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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.

Harry R. Targ, professor of political science and American studies at Purdue University, 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 Targ as a presenter in this session will be John T. McCartney, conference director and professor and head of government and law at Lafayette. The moderator will be Kevin Cameron, visiting assistant professor of government and law at Lafayette.

In 1967, when Harry R. Targ began his academic career, a swirl of social and political forces were rapidly changing American life.

Young people, women, and minorities were voicing concerns about and objections to the Vietnam War and all sorts of oppression. But one strong baritone voice, familiar in the preceding decades, was silent. Singer, actor, and social activist Paul Robeson had retired from public life four years earlier, and Targ barely knew anything about him.

Almost 40 years later, Targ is a professor of political science and American studies at Purdue University and author of nine academic books, including Marxism Today (1996), Strategy of an Empire in Decline: Cold War II (1986), International Relations in a World of Imperialism and Class Struggles (1983), and Planning Alternative World Futures (1975). He has also authored more than 40 academic papers and book reviews. Still, he says, he didn’t learn a great deal about Robeson until after the 100th anniversary of Robeson’s birth in 1998 sparked renewed interest in his life and his work and the controversies surrounding them.

Today, Targ says, he finds it hard to stop reading and learning about Robeson.

“The more I read about him, the more I want to know,” says Targ, whose academic work focuses on social and political movements, including the labor movement, and American foreign policy from the Cold War to the present. “He really is, for me, inspirational.

“What fascinates me, as someone who was only marginally aware of him until recently, is that he just was written out of history.”

Robeson, a world traveler who spoke ardently throughout his career for causes he supported, was at the height of his popularity in the late 1940s, as both a singer and activist. But rising Cold War tensions were about to put an end to his influence.

Targ points out that Robeson, who had visited the Soviet Union several times during the 1930s, found hope in what he saw of the young communist state and became an enthusiastic supporter of it.

“He didn’t see any evidence of racism,” Targ says. “Because of that, he took the view that he wouldn’t criticize the Soviet Union.”

Targ says that at the time, Robeson was far from alone in his thinking. Many people were frightened by rising fascism in Germany, Italy, Spain, and elsewhere, and saw hope in socialism and communism.

“In the ’30s and ’40s, there was a broad cultural front, a significant mass of people in the arts who were performing for unions, who were members of the old communist and socialist parties,” he says.

But soon after World War II ended, the political climate in the United States began to change. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) assumed increasing authority, questioning union activists from all areas, including the music and film industries, about possible affiliations with the Communist Party. Robeson was among thosecalled to testify.

Targ says that Robeson refused to say whether he was a member of the Communist Party because he believed that it was not anyone’s business what his party affiliations might be. Historians say Robeson was not a party member but his statements in support of theSoviet Union were regarded as subversive.

In April 1949, the push to discredit Robeson intensified following a speech he made at the World Peace Conference in Paris in which he stated, “It is unthinkable that American Negroes will go to war in behalf of those who have oppressed us for generations . . . against a country [the Soviet Union] which in one generation has raised our people to the full dignity of mankind.”

Targ says an Associated Press article on the Robeson speech appearing in newspapers throughout the nation caused a furor. In September 1949, following a concert he gave in Peekskill, N.Y., local vigilantes barraged cars leaving the concert with rocks and baseball bats. In 1950, Robeson’s passport was revoked, further stifling his career.

“It was really a critical time in terms of the depths of the Cold War,” Targ says, pointing out that the Soviet Union had detonated anatomic bomb, the Korean War was beginning, Sen. Joseph McCarthy was accusing the State Department of employing 205 communists, and HUAC was stepping up its accusations.

Targ says he hopes to focus at the Lafayette conference on the connection Robeson made between theory and practice.

“It’s one of the central ideas in Marxism,” Targ says. “You test out your ideas in practical political work.”

Targ says Robeson did just that “in speeches and on picket lines and inunion halls.

“Robeson always connected his concern for racism with class and believed that workers, both black and white, hadthe potential for working in solidarity.” Targ says. “His vision was global as well as domestic. He was an ardent opponent of the system of colonialism that was rampant around the world.”

Targ sayshe also plans to address the ways in which anti-communist ideology was used to challenge people like Robeson who were fighting for racial justice.

“Virulent anti-communism was often connected to racism in the politics of the Cold War,” Targ says.

Finally, Targ says, he hopes to show Robeson as a forerunner of modern global artists for social change, such as Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Bono, and Youssou N’Dour.

Two years ago, when Targ taught a seminar for senior political sciencemajors examining the effects of the Cold War on political, historical, social, and academic institutions, he showed his students a PBS documentary of Robeson’s life.

“Adding the Robeson component enriches the work I do,” Targ says. “He emphasized celebrating humankind’s unity as well as differences. Recognizing both of these human features can help bringus together. For me, that’s the ultimate message of Paul Robeson.”

Targ says he’s hoping the Lafayette conference will help illustrate how Robeson and his supporters provided a link between the militancy for social justice of the 1930s and the rise of the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s.

“It might reopen the door to a further examination of Robeson’s life,” he says. “It might stimulate more research interest and more public interest in Robeson.”

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