Paul Robeson in Canada: A Border Story

IN 1952, THE GREAT AMERICAN ACTOR, Paul Robeson, was invited to sing at the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers (Mine Mill) convention in Vancouver. The State Department intervened and refused to allow Robeson to leave the United States even for Canada, where a passport was not needed, and its officials stopped him at the border in Washington state. Union delegates were outraged, and marched to the American Embassy in Vancouver to protest the incident. To register their indignation in a satisfying way, the union hooked up a device so that by long distance telephone Robeson was able to sing and speak to the delegates for seventeen minutes the next day from the Marine Cooks and Stewards’ Hall in Seattle. He sang the old union song about the Wobbly martyr Joe Hill and told the convention that his government was keeping him confined under “a sort of domestic house arrest.”[1]

The convention approved Mine Mill leader Harvey Murphy’s suggestion, that a spring concert at the “Peace Arch” be held to condemn the actions of the State Department. That May, with the FBI and the RCMP present, the union presented the first of four Robeson concerts at the Peace Arch on the Canada/US border in Blaine, Washington. In light of the recent crisis resulting from the terrorist bombing of the World Trade Centre in New York, followed by tighter security measures at airports, surrounding immigration policies, and along the Canada-US border, it is timely to recall a little known incident in the history of Canadian-American relations that involved the entertainer Paul Robeson.

Robeson was an extremely talented Black American. Before World War II and the Cold War, Robeson was an exceptional athlete in several sports including football, a first class student, and the valedictorian at Rutgers University. He had a law degree from Columbia, though he never practiced, was widely read, and was a linguist who communicated well in several languages. Blessed with a wonderful deep voice, a large stature, and a natural presence, he developed into a great actor, best known for his portrayal of Othello in London and New York productions. He also became a powerful concert-performer of spirituals, musicals, folk songs, and songs of protest. His friends and colleagues included creative Black and White artists; some were part of the Harlem Renaissance movement in 1920s New York and others were performers in North America and Europe.[2] To a degree Robeson was recognized as a fine actor and singer in his own country and in Canada he also had devotees, but his greatest successes were in Europe.

The son of an ex-slave who became a minister, Robeson grew up in the South. The state of race relations in the US, which was largely segregated prior to the American civil rights movement in the 1960s, resulted in discrimination of the bluntest kind, and inflicted repeated indignities on Robeson personally on a daily basis. Early in life, he grew staunch in the belief that he could achieve his personal goals by developing his talent, maintaining his appealing personality, and trusting in the basic goodness of people. In that way he hoped to diminish stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination against Black Americans. He tried to lose himself in international “folk” music, but as he gained experience in life and fame but not fortune, he became politicized. He supported W.E.B. DuBois, an early civil rights leader, and anti-colonial movements that were beginning to stir. In the Great Depression in the 1930s, Robeson was pro-union during Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” and supported the CIO industrial unions that were more responsive to black workers’ needs than the older craft unions.

Over the years, Robeson increasingly lost faith in the American dream; its tarnished reality for him was hard to bear. Robeson’s music became part of his political activism, which made the American security interests suspicious of him, and as early as 1941 the FBI began to receive agents’ reports about his activities. Robeson became sympathetic to the Soviet Union, because its leaders articulated an ideal of a non-racist society, which allowed a person to be valued without prejudice. We now know that this rhetoric was a delusion, but the Soviet Union treated Robeson well whenever he visited or performed there. He was sympathetic to Communism, though he was neither a Communist Party member nor a revolutionary. But, a famous American to praising the Soviet Union, particularly during the Cold War, was anathema to the American government, and he was victimized.

By 1945 Robeson, now a famous actor, was known as a political radical, an advocate of peace and racial equality, and a promoter of social justice. His pro-union position became less acceptable after the war when an employer backlash against the labour movement was supported in Congress with the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act (1947), which limited unions’ organizational abilities and banned Communists from union leadership positions. The radical minority in the labour movements of Canada and the US was purged in the late 1940s, as Communist-led organizations were seen as a threat to “free” trade unions. That minority remained loyal to Robeson and maintained contact with him, even as he came under FBI surveillance, his phone calls were tapped, and his rooms bugged.

