I was reminded of the issue of free speech when I did my previous post about Paul Robeson, the great American singer, actor, footballer, activist for civil rights, working people, black people and what I would call an all-round Renaissance man. But he was black, faced endemic racism in the US and he crossed the Establishment when he fought for workers and black people.
I first saw Paul Robeson when I was a young kid at the Saturday morning children’s cinema in Ramsgate, Kent, England. He was in the movie “Sanders of the River” which was a godawful grovel to British colonialism and which Robeson very much regretted once he saw the final cut.
After that he kind of disappeared and I never gave him much thought until he surfaced on a radio programme (can’t remember which after all this time) where he sang over a transatlantic link to a British audience. It was introduced, if I remember rightly, by the actor, Alfie Bass, and it took place in 1957. But then researching this bit of information, I also found out that the 1957 transatlantic exchange also allowed Robeson to be heard at the Miners Eisteddfod in Porthcawl. The Welsh link came from the fact that Robeson appeared in a film, Proud Valley, as an African-American seaman who settles in a Welsh mining village.
The transatlantic link was necessary because Paul Robeson’s passport had been cancelled in 1950 by the US authorities because of his refusal to criticise the Soviet Union and to declare his political beliefs to the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee. Here’s a link to information about the transatlantic concert which was broadcast at St Pancras Town Hall, on 26th May, 1957:
And here’s a link to Wikipedia’s page on Paul Robeson:
Robeson was virtually expunged from American history and I’ve been amazed at mentioning his name to my American friends, to find that so many of whom have never heard of this brave, courageous, highly moral man.
And that’s why I’m banging on about Paul Robeson because he was a man who stood by his ideals, voiced them and didn’t back down in the face of enormous pressure. I remember back in Australia seeing a documentary about Robeson’s life and being quite taken aback at the violence and threats he endured for standing up for his right to free speech.
Because free speech in the US, it appears to me, may be a constitutional right but only when it’s sanctioned by the Establishment. Robeson was denied his right to free speech. The Dixie Chicks were denied the right to free speech when they criticised the illegal war in Iraq by the Bush administration and subjected to boycotts. People were suddenly told to refer to “Freedom Fries” instead of “French Fries” because the French government didn’t knuckle under to US bullying to join the 2003 invasion – action which opened the Pandora’s box of violence now consuming the Middle East.
And now we’re seeing thuggery, threats and violence by Donald Trump at his rallies where he encourages his supporters to act violently towards people who demonstrate at his demagoguery or who oppose his views. At the end of the documentary I saw in Australia, Robeson’s son said he’d asked his father why he refused to criticise the Soviet Union. And Robeson replied that he thought the Russian people were capable of sorting out their own problems, but his biggest fear was that the source of world war would be the extreme religious right and racist bigots in his home country.
And so we are seeing that come true with Donald Trump and the other Republican candidates who are all right-wing zealots vying with each other to talk hawkishly and frighteningly in relation to foreign affairs. This isn’t confined to the United States. The rise of the ultra-right in Europe is just as appalling. It’s as if so many have forgotten the past, what fascism did and how so many millions suffered.
I worked on the digital art image above to create an image with a dark centre. Being a voice for reason, courage, compassion, love, tolerance,and peace – in the face of racism, sexism, xenophobia, islamophobia, homophobia and all the other hatreds around at present – is hard work and, in these times, can be a very dangerous business.
It takes guts and fortitude to the voice, but perhaps we can remember Paul Robeson, his moral courage, his stance to fight injustice and his refusal to knuckle under as a great inspiration for those today who courageously stand up against the thuggery of the extreme right and fight for the good and decency of humanity.
Here’s a link to a documentary about Paul Robeson (and yes, he’s my hero!)