Centennial of birth marked here — Paul Robeson: forgotten hero of Jews, African-Americans

Yet how many people today remember or have even heard of the charismatic performer?

Musical tributes and lectures were staged throughout the country April 9 to coincide with the exact centennial of Robeson's birth, and events are continuing throughout the year across the nation.

Starting today and running through Saturday, June 27 , for example, an exhibition titled "Freedom or Slavery: The Paul Robeson Portfolio," will be held at the Bomani Gallery, 251 Post St., S.F.

Regardless of how many tributes are on tap, his place in history has been forever diminished because he was branded a Communist during the McCarthy era. "He was made into a non-person because of the Cold War," said Robeson's friend Joe Johnson of Berkeley. "If he had just been willing to keep his mouth shut and just entertain, he could have lived the life of luxury."

Long before Robeson was blacklisted in 1948 for refusing to take the loyalty oath before the House Un-American Activities Committee, he spoke out about injustices toward blacks and other victims of bigotry, including Jews.

"He seemed to have an affinity to Jews and Jewish culture," said his son Paul Robeson Jr. in a recent phone interview from his New York home. "They were the best friends we had, compared to other white folks. Jews weren't the ones lynching blacks."

The ties between Jews and Robeson ran deep. The singer's father, a self-educated runaway slave-turned-minister, taught Paul Hebrew, and he had a profound influence on his son's principles.

Learning languages was a passion of Robeson's. It wasn't enough for him to sing folk songs in their original languages; he sought a deeper cultural understanding.

"He studied languages all the time," Robeson biographer and longtime friend Lloyd Brown said during a recent interview in Berkeley. "He would say, `When you sing in French, you have to sing like a Frenchman.'"

Robeson sang many Jewish folk songs in Yiddish and Hebrew.

One of the most memorable times he sang in Yiddish came during a trip to Russia in 1949.

During that journey, he had been devastated to learn of the "mysterious" death of his Soviet Jewish friend, actor-director Solomon Mikhoels. He also discovered that other prominent Jewish cultural figures were under arrest there, including the writer Itzik Feffer.

Feffer was actually allowed to visit Robeson in the singer's hotel room. The writer signaled that the room was bugged and that his days were numbered, according to the 1989 biography "Paul Robeson," by Martin Bauml Duberman.

Robeson wound up closing his last Moscow concert on that tour with a direct reference to Feffer and Mikhoels. He talked about his cultural ties with Jews of the United States and the Soviet Union. Then he performed "Zog Nit Kaynmal," the Warsaw Ghetto resistance song, first reciting the words in Russian and then singing in Yiddish.

Three years later, Feffer was shot and killed under orders from Stalin.

For years, Robeson did not disclose his distress about the Moscow trip to anyone but his son.

Robeson's inability to turn his back on injustices led the singer to go out on a limb for American Jews involved in the labor movement and left-wing politics.

"He became an anti-fascist," said Brown. "He saw fascism as racism in power. He said Nazi Germany was the Ku Klux Klan running the government. He saw racism there as the same kind of racism that hurt him here."

After he took a stance in 1943 against anti-Semitism, the FBI opened a file on Robeson.

On an off-day from performing "Othello" on Broadway, Robeson went to Boston to make a speech in support of the anti-Hitler war effort and to condemn several recent anti-Semitic incidents. He said the incidents were "terrifying to one who is the son of a slave and was reared in the abolitionist tradition."

He added, "Freedom is indivisible, and to attack the Jewish people is to attack the colored."

The FBI referred to Robeson as a security risk. His passport would later be revoked for eight years during the '50s.

"There was no question that J. Edgar Hoover and that branch of the government was racist and anti-Semitic," said Brown.

It wasn't just the government that considered Robeson a threat. The mainstream media did not prove to be particularly objective, either. Establishment newspapers printed few articles on the singer, and what press Robeson received was mostly negative.

His son calls him "the most powerful black image in this century. This man dominated popular culture in the '40s."

Johnson added, "I've never seen a person with that much charisma. When he said `Good morning' to you, it sounded like rolling thunder. He had a halo around him. He frightened the hell out of the privileged class. He completely destroyed the myth of white supremacy."

Paul Robeson "would never have made an anti-Semitic slip of the tongue like Jesse Jackson," Johnson said. "He was very sensitive to that."

He compared the singer to other famous African-Americans.

"Michael Jordan tried to play baseball and couldn't cut it. In college, Robeson lettered in four sports. Can you imagine if Michael Jordan could [also] sing and took political stands?"

As for Muhammed Ali, Johnson laughed, "I don't think he ever read a book from cover-to-cover. What made Paul Robeson so powerful was his mind."

Not everyone admired Robeson's political agenda, though. Ernest Weiner, executive director of the American Jewish Committee's San Francisco office, said: "He was a Communist. He made no bones about it. During the Stalin period, he aligned himself with the very hardline faction of the American Communist Party. Why did he have to be so far over on the ideological spectrum? People who were seen as Communists were thought of as potential traitors. The thought was, `How can someone sell out their country?'"

Meanwhile, those close to Robeson during the height of his popularity — and when he was at his most outspoken — feared for his life.

"He never expected to live through the '50s," said his son, who worked as the singer's aide for many years. "The CIA and the FBI thought it would be nice if this man disappeared. They made it plain through the media that if an accident happened, they wouldn't mind."

Robeson Jr. also pointed to three incidents in which cars his father was supposed to ride in malfunctioned. He suggests that someone had tampered with them.

Robeson's reputation was tarnished once HUAC labeled him a Red. It didn't matter that he was never a Communist Party member, nor that he never called himself a Communist.

"The conservative wing of the country saw Paul as much more dangerous than the head of the Communist Party," said his son. "He was very popular among white liberals. He symbolized the progressive forces of America."

His popularity thrived in Europe even while it waned in his native country. His life probably would have been easier if he had gone there to stay, but Robeson felt obligated to be in the United States.

"He felt he was on a mission. He just saw being a leader as his duty, whatever the cost," said Robeson Jr. "He was courageous. He didn't flinch at losing his career or life. If you want freedom, you have to suffer sometimes. [African-Americans] had been doing it for 200 years. The Jewish community would understand that more than anyone."

Relating to Jewish culture became a family matter when Robeson Jr. married a Jew, Marilyn Greenberg, in 1949. They are still married.

During the blacklist years, when Carnegie Hall was off limits to him, the singer performed frequently at labor union halls. He also did benefits for Jewish organizations.

Brown recalled a particularly moving appearance in Toronto during the 1950s. Robeson was scheduled to say a few words and sing only one song for a Jewish youth group before going to another engagement.

"But he does a full concert and makes this long speech. Sweat was pouring down on him," said Brown.

"Afterward, he asked me what I thought of his singing. I said, `Paul…why did you sing so long?'

"He explained that they would never hear him again. He wanted them to remember him at his best. He said that he sings better in front of children because they would never hurt him. They are not the enemy. He said he felt freer with them."

Robeson died at 77 in relative obscurity in 1976. He had removed himself from the public eye. He told Brown in 1975, "When I could be active I went here, there and everywhere. What I wanted to do, I did; what I wanted to say, I said; and now that ill health has compelled my retirement, I have decided to let the record speak for itself."

The singer's admirers — like Johnson, who named one of his sons after Robeson — might wonder what it would be like if Robeson had been born later and were alive today.

"People would respond with total acceptance and great affection," said Johnson. "How Paul was treated was a real Shakespearean-like tragedy. Years from now people will look at that generation and ask how they let it happen."