The atmosphere in the US changed between Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s and the Cold War era of the late 1940s. America entered World War II on the side of the Allies in June 1941, after Japan attacked Pearl Harbour. As a result of Germany’s assault on the Soviet Union, the Allied leadership consisted of three unlikely political colleagues brought together by the crisis — Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin, and Franklin Roosevelt, with Canada’s Mackenzie King available for an occasional photo session, as at the Québec Conference.

This alliance began to unravel in 1945, as events ushered in the Cold War. Churchill’s speech on 5 March 1946 in Fulton, Missouri, described the change as an “iron curtain” descending to divide the world into supporters of the US or supporters of the Soviet Union, of Democracy versus Communism. Thereafter a series of events escalated animosities: the expansion of Soviet influence in Eastern Europe, which involved a coup in Czechoslavakia, established a “sphere of influence”; the American president’s promulgation of the “Truman Doctrine” in 1947, calling for aid for Greece and Turkey to prevent those nations from going “communist” signaled opposition; the division of Germany and Berlin, and the Marshall Plan that fed Europe and helped former enemies rebuild their economies, to maintain non-Communist regimes in those states, indicated the new postwar realignment; the Communist revolution in China in 1949; and the partition of Korea in the 1950s after a fresh outbreak of hostilities, demonstrated clearly that the tensions of the Cold War were new global political realities.

These events affected everyone, including Robeson, who supported the Progressive Party in 1948, and increasingly spoke out against the treatment of Black Americans in the US. In the Cold War years, America perceived Communism as a worldwide threat, and increased security measures. Congress, with President Harry Truman’s support, passed the Smith Act (1948), under which Communist party leaders were indicted. Robeson publicly supported accused persons in the name of free speech. The American government passed the McCarran Act (1950), which allowed it to go after “subversives” by suppressing dissent, establishing concentration camps to detain suspects in a national emergency. Progressive party leader Henry Wallace condemned these policy approaches as efforts “to frighten all the American people into conformity and silence” and insisted that “our present laws against treason and sabotage are adequate for a democracy, but they aren’t adequate to establish a smoothly functioning police state.”[3]

The Communist threat was seen increasingly to be internal as well as external, an idea that Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy exploited politically. His actions and those of the House Committee of Un-American Activities (HUAC) became progressively more emotional, extremely undemocratic, and they ruined many individuals’ lives. For every Alger Hiss, whom historians, after years of controversy, have determined was indeed a Communist and a spy, there were many people like Robeson, who was sympathetic to Communism and progressive social and racial policies, but sought reform in the US, not revolution. Robeson opposed America’s tighter security measures, remained true to his convictions, and continued to perform.

Robeson visited Canada numerous times, and on each occasion he espoused through his music an international philosophy that supported freedom struggles by all peoples, including Black Americans, for whom he increasingly served as a spokesperson. In June 1942, Robeson was a guest artist in a “Salute to Canada’s Army” held in Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto. The concert came at a time when Canada, the United States, and the Soviet Union were allies in the war against Nazism, and Communists supported Mackenzie King’s government and an “all-out” war effort. The program reflected this political environment; it listed “patrons” of various political persuasions, was produced by Canadian Tribune, whose editor and future Communist (Labour Progressive Party — LPP) MPP, A.A. MacLeod, opened the concert. Robeson was the main performer but UAW Director George Burt spoke briefly about “Labor’s Salute to Canada’s Army.” The program, with Karsh’s photo of Lieutenant-General Andrew McNaughton on the cover, contained an Eaton’s ad that promoted records of Paul Robeson’s voice, a Karsh photo of Robeson, and a description of him as a singer of “songs of the people” who was known to millions around the world as “a fighter for justice and the brotherhood of man.” It had ads from both labour and non-labour groups, and the concert’s proceeds went to the Canadian Red Cross Society. In wartime, temporary unity amongst unlikely partners, was in the interest of winning the war, and Robeson, as a man of peace, was willing to participate.

