by Linda Lombardi, Literary Manager
In the years following World War II, America experienced a growing anxiety over the rise of Communism in Eastern Europe and China, and its presence in America. On February 9, 1950, a young Senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, made a shocking allegation in a speech in Wheeling, West Virginia. Waving a sheet of paper, McCarthy claimed he had the names of over 200 Communists working in the State Department. Of course, that number would fluctuate (sometimes 57, sometimes 81, sometimes as few as 10).
The “Red Scare” swept the country. Accusations were hurled. Careers ruined. Lives lost. No one was safe. Celebrities and everyday American citizens were subpoenaed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee—a committee whose very name conjures ominous images of Big Brother. (Simultaneously, the Lavender Scare destroyed the lives of countless gay men and women.)
Throughout Robeson’s hearing, he asked if he could read a statement for the record. Each time he was denied. That same day it was released to the press. Below is an excerpt from that statement.
Statement of Paul Robeson to House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities
June 12, 1956
“It is a sad and bitter commentary on the state of civil liberties in America that the very forces of reaction, typified by Representative Francis Walter and his Senate counterparts, who have denied me access to the lecture podium, the concert hall, the opera house, and the dramatic stage, now hale me before a committee of inquisition in order to hear what I have to say. It is obvious that those who are trying to gag me here and abroad will scarcely grant me the freedom to express myself fully in a hearing controlled by them.
It would be more fitting for me to question Walter, Eastland and Dulles then for them to question me, for it is they who should be called to account for their conduct, not I. Why does Walter not investigate the truly “un-American” activities of Eastland and his gang, to whom the Constitution is a scrap of paper when invoked by the Negro people and to whom defiance of the Supreme Court is a racial duty? And how can Eastland pretend concern over the internal security of our country while he supports the most brutal assaults on fifteen million Americans by the white citizens councils and the Ku Klux Klan? When will Dulles explain his reckless irresponsible “brink of war” policy by which the world might have been destroyed.
And specifically, why is Dulles afraid to let me have a passport, to let me travel abroad to sing, to act, to speak my mind? This question has been partially answered by State Department lawyers who have asserted in court that the State Department claims the right to deny me a passport because of what they called my “recognized status as a spokesman for large sections of Negro Americans” and because I have “been for years extremely active in behalf of independence of colonial peoples of Africa.” The State Department has also based its denial of a passport to me on the fact that I sent a message of greeting to the Bandung Conference, convened by Nehru, Sukarno and other great leaders of the colored peoples of the world. Principally, however, Dulles objects to speeches I have made abroad against the oppression suffered by my people in the United States.
I am proud that those statements can be made about me. It is my firm intention to continue to speak out against injustices to the Negro people, and I shall continue to do all within my power in behalf of independence of colonial peoples of Africa. It is for Dulles to explain why a Negro who opposes colonialism and supports the aspirations of Negro Americans should for those reasons be denied a passport.
My fight 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. I have been denied these freedoms because Dulles, Eastland, Walter, and their ilk oppose my views on colonial liberation, my resistance to oppression of Negro Americans, and my burning desire for peace with all nations. But these are views which I shall proclaim whenever given the opportunity, whether before this committee or any other body.
President [Dwight D.] Eisenhower has strongly urged the desirability of international cultural exchanges. I agree with him. The American people would welcome artistic performances by the great singers, actors, ballet troupes, opera companies, symphony orchestras and virtuosos of South America, Europe, Africa, and Asia, including the folk and classic art of African peoples, the ancient culture of China, as well as the artistic works of the western world. I hope the day will come soon when Walter will consent to lowering the cruel bars which deny the American people the right to witness performances of many great foreign artists. It is certainly high time for him to drop the ridiculous “Keystone Kop” antics of fingerprinting distinguished visitors.
I find no such restrictions placed upon me abroad as Walter has had placed upon foreign artists whose performances the American people wish to see and hear. I have been invited to perform all over the world, and only the arbitrary denial of a passport has prevented realization of this particular aspect of the cultural exchange which the President favors.”
His statement concludes:
“My travels abroad to sing and act and speak cannot possibly harm the American people. In the past I have won friends for the real America among the millions before whom I have performed,—not for Walter, not for Dulles, not for Eastland, not for the racists who disgrace our country’s name,—but friends for the American Negro, our workers, our farmers, our artists.
By continuing the struggle at home and abroad for peace and friendship with all of the world’s people, for an end to colonialism, for full citizenship for Negro Americans, for a world in which art and culture may abound, I intend to continue to win friends for the best in American life.”
(Source: Paul and Eslanda Robeson Collection, Manuscript Division, Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University.)