As part of our celebration over the next several months of 80 years of continuous publication, the MSR will be republishing notable stories from our extensive archives of more than 4,000 weekly issues of African American news in Minnesota. Many of our readers will be sure to recognize friends, family and neighbors from the distant and not-so-distant past — and famous historical personages such as the incomparable Paul Robeson, interviewed by a Minneapolis Spokesman staff writer for the December 15, 1944 issue.
Robeson Predicts Winston Churchill Government to Fall Before War’s End
On Wednesday it was my good fortune to talk with one of the truly great men of this century. Although there were hundreds of people gathering in the Lyceum Theater in Minneapolis to see and hear this man he did not seem in a hurry and he talked with me and my friends, Mr. and Mrs. Irving Blumberg, for almost half an hour in the interview that he had graciously granted me in his dressing room backstage. This great man was the most gracious of the great personalities that I have ever met. He is a big man physically, mentally and spiritually.
It was with his big strong body, broad shoulders and height of more than six feet coupled with his keen mind that brought him All-American honors at his alma mater, Rutgers, when he played football. He is a versatile man, with many talents. People all over the world, as well as in his native land, America, have been delighted to see and hear him on the stage, in the movies, and as one of the outstanding concert soloists of our day. He sings and speaks several languages including German, French, Russian and Chinese.
One evening when I was visiting in the Irving Blumberg home I heard Mr. Blumberg’s aunt, Mrs. Morris Rubinstein, of Brooklyn, say that his “Russian accent is truer than that of many Russian singers.”
For more than two years this man has played the leading character role in one of Shakespeare’s great plays, Othello, with a cast composed entirely of white actors, except for himself. I am sure that you, my dear reader, realize now that I am writing about Paul Robeson, athlete, actor and singer of international fame.
It takes a man of the character and spiritual strength of Robeson to do what he is doing in breaking down the barriers of race prejudice and be able to play opposite a beautiful white woman on the stage in our country and have white critics praise his performance and pack the largest playhouses day after day.
Answers Questions Readily
What did Mr. Robeson have to say in our interview? I asked him at least two questions in one at the very beginning of the interview: “What effect does the continued mistreatment of minorities have on our country’s reputation among the other nations?” and “What effect will this have on the matter of permanent peace?” Those questions proved enough to keep Mr. Robeson talking until we realized that we just must not take more of his time. He talked easily and without restraint.
According to Mr. Robeson, “America’s continued mistreatment of minorities in our country makes a lie of our whole position in the world. First, in the matter of winning the war and second, in the problems that we will face when the war is over.
“If this war means anything, it is a war for the freedom of all minorities, Mr. Robeson declared. “When I speak of minorities I include all workers regardless of race — the migrant Mexican, the sharecropper, the people Steinbeck writes about and all others.”
Mr. Robeson asked this significant question and answered it in works to this effect — “How does this war differ from other wars in history? The war of 1776 in our nation was fought to free the colonies from the tyranny of England, but the Negro was in slavery. The French Revolution was fundamentally a middle class war. The war of 1860 in our country brought about the freeing of the slaves as chattel property, but there was little thought of giving him full freedom and equality.
“This war that we are now engaged in means to me,” Mr. Robeson said, “that we can and ought to reach a level of comparative equality for all citizens in this country. This means the extension of equal privileges to all peoples — the Negro and other minorities in this country and to China, India and Africa,” he emphasized.
America faces something more serious today than in 1860, according to Mr. Robeson. He enlarged upon this statement on this wise. America is faced with a changed attitude of the people. Take the laborers as an example. American laborers realize that they should have more than a mere subsistence wage and that they should have wages and working conditions that make for better living conditions.
With our productive ability, Mr. Robeson declared, we can take care of all of our people and provide jobs for all in this country, and the whole world. He spoke of the reconversion of tank factories and other war production plants that can be used for peace time employment. He scored reactionaries like Senator Nye, Col. R.R. McCormick and others who seem to think that we must return to the old days of the unemployment of millions of people.
He disagreed thoroughly with some capitalist, whose name I do not remember, who declared that there must be something like 20 million unemployed in this country after the war is over. That there must be a change in the attitude of the imperialist nations toward the colonials is a strong conviction of Mr. Robeson’s. He mentioned France’s attitude toward its colonials, that of bringing them up to the level of full citizenship in a single generation.
The colonials must be raised to the position of equality industrially and in every way, as it is possible. “The African and any other so-called underprivileged groups of people can function like any other group if given the opportunity,” our cosmopolitan host declared. He cited as an example of a so-called backward people being able to use the modern machinery, the Yakuti, whom Wendell Willkie mentions in his book “One World.” These people, who live in the Ural Mountains in Siberia, mastered the modern machinery brought in by the Russians.
Mrs. Blumberg raised the question “as to whether this idea of bringing all people up to the modern standards of living needed to be done from an altruistic motive or not?” Mr. Robeson’s ready reply was “No.” It is a matter of self-preservation for people in the more favored countries. By supplying the needs of the world we can avoid having a large number of unemployed people in our country. Mr. Robeson said that he was optimistic enough to believe that “this” can be done; that is, that jobs can be provided for all in the postwar world.
Mr. Robeson had much to say about the changing attitude and temper of peoples in the world. In speaking of the situation in Greece today, he expressed surprise at the bluntness of Winston Churchill as he did in Parliament on the British idea of empire. The temper of the people is important, Mr. Robeson contended. If the Grecian people do not want King George as their ruler he will not be able to remain on the throne, even though British guns and tanks try to keep him there.
“I did not expect this crisis to come with England on the continent of Europe as it has in Belgium and Greece and other recently freed countries, but rather with India,” Mr. Robeson asserted. He predicted that Winston Churchill’s government will fall before the end of the war. The white nations need to realize that the Chinese are not going to return to the status quo because the attitude of the Chinese people has changed, just as that of the people in India and Africa and all over the world, our host said.
Negro Temper Has Changed
The temper of the Negro people has changed, Mr. Robeson declared. In speaking of the returning Negro service man, Mr. Robeson said that “he will not be seeking trouble, but that he will want to feel that he is a full citizen and he will resent any curtailment of his “inalienable rights.”
Mr. Andrews, Mr. Robeson’s very efficient secretary, had called the actor more than once when I asked Mr. Robeson, “How far south has Othello been played?” Cincinnati and Kansas City, Mr. Robeson replied. Then he told us that the production could be given in Washington, Baltimore, Nashville and other southern cities, but that he had a contract to play only in those cities where there will be absolutely no discrimination or segregation in the audience.
This was why he refused to appear a second time in Kansas City. We certainly must give great credit to Mr. Robeson for this courageous stand that really means much to all of us here in America, white and Negro, who are working and fighting for the full integration of the Negro in American life.
We must also give credit to the white members of the cast of Othello for superbly supporting our hero in this stand for the rights of our people, as they do Mr. Robeson in his never-to-be-forgotten portrayal of William Shakespeare’s Othello – the Moor “who loved all too well and unwisely.”