In 1945, Robeson was more politically partisan when he appeared in Toronto at a LPP (the Communist Party of Canada’s new name) gathering where he spoke and sang “Joe Hill.” During the 1945 UAW strike at Ford in Windsor, the union sponsored a concert in December, where Robeson played the Capitol theatre. The packed performance was to help provide a Christmas dinner for Ford workers, and brought in $1,500 in ticket sales, out of which Robeson and his pianist, Lawrence Brown, only charged their expenses. Director George Burt later thanked the entertainer profusely, commenting: “Those who were fortunate enough to hear you, some for the first time, are still talking about the concert. The Ford workers were particularly pleased because they know of no other artist who would give his services so unselfishly in this cause.”[4]

In 1947, just before a concert in the US, the HUAC cited him, along with a thousand others, as a person supporting the Communist Party and its front organizations. The city council in Peoria, Illinois, responded by opposing his concert-booking there denying him a place to sing. A Supreme Court Justice ruled that Albany, New York could not bar Robeson from singing, as it sought to do, because of his alleged sympathies with Communism, but stipulated that Robeson confine himself to his musical program. One month later, the police commissioners in Toronto followed this American example and permitted Robeson to sing on the condition that he not speak at his concert.[5] Despite such restrictions, Robeson returned to Toronto and performed at Massey Hall on 4 and 6 December 1948, with the Jewish Folk Choir. The program consisted of the choir performing alone, then Robeson performing solo, and finally together they sang music ranging from classical to folk.

In 1950, amidst the fall of Hiss and the rise of McCarthy, President Truman dispatched ground troops to Korea. Americans rallied to the president, but Robeson in June spoke to a Civil Rights Congress rally at Madison Square Garden, protested American involvement in Korea, and urged Black Americans to focus their fight for freedom at home. In the new climate the government decided to muzzle him. It voided his passport, which denied him the right to travel abroad, and gave no specific reasons for their action except that travel by Robeson was “contrary to the best interests of the United States.” Robeson took legal action to try to regain his passport, but in 1951 a Federal court upheld the State Department, even as Robeson participated in the peace movement, helped organize legal appeal cases relating to harassment against Black Americans, and attended a celebration of the release from prison of three of the “Hollywood Ten.”[6] Thus Mine Mill’s organization of a Peace Arch concert was one of the first organized efforts to support Robeson in his fight to regain his passport, and to protest the State Department’s actions as an infringement of civil liberties.

On the American side, associates with the publication Freedom, helped by arranging the Peace Arch concert as part of a two-month tour in the US. They had no money, and it was unclear in the American political climate whether even “progressives” would risk hostility by attending a Robeson concert. The tour attracted small audiences and was hindered by official harassment, such as last minute cancellations of places to perform.

The most successful part of the tour was the Peace Arch concert itself, which 40,000 people attended to listen to the famous actor/singer, and to demonstrate by their presence the importance of freedom of speech in democratic countries. “So great was the automobile traffic,” a union press release announced, that “the border had to be closed for two hours, something unprecedented in the history of Blaine.”[7] The success was “largely because of the response from the Canadian side of the border.” Thanks to the efforts of Mine Mill, “twenty-five to thirty thousand Canadians turned up on the Vancouver side for the concert; no more than five thousand mobilized on the American side.”[8] As the partial transcipt of the concert, which was made into a record, indicates, the day began with the singing of the American and Canadian national anthems. Harvey Murphy welcomed the huge audience on behalf of his union, who came to hear “the outstanding American world citizen,” and to demonstrate the fraternity of the two North American peoples who had a “common mission … to march forward with the other peoples of this world for peace and security for all of us.” Robeson himself, from a temporary platform on the back of a truck just inside the American edge of the Peace Arch area, then expressed how moved he was by “my beloved friends in Canada” who were supporting him in his wish to sing freely. “What is being done at this Peace Arch today,” he believed, “will ring out — is already ringing out — around the world.” In his remarks to the audience he stressed “the likenesses — the common human spirit that we see in the various peoples’ songs,” and particularly in the songs of freedom and peace from many countries. His international theme was an important aspect of the inclusive left movements around the world before the Cold War divisions of the 1950s and resurgent nationalism in the 1960s, forgotten for several decades before “globalization” protests reminded participants of the continuity between themselves and earlier “radicals.”[9]

In March 1953, the union decided to sponsor a second Peace Arch concert in August, which despite inclement weather, 25,000 attended. At this mostly “White” event, Robeson drew a smaller audience, from all Mine Mill locals and the general public and, as before, “almost all of that from the Canadian side of the border.”[10] The union was left with a $525 debt after the concert, and while its Kimberley local protested that the concerts should pay for themselves, the bulk of Mine Mill demonstrated its support for the event by sending in donations to pay the small deficit.[11]

