiled over at a concert in Peekskill, New York, in 1949. The concert was widely known for the riots. Still, a group in Peekskill named Living Artist Society now plans a memorial concert celebrating Robeson’s legacy, which by all measures was turbulent. During his lifetime, he bravely advocated for the civil rights of aborigines in Australia. He sat in the lobby of the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles to make sure the public knew that he was staying there though he was required to be under an anonymous guest. Historically, he lobbied then President Truman to institute legislation against lynching, which Truman refused to do, saying to Robeson “it was not the right time.” Yet he was a maverick, who was dogged by the U.S. government for his support of Russia and China, especially during the Cold War and his passport was held captive for many years, not allowing him to travel to European countries, where he was admired for his artistry.

I saw Robeson perform at the old Lewisohn Stadium in the Bronx (which not too many people remember either). I wonder exactly what legacy will be the subject of this upcoming celebration from Living Artist Society, which is supported by a grant from the Arts Alive program of ArtsWestchester. It is no doubt that Paul Robeson will be remembered for his civil rights advocacy, his world peace ideas, his popularization of African-American folk music, his marvelous baritone voice and his refusal to soften his legacy by never rejecting his most controversial notions. There will be two performances featuring a Grammy Award-winning performer: a fundraising Gala on September 12 at the Hollow Brook Golf Club, and a Community Concert on September 15 at the Paramount Hudson Valley Theater in Peekskill. The program will shed light on the riots and celebrate Paul Robeson’s legacy as an iconic artist and advocate for civil rights.