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Lafayette will inaugurate a series of major conferences on the history and culture of civil rights and civil liberties with a three-day conference entitled “Paul Robeson: His History and Development as an Intellectual” on campus April 7-9.

Conference director John T. McCartney, professor and head of government and law at Lafayette, will speak on “Marx and Engels’ Influences on the Development of Robeson’s Intellect” at 3:30 p.m. Thursday, April 7, in Oechsle Hall 224 (see conference schedule). Joining McCartney as a presenter in this session will be Harry R. Targ, professor of political science and American studies at Purdue University. The moderator will be Kevin Cameron, visiting assistant professor of government and law at Lafayette.

McCartney will also serve as moderator of a session featuring a talk on “Paul Robeson: The Quintessential Public Intellectual” by Paul Von Blum, senior lecturer in African American studies at University of California, Los Angeles (Plenary Session 1) , and a session featuring a talk on “Robeson as Labor’s Champion” by Noel Beasley, international vice president of UNITE HERE (Plenary Session 10).

In more than three decades as a political theorist, John T. McCartney has run for political office in the Bahamas, written a definitive book on American black power ideologies, and taught college courses on black political thought in the United States, Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America.

McCartney, professor and head of government and law at Lafayette, says all those areas are intertwined in some way with the life and work of Paul Robeson, aiding him in his work as director of Lafayette’s April conference on Robeson’s history and development as an intellectual.

“Robeson’s life spans so much of what I do, and he is integral to everything I teach,” McCartney says. “I’ve always been interested in and excited about his life.”

A native of the Bahamas and a member of the Lafayette faculty since 1986, McCartney holds a doctorate in political history from University of Iowa, an M.A. in history from University of Detroit, and a B.A. in political science from Drake University.

He is the recipient of Lafayette’s Marquis Distinguished Teaching Award for distinctive and extraordinary teaching, Thomas Roy and Lura Forrest Jones Faculty Lecture Award for excellence in teaching and scholarship, and Student Government Superior Teaching Award among other awards.

McCartney’s book Black Power Ideologies: An Essay in African American Thought, published in 1992 by Temple University Press, is viewed as a major contribution to American intellectual history. He has also written scores of articles and book reviews on black thinkers, politicians, ideas, and issues. He points out that Robeson is unique partly because he assumed so many roles-scholar, athlete, attorney, actor, singer, and human rights advocate – at various times between his enrollment at Rutgers University in 1915 until his retirement from public life in 1963.

“He’s central to the black experience in the United States,” McCartney says, adding that Robeson spoke at least 15 languages and was a powerful force internationally as performer and in his efforts to secure social justice for working people of all races.

McCartney says that as he and Samuel A. Hay, visiting professor of government and law at Lafayette, discussed historical figures they might focus on in the first of a series of Lafayette conferences on the history and culture of civil rights and civil liberties, Robeson emerged as a top contender.

“We felt that Robeson was a particularly relevant figure because so many people in the United States and other countries still don’t know much about him,” McCartney says. The selection comes during a resurgence of interest in Robeson that began seven years ago at the 100th anniversary of his birth. Since then, McCartney says, several universities have hosted Robeson conferences-but none as large as the one planned at Lafayette.

During Lafayette’s conference, McCartney will join Harry R. Targ, professor of political science and American studies at Purdue University, in focusing on the influences of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels on Robeson’s intellectual development.

McCartney says his presentation will argue that that Robeson, who visited the Stalinist Soviet Union several times in 1930s and perceived greater racial equality there than in the United States, was influenced not by “mechanical Marxism,” a philosophy that robs humankind of its free will and distinct nature, but by a democratic, humanist, and anti-racist Marxism that he felt could enrich American democracy and end racism. McCartney says Robeson’s “creative use” of Marxism was distorted during the Cold War hysteria of the late 1940s and throughout much of the 1950s.

“What I am trying to show is that during that time period, dissidents like Robeson in the United States were seen as pro-communist and were depicted that way in the press,” he says, pointing to Robeson’s clashes with the House Un-American Activities Committee, monitoring by the FBI, and the decision to revoke his passport in 1950.

McCartney says that while Robeson defended the Soviet system, “his ideas were grounded in a humanism and socialism that have stronger roots in American democracy than in Soviet communism.”

McCartney’s own political experience includes running for Parliament in the Bahamas in 1977, while he was an assistant professor of political science at Purdue University, and serving as president of the socialist Vanguard Party in the Bahamas from 1979 to 1985.

“I’ve found myself in struggles similar” to those Robeson faced, McCartney says, explaining that the experiences have helped him gain a deeper understanding of at least a small part of what Robeson went through.

As he has studied Robeson, McCartney has found links with more recent historical developments as well.

“Robeson’s democratic approach to social change presaged what happened in Europe in the 1980s with Eurocommunism,” McCartney says, referring to a trend of seeking power within the framework of national political structures rather than by revolutionary means. “In a sense Robeson was a precursor of so much that happened later on. He was ahead of his time.”

McCartney adds that he’s also hoping to address civil rights and civil liberties in the post-9/11 era.

“I want to examine what lessons Robeson’s life can give us,” he says.

Finally, McCartney says, he wants to make clear that while Robeson was grounded in the black experience, “He was a universalist. He didn’t see race as being the determinist of all things.”

McCartney adds that the academic community – and community at large – can learn a great deal from Robeson’s life and deep commitment to the humanity in everyone.

“The lesson of his life is that we should constantly reach out to this broader humanity,” McCartney says. “It shows our own humanity. The more we reach out, the more we affirm ourselves as human beings.”

And, McCartney says, “The big lesson is we can’t neglect our history. We can’t neglect our heroes.”

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