The Mine Mill union had always supported cultural activities for its members, but its support of Robeson was also political because he was sympathetic to the Soviet Union and critical of American policy. Publicly the union presented the concert as a blow for civil liberties — Robeson’s and the general public’s — and it protested the effect of the American government’s policy of limiting what Canadians could hear, speak, and sing, apparently with the acquiescence of the Canadian government. But the union had experienced its own problems as a result of Cold War anti-communism. In the US, it was evicted from the CIO as a Communist-dominated union; many of its leaders were Communist Party members expelled from office as a result of the Taft-Hartley Act. One effect of such anti-communism was that as American Mine Mill leaders crossed the border to Canada, tensions increased between the union and the Canadian Congress of Labour (CCL). In 1949 the CCL expelled Mine Mill as part of an effort to rid itself of its oppositional radical minority.[12] In Canada, there was no Taft-Hartley Act, but like their American counterparts, Canadian trade unionists were no longer tolerant of the labour movement’s left-wing. Thus Mine Mill’s rhetoric about civil liberties, while genuine, also reflected its interest in broader civil liberties for its leaders, so that they could work politically without constraints, and create a better climate for their views. As one union pamphlet read, “It is our answer to the McCarthyites who seek to dictate to Canadians their particular brand of thought control.”[13] They used the rhetoric of freedom and democracy in the same way Communists had during the Communist Party free speech campaigns in the late 1920s in Toronto against police repression, in the anti-internment campaigns on behalf of the “anti-fascists” during World War II, and in a procivil liberties campaign on behalf of Soviet spies in Canada, who were investigated as a result of Igor Gouzenko’s revelations after his defection from the Soviet Union in Ottawa in 1946.[14] This consistent position by Communist activists was self-interested, but it inadvertently helped protect the civil liberties of others as well. The larger audience attracted to Robeson’s concerts wanted to see him, undoubtedly, but many were also concerned about guarding civil liberties in a period when policy-makers determinedly escalated security measures.

John Gray, Robeson’s manager, was anxious to prepare for another concert in 1954, as the American government still held Robeson’s passport. A global campaign of support for its restoration, and thus Robeson’s freedom of movement, involved major personalities from Britain. They launched a “Let Robeson Sing” campaign that grew so quickly that by 1957, it was an embarrassment to the American government. Peace groups in France, Uruguay, Austria, Israel, South Africa, Iraq, and Finland sent protests to the State Department against Robeson’s continued “domestic arrest.”[15] A planning committee organized a cultural salute to Robeson with an evening of song and drama in New York, including South Africans, West African students, the Workers Alliance of Guatemala, British writers such as Doris Lessing, and French trade unionists.[16] Robeson’s many supporters argued that peoples outside the US wanted to hear the famous Black American singer. Around the world, thousands came to Robeson’s defense; he had international appeal and interests, reflected in an entertainment program that drew upon music from different parts of the globe.

The third Peace Arch concert on 1 August 1954 was again presented as a fight for civil liberties, for the right of free movement for Robeson, trade unionists, and progressives across the border, and an effort to win back Robeson’s passport. The crowd of about 30,000 bolstered Robeson’s flagging morale, and provided him with a little income. The union sold a souvenir program to defray costs; it contained ads from supporters such as the United Electrical Workers, Mine Mill locals, ladies auxiliaries across Canada, and the Canadian Textile Council. It also sold a Robeson record I Came To Sing that it made from his 1952 Peace Arch concert, and first released in 1953. The concert made a profit of less than ten dollars, but “kept us out of the red,” and by May 1955, of the 2,000 copies of Robeson’s record, Mine Mill had only 300 left, one of which was sent to a fan in Australia.[17]

The State Department remained adamant that it would not restore the passport until Robeson filed an affidavit stating his relationship to the Communist Party, which he refused to do. In 1954 and 1955, the climate began to shift slightly. In 1954, McCarthy was censured, the Supreme Court expressed new concern for the rights of political dissenters, and Brown v. Board of Education struck down segregation in American public schools. Robeson hoped to be able to accept several appealing job offers in Europe, and again applied for a passport. He was allowed to travel to Canada, shortly before he sang at the fourth Peace Arch concert in August 1955, and his accompanist Lloyd Brown wrote to the union that, “Paul is happy to have his first Canadian concert since the lifting of the ban under the auspices of your union.”[18] Later in the month, the passport was again refused. Robeson’s intense disappointment, as well as the toll taken by agents’ surveillance for a decade, adversely affected his health.

