Robeson stamp recalls a man truly ‘first-class’


By: Packet Editorial
   There was a time, not so long ago, when Paul Robeson would have had about as much chance of being honored by the U.S. Postal Service as Osama bin Laden has of getting a job in the Bush administration.
   That time, thankfully, is long gone.
   But the mentality that got the late actor-singer-social activist blacklisted at the height of the Cold War is still very much with us. It’s the same mentality that judged anyone who protested the Vietnam War a draft-dodger and a coward. It’s the mentality that deemed opposition to the first Gulf War traitorous. And it’s the mentality that dismisses criticism either of President Bush’s decision to go to war in Iraq or of his administration’s conduct of that war as unpatriotic.
   Mr. Robeson’s offense against this mentality was using his fame — cultivated as an All-America football player and Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Rutgers, enhanced by his title roles in Shakespeare’s "Othello" and Eugene O’Neill’s "Emperor Jones" and solidified by his trademark rendition of "Ol’ Man River" in Jerome Kern’s "Showboat" — to fight for racial equality, workers’ rights and other social-justice causes. He joined this fight at a time when many places not only in the south but in the north (his native Princeton among them) were not quick to embrace social-justice causes; when many of America’s leading institutions (Princeton University among them) did not practice racial equality; and when many Americans, exposed to daily doses of McCarthyism, were disposed to think of workers’ rights as communist propaganda.
   Worse, Mr. Robeson made no secret of his admiration for the Soviet Union, calling particular attention to the fact that while he could not enter the front door of a theater to perform in the United States, he was welcomed with open arms and standing ovations in Moscow. As the Cold War intensified, so did Mr. Robeson’s belief that the United States, because of widespread racial prejudice and social injustice, forfeited the high ground in the ideological battle against communism. His outspokenness on this issue made him a target of that most un-American of government agencies, the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee, which caused him to be stripped of his passport, greatly limited his opportunities to work in New York and Hollywood and, for all practical purposes, terminated his public life and livelihood.
   How fitting it was that a stamp in Mr. Robeson’s honor was unveiled in Princeton last week just one day after the nation celebrated the memory of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. So much of what Dr. King accomplished in the turbulent 1960s was made possible by what Mr. Robeson tried to do in the quiescent 1950s. While Mr. Robeson’s principled stands against bigotry and intolerance earned him only official scorn and punishment in Washington, Dr. King’s leadership in the struggle for civil rights brought lasting legal, political and social change to America a decade later.
   When very few people were listening, Mr. Robeson had this dream for black Americans: "To be free — to walk the good American earth as equal citizens, to live without fear, to enjoy the fruits of our toil to give our children every opportunity in life — that dream, which we have held so long in our hearts, is today the destiny that we hold in our hands." When millions were listening a decade later, Dr. King spoke of a remarkably similar dream — one that is indelibly etched in our collective memory.
   In honoring Mr. Robeson, the U.S. Postal Service redresses a shameful episode in American history. And it does so at a time when too many people still mistake protest for disloyalty, failing to recognize that being openly critical of unfair or unwise government policy is, in fact, one of the most patriotic gestures a truly conscientious American can make.
   As U.S. Rep. Rush Holt remarked when the Robeson stamp was unveiled at last week’s ceremony, "This is first-class postage." Indeed it is — in many, many ways.