25 June 2020

Paul Robeson didn’t scream ‘BLM’ but he knew what mattered

The Biddle. What’s that? And what has that got to do with sport? Legitimate questions. The Biddle came about at a time when countries such as the United States of America (USA) didn’t have to be cute about racism, brutality and well, repression in general. Things haven’t changed much as the murder of George Floyd and brutality unleashed on those who protested that murder demonstrate. None of it is new.

More people get to see it now. That’s the difference. ’The ship be sinking,’ as my friend, ardent basketball fan and insightful commentator on race politics in US sport Tony Courseault puts it:

‘…ask 10 people to define the system, and you get 10 different answers. The ship be sinking. It’s been rudderless for a minute. And social media, that great capitalist invention, is quickly becoming the tool for us to widen the crevasse of that formerly indomitable structure.’ 

That, and the fact of those in the sinking ship being forced to shed cloaks and wade in naked with knee, boot, baton, bullet and teargas. Horses and police cars too of course.

Back in the day things were different. The Biddle got its name from President Franklin D Roosevelt’s Attorney General, Francis Biddle, who came up with a list of ‘subversive organizations.’ This was in 1941. There were 11 to begin with but by the end of the decade there were more than 90. McCarthyism would follow soon enough.

The list did not mention individuals but people were certainly targeted. Among them a man called Paul Leroy Robeson.

He was born in 1898. His father was born into slavery, escaped and later became the minister of Princeton's Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church. Paul became the third African-American student ever enrolled at Rutgers College and the only one at the time. He was made to suffer a broken nose and a dislocated shoulder before being selected to the school’s football team. He was a member of other teams but was once benched because a Southern team refused to compete because Rutgers ‘was fielding a Negro.’ He was a debater, a singer and an actor, skills which marked his later life and in fact added to his stature as an activist. He was elected the class valedictorian and in his speech urged classmates to work for equality of all Americans (of the USA).

That’s what he did. He worked for equality — of all peoples, not just ‘all Americans.’ He stood up for the British working class and colonized peoples of the British Empire. He supported the Republican forces during the Spanish Civil War and became active in the Council on African Affairs (CAA) which was listed by The Biddle. Yes, that. He was investigated during McCarthyism. He was denied a passport and suffered serious decline in income.

On July 25, 1946, four African Americans were lynched (according to some) or shot dead (according to others) by a mob of white males. No suspects were prosecuted for the murder of George W. and Mae Murray Dorsey, and Roger and Dorothy Malcom.

Robeson met and admonished President Harry Truman, warning that if legislation to end lynching was not enacted, ‘the Negros will defend themselves.’  Truman terminated the meeting declaring that it was not the right time to propose anti-lynching legislation! Robeson then issued a call demanding that Congress passes civil rights legislation and founded the ‘American Crusade Against Lynching' in 1946. Yes, long before anyone had heard of Rev Martin Luther King (jr). In 1951 he presented to the UN an anti-lynching petition titled ‘We Charge Genocide,’ insisting that the US Government had failed to stop the barbaric practice and therefore was guilty of violating the UN Genocide Convention. Interestingly, today, as I write, the US is using all means deemed necessary to stop the UN from investigating systemic racism.

The following extract from a wiki entry tells a lot about Robeson, the racism that’s part of US sports DNA and the systemic racism in that country.

‘A book reviewed in early 1950 as “the most complete record on college football” failed to list Robeson as ever having played for Rutgers and that he been an All-American. The NBC canceled Robeson’s appearance on Eleanor Roosevelt’s television program. The State Department denied Robeson a passport and issued a “stop notice’ at all ports.”’

An interesting reason had been offered: ‘an isolated existence inside United States borders not only afforded him less freedom of expression but also avenge his "extreme advocacy on behalf of the independence of the colonial peoples of Africa.”’ Robeson was also told that ‘his frequent criticism of the treatment of blacks in the United States should not be aired in foreign countries.’

Today, athletes such as LeBron James (Los Angeles Lakers) and Colin Kaepernick (formerly of the San Francisco 49ers) speak up against racism in the USA and of course police brutality. Hundreds of athletes have made their positions clear. They stand. They march. They speak.

Back then there was Paul Robeson. As for much of the rest of the world, it was like the river Mississippi as depicted in later renditions by Robeson of ‘Old Man River,’ originally a tune in the musical ‘Show Boat,’ the screen version of which featured Robeson: ‘What does he (meaning ‘Old Man River,’ or ‘The Mississippi’) care if the world’s got trouble, what does he care if the land ain’t free?’

The Biddle still exists, only it is not called that any more. And Robeson is alive, even though few mention his name. The Mississippi can’t keep on rolling along forever.

Other articles in the series titled 'The Interception' [published in 'The Morning']

The plus, minus and equal of improvement
Do you have a plan?
Strengths and weaknesses
It's all about partnerships