For the last Peace Arch concert in 1955, the union’s press statement stressed that the concerts were attended annually by thousands from both sides of the border, and were dedicated to world peace and international brotherhood. Once again, crowds gathered in a park and a farmer’s field in the space between the borders, and the union was well prepared to deal with them. As the organizers told Robeson’s manager, “we are having the buses pick up along to the route to the Arch this year, and the pick-up points are stated on the tickets.” The union advertised the concert in bus stations, in the local press, and placed ads in Seattle. It sold a program again, with Robeson’s picture on the cover, with ads from labour and other groups welcoming Robeson to Canada. As Harvey Murphy wrote, “the concert this year was a real success” and “Paul never sang better in his life.”[19] To the audience, Robeson expressed his optimism that the political climate was improving, with Americans increasingly rejecting McCarthyism. Barriers to free speech still stood, but they were weakening, and as Robeson said, “soon they must fall, and you and I together — people everywhere — shall sing the songs of peace and brotherhood, the songs of human triumph.” And indeed the program included “Freiheit,” the song of the Thaelmann Brigade during the Spanish Civil War, and “Zog Nit Keynmol” a Yiddish song of the Warsaw ghetto. The union claimed that insofar as Robeson could travel to Canada, the Peace Arch concerts had “won him for Canada; we must still help to free him for the rest of the world!”[20]

In February 1956, Robeson left the US for the first time in six years to address the Mine Mill convention, “where he had been invited by his old friends” in Sudbury. Lloyd Brown assured his hosts that Paul had been delighted to accept the invitation, and that he was rested, had lost weight, and was fine.[21] Robeson told the convention that his art was a weapon in his struggle for “my people’s freedom and for the freedom of all people” and said he would be singing and slugging “for a long time.” He thanked the union for its understanding, support, bravery, and friendship during many difficult years, which “have helped sustain my strength and courage.” People all over the world were fighting for his right to travel and sing, “but I shall never forget this union, for you made possible these few days that I have had of true freedom.”[22] After Sudbury, he performed at a sold-out Toronto concert in Massey Hall, which began with a standing ovation and ended with a frailer Robeson saying his purpose in life was “to fight for my people that they shall walk this earth as free as any man.”[23] It was an eclectic showcase of Robeson’s unique talents, for he sang traditional, classical and folk music, and did readings from Othello, classic writers like Shelley, and contemporary poets and playwrights such as Langston Hughes.

Despite a slow recovery from an operation and a serious bout of depression, in 1956 Robeson appeared before HUAC, which had subpoenaed him. In his statement Robeson told the committee that reactionaries had denied him access to the lecture podium, the concert hall, the opera house, and the dramatic stage and had now haled him to appear before this Committee. As a spokesman for “large sections of Negro Americans,” and a person active for the independence of colonial peoples of Africa, he had spoken out against the oppression of Americans and “I will continue to speak out. My struggle for a passport is a struggle for freedom, — freedom to travel, freedom to earn a livelihood, freedom to speak, freedom to express myself artistically and culturally.” Many invitations from other countries, which did not fear what he said or sang, indicated that his travels did not harm America, but in fact won it friends especially for “‘the real America’ for the American Negro, our workers, our farmers, our artists.”[24] He irritated the Committee sufficiently, by refusing to discuss his politics and by defending the rights of Blacks in America, that it asked the House of Representatives to cite him for contempt, which it refused to do.

Meanwhile the Supreme Court refused to hear Robeson’s appeal concerning his passport, making him “the only living American against whom an order has been issued directing immigration authorities not to permit him to leave the continental confines of the United States.”[25] He was too ill to perform at the Peace Arch that year.

In 1958, on Robeson’s 60th birthday, his friend Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru of India, hailed his birthday celebration as a fitting tribute, “not only because Paul Robeson is one of the greatest artists of our generation, but also because he has represented and suffered for a cause which should be dear to all of us — the cause of human dignity.”[26] Finally in June, the Supreme Court ruled in another case that the Secretary of State had no right to deny a passport to any citizen because of political beliefs, and that the Passport Division could not demand that an applicant sign an affidavit concerning membership in the Communist Party. Robeson’s ordeal was over.

What is the meaning of this footnote in history? It involves several themes in the postwar period — anti-Communism in the US, political conflict between Communist and non-Communist unions, the Canadian government’s support for its close ally in the Cold War, the US, and its implicit acceptance of American policy, as well as its more tempered response to Communism.[27] Canada did not have a McCarthy to agitate against Communists, and it had a stronger left wing on the political spectrum to articulate a practiced pro-civil liberties position. Communists consistently defended civil liberties for their own self-protection and self-interest, and the CCF did also, while at the same time repeatedly declaring its disagreement with Communist policies and tactics. Though Communists and Socialists fought each other within the labour movement and during elections, on civil liberties issues they worked together along with some liberals to support a more open and tolerant society, to increasingly deplore the actions of the American government, particularly the work of McCarthy and HUAC, against some of its progressive citizens.

In these days of heightened security, it is worth reflecting on Robeson’s saga. Tighter Canada-America border security as well as the two countries’ increasing closeness in policy terms and personal relations are apparent. But it is also clear that Canada and the US are not identical today or in the past, either in the way they approach security issues, or implement foreign policy debates or immigration policies. Though only a footnote in history, the Peace Arch concerts reveal features of the Canadian-American relationship that are illuminating. Today, as Canada and the United States discuss coordinated policies to protect themselves from terrorism, we again confront relations that involve the world’s longest previously undefended border. Legislation that grants greater power to politicians, police, border guards, and customs officials, is proposed, debated, and passed, which places limits on individual civil liberties. Thus, the importance of remaining vigilant to avoid abuses of individual rights is again brought to the political forefront, and the need to protect our national distinctiveness is obvious.

The Peace Arch concerts each year attracted many more Canadians than Americans because although Canada was an ally of the US and opposed the Soviet Union during the Cold War, its less overt anti-Communism avoided the outspoken nastiness of McCarthyism, the intolerance of the HUAC, and the rigidity of the Smith and McCarran Acts, even though the RCMP collected records on Communists every bit as detailed and biased of those of the FBI. Like the Europeans who pressured the American government to restore Robeson’s passport, Canadians also believed his civil liberties were unnecessarily infringed.

When Robeson’s passport was restored after eight years of surveillance and harassment, his career and his health were ruined. The constraints imposed on Robeson were not enforced because he was violent, or a criminal, or a danger to the state, but because he was a critic, and his ideas antagonized the American government. As a person of integrity, he held to his views with determination and courage, and refused to conform. It was unacceptable to be pro-Communist and sympathetic to the Soviet Union during the Cold War, even though such persons were in a very small minority. It was equally invalid for a Black leader to be vocal in his opposition to racial discrimination and American segregation policies in the years before the 1960s civil rights movement. The broad constituency of protestors on both sides of the border that attended the Peace Arch concerts believed in an open border, racial tolerance, and in democracies that were strong enough to allow for political diversity and basic civil liberties, including the right to travel. They also were present to listen to what California music critics called “the greatest natural basso voice of the present generation,” and a “great and gentle warrior” whose personal presence, whether he was excelling academically, in sports, as an actor, a political activist, or a leader of his people remained dignified, charismatic, and “singularly powerful.”[28]

After Paul Robeson’s death in January 1976, some of his old Canadian friends and admirers, such as Harvey Murphy, formed a Paul Robeson Commemorative Committee. It was sponsored by many diverse groups and individuals, and on 25 April 1976 put on A Tribute To Paul Robeson at Harbord Collegiate in Toronto. One year later a second concert took place at Central Technical School. Programs celebrated Robeson’s life as a world citizen, a man of peace, a freedom fighter, an anti-racist, and a person who “immeasurably enriched” the lives of others all over the world. It was a tribute many of those who attended Robeson’s concerts in and adjacent to Canada in the 1940s and 1950s would have understood well.

CONCERT AT THE PEACE ARCH

(first side) Water Boy 1st line

NARRATOR: “This is Sunday, May 18, 1952, at Peace Arch Park on the U.S.-Canadian border. Breaking all records for public gatherings in the Northwest, 40,000 men, women and children from British Columbia and the state of Washington are massed in this sunlit field to hear Paul Robeson. The vast throng has just finished singing ‘Oh Canada’ and the ‘Star Spangled Banner’, and now here is the chairman, Harvey Murphy, trade union leader…”
HARVEY MURPHY: “Ladies and gentlemen, trade unionists, brothers and sisters from the United States and from our own Canada, I welcome you here today on behalf of the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers. (APPLAUSE)…We meet here today to welcome the outstanding American world citizen. (APPLAUSE)…I know that you came here to hear a singer, but you also came here to demonstrate the brotherhood and fraternity of the peoples of the United States and Canada—that we have a common mission in this world to march forward with the other peoples of this world for peace and security for all of us and (APPLAUSE) for our children…And we are happy that we were the means of bringing you together, but I know that Paul Robeson—that name—what that stands for is what every decent man and woman in the world stands for.” (APPLAUSE)
PAUL ROBESON: “I want to thank you for being here today. I want to thank Harvey Murphy and the Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers. I can’t tell you how moved I am today. It seems that nothing can keep me from my beloved friends in Canada. (APPLAUSE). I stand here today under great stress because I dare—as you do, all of you—to fight for peace and a decent life for all men, women and children wherever they may be. And especially today I stand fighting for the rights of my people in this America in which I was born. (APPLAUSE). You have known me through the years. I am the same Paul—fighting a little harder because the times call for harder struggles. This historic occasion today probably means that I shall be able to sing again as I want to—to sing freely without being stopped here and there. What is being done at this Peace Arch today will ring out—is already ringing out—around the world. I thank you deeply…(APPLAUSE). I have with me at the piano my friend of many years, whom you know, Lawrence Brown. Mr. Brown joins me in one of his own arrangements: ‘Every Time I Feel the Spirit.'” (APPLAUSE).

SONG: “Every Time I Feel the Spirit”
—————-END OF FIRST SIDE—————-
(second side)
SONG: “Over the Mountains”
(APPLAUSE)
SONG: Old Man River”
(APPLAUSE, CHEERS)
—————-END OF FIRST SIDE—————-
(third side)

HARVEY MURPHY: “Now I have great pleasure in having this song which is so much connected with the hard rock miners’ union. You all know it; you have heard it. It’s a song of the struggle of the hard rock miners and a song that is dear to all the mine, mill and smelter workers: ‘Joe Hill.'” (APPLAUSE)

SONG: “Joe Hill.”
(APPLAUSE)
SONG: “Loc Lomond” (first chorus, 2nd verse, 2nd chorus)
—————-END OF THIRD SIDE—————-
(fourth side)

PAUL ROBESON: “This next song is one that comes from the very depth of the struggle of my people in America. One that might have been sung by my own father. A few nights ago I sang in Brooklyn to the General Conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in which my father labored for many years as a minister, in which my brother is now the pastor of Mother Zion in New York. This church has a great history. Frederick Douglass printed his paper, ‘The North Star’, in the cellar of the Zion Church in Rochester, New York, Harriet Tubman, one of the great abolitionists and founder of the Underground Railroad by which many of my people came to freedom in Canada in those days—yes, Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth and my father must have sung this next song. “No more auction block for me, no more pint of salt for me—though many thousands are gone, freedom we must have.'”

SONG: “No More”
SONG: “Oh No John”
—————-END OF FOURTH SIDE—————-
(fifth side)

PAUL ROBESON: “I haven’t got the time to sing all of your requests—I’ll sing a couple of more in a moment—but I want to leave some feeling of what has influenced me so much. Travelling about the world, I have seen and experienced the oneness of mankind. Not the differences but the likenesses—the common human spirit that we see in the various peoples’ songs. I cannot sing these songs today, but I will readjust a few words from some of them, to leave some feeling of how I feel close, as we all should, to many peoples of the world. There is this song from the great Chinese people: it says, “Arise you who refuse to be bond slaves, stand up and fight for liberty. Arise, arise, march on, march on. (RECITES FROM CHILAI). You remember that, Chilai. That is what the Chinese sang when they got a few of those victories. (APPLAUSE). This is from another great people whose history—of Moses and Joshua and David—is very close to the Negro people. This comes from the same brave people who fought back in Warsaw, in that epic of the Warsaw Ghetto. (READS FROM THE YIDDISH) (APPLAUSE). And this comes from a great Soviet composer, calling for peace between all the peoples of the world—from Shostakovich who says that the ‘Wind of peace, the breeze of peace, makes wave the banner of victory, the banner that’s bathed in blood, but the road to peace dawns in our country and we stand on guard unbending. Now are our meadows in flower, spring we wait as ne’er before, rose each day our strength and power. Peace, Peace will conquer War.'” (RECITES IN RUSSIAN). “Peace will conquer war!” (APPLAUSE)

SONG: “L’Amour de Moi.”

 

—————-END OF FIFTH SIDE—————-
(sixth side)
SONG: “Night”
(APPLAUSE)
SONG: “Curley Needed Baby”
—————-END OF SIXTH SIDE—————-

Notes

1 Martin Bauml Duberman, Paul Robeson: A Biography (New York 1989), 399.
2 Jervis Anderson, This Was Harlem, 1900–1950 (New York 1982), 114–116.
3 Duberman, Robeson, 328.
4 George Burt to UAW locals in the United States, 4 December 1945; J.P. McCool, financial secretary, to Catharine Duncan, women’s auxiliary, 14 December 1945; Harry Rowe, International Rep UAW, application for exemption from payment of excise tax, Folder 7, Box 136; George Burt to Paul Robeson, 9 January 1946, Folder 8, Box 136, United Automobile Workers, Region 7 collection, Wayne State University Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan.
5 Duberman, Robeson, 319–320.
6 The most famous group of blacklisted individuals, known as the Hollywood Ten, consisted of one director, Edward Dmytryk, and nine screenwriters: Alvah Bessie, Herbert J. Biberman, Lester Cole, Ring Lardner Jr., John Howard Lawson, Albert Maltz, Samuel Ornitz, Adrian Scott, and Dalton Trumbo. Over 300 other Hollywood writers, actors, and directors were blacklisted after HUAC called them to testify. For further information see Edward Dmytryk, Odd Man Out: A Memoir of the Hollywood Ten (Carbondale, Il. 1996).
7 Press release, 24 July 1955, File 9, Box 18, International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers Union Papers (hereafter MMP), University of British Columbia Archives, Vancouver (hereafter UBCA).
8 The American press estimated total attendance at 5,000; the Canadian press put the figure seven times higher. Duberman, Robeson, 400.
9 Anthony Carew, Michel Dreyfus, Geert Van Goethem, Rebecca Gumbrell-McCormick, and Marcel van der Linden, The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (Bern, 2000), 18.
10 Duberman, Robeson, 411.
11 Wm Longridge to secretary, local 480 Trail, B.C., 22 March 1954; Kimberley local 627 to Longridge, 8 April 1954, File 8, Box 18, MMP, UBCA.
12 Irving Abella, Nationalism, Communism and Canadian Labour: The CIO, the Communist Party, and the Canadian Congress of Labour, 1935–1956 (Toronto 1973), ch. 6.
13 Canadian Mine Mill Council to R. Haddow, District 10, IFLWU, 22 June, 1954, File 8, Box 18, MMP, UBCA.
14 For more information on these issues see Laurel Sefton MacDowell, Renegade Lawyer: The Life of J.L. Cohen (Toronto 2001), chs. 2, 7, and 8.
15 Duberman, Robeson, 424.
16 Mine Mill Council minutes, 20 May 1954, File 8, Box 18, MMP, UBCA.
17 Canadian Mine Mill Council to R. Haddow, District 10 IFLWU, 22 June 1954, File 8, Box 18; E.L. Walker to John Gray, 27 April 1955, File 9, Box 18; E.L. Walker to M.B. Macmillan, 13 May 1955, File 9, Box 18, MMP, UBCA; Canadian Tribune, 23 March 1953; 4 May 1954.
18 Lloyd Brown to Mine Mill Council, 11 August 1955, File 9, Box 18, MMP, UBCA.
19 Harvey Murphy to Lloyd Brown, 15 August 1955, File 9, Box 18, MMP, UBCA.
20 Robeson’s “Message,” n.d., File 9, Box 18, MMP, UBCA.
21 Lloyd Brown to Harvey Murphy, 13 December 1955, File 9, Box 18, MMP, UBCA.
22 Paul Robeson’s speech to the Mine Mill convention, Sudbury, Feb.1956, File 9, Box 18, MMP, UBCA.
23 Duberman, Robeson, 437.
24 Vancouver Herald, 19 July 1955, in File 9, Box 18, MMP, UBCA.
25 Duberman, Robeson, 445.
26 Duberman, Robeson, 461.
27 Reg Whitaker and Gary Marcuse, Cold War Canada: The Making of a National Insecurity State, 1945–1957 (Toronto, 1996), frontispiece. While critical of the Canadian Cold War policies, the authors found “some evidence for Canadian moderation,” but argue that the “smug Canadian self-image is exaggerated.”
28 Duberman, Robeson, 455, and 550.

 

 

By Laurel Sefton MacDowell