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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.

James E. Lennertz, associate professor of government and law at Lafayette, will speak on “Paul Robeson’s Lifelong Brush with the Law” at 9 a.m. Friday, April 8, in Colton Chapel (see conference schedule). Moderating the session will be Diane V. Elliott, director for public service of Lafayette’s Robert B. and Helen S. Meyner Center for the Study of State and Local Government.

Jim Lennertz knows how knowledge of and dealings with the law change people.

“Nobody goes through law school and into a law practice without having been socialized, without having gone into it with your mind and heart and then having your sensibilities assaulted, if not conquered,” explains Lennertz. “It changes the way you think about things, look at things.”

Hence, Lennertz says, to appreciate fully Paul Robeson’s intellectual development, one must know how Robeson’s study of the law affected him throughout his life.

“Robeson saw the Constitution and the rule of law, first of all, as an expression of the best in the consciousness of America, the character of what we are aspiring to be as people,” says Lennertz, who holds a doctorate in political science from the University of Pennsylvania, a law degree from Harvard, and a bachelor’s degree in political science from Boston College.

“Even from his undergraduate experience, he looked at the Constitution and law – and he was not crazy, he had run into racism and it’s not that he didn’t understand racism as a reality – as the place that held the ideals America aspired to.”

Despite the fact that his own legal career was short-circuited – he quit his first job after graduating with a law degree from Colombia University because a white legal secretary refused to take dictation from him – Robeson continued to cling tightly to this ideal, Lennertz says. Throughout Robeson’s life and the many disappointment he suffered in fighting for human and civil rights, he constantly spoke of how standards of equality, fairness, due process, and liberty were held within the nation’s legal tradition.

This ardent belief and his ability to argue and articulate his points helped Robeson stir public opinion in a way that hadn’t been done before, Lennertz says. He used his talents as an orator to embrace the America tradition of searching for truth and justice through adversarianism.

“In this tradition, we pit the opposing parties in a dispute and ask them to essentially withhold no punches, and, with their attorney on their behalf, make the strongest case they can, understanding that the people on the other side are going to attack their case and evidence,” he explains.

The expectation, albeit controversial, is that truth and justice will emerge from the dispute, adds Lenenrtz, who teaches courses on Constitutional politics; the law and politics of civil liberties; law and society; the American political system; liberty, democracy and equality; and liberal democratic theory; among others.

Robeson adhered to this expectation throughout his life. “If you fast-forward 20 years through Robeson’s life and look at his work in politics, you still see him not shying away from this adversarial contentiousness,” Lennertz says.

Robeson’s ability to use words and intellect to fight for what he saw as right aroused hostility in addition to inspiring admiration, Lennertz says.

“Within the African American community there were probably some people who wished he would shut up and soft-soap it and let it go, while others looked on him with tremendous admiration and pride because he was saying things that the average African American was reluctant to say as sharply and candidly as he did,” Lennertz explains.

Not only did Robeson’s public announcements of his beliefs raise the ire of some people within the African American community, they had tremendous personal consequences, Lennertz says. At the Lafayette conference he will touch on some of Robeson’s battles with the law and the results of those conflicts.

“It wasn’t unusual for his concert tours to be interrupted at the last minute by changes of mind by the local officials who decided that he was too controversial and they didn’t want his to come and sing,” Lenenrtz says.

Lennertz says he will also talk about the Peekskill trial, which revolved around a concert Robeson was scheduled to give in Peekskill, N.Y., in 1949.

The day of the concert, the grounds were attacked by a mob of white veterans and racists. As the police stood by, dozens were injured and in an hours-long battle. Robeson insisted that the concert be rescheduled for the following week. As he took to the stage and sang, both white and black members of the Fur and Leather Workers Union formed a human shield around him, guarding him from snipers.

Lennertz explains that on numerous occasions, the people who came to hear Robeson sing or speak or to protect him were charged with rioting or other crimes. Robeson always came to their aid, he notes.

“By the twilight years of his life he may have been somewhat pessimistic as to whether we, the American legal system, would live up to our aspirations, but he continued to see those sources of ideals in America as worthy sources.”

Today, almost 30 years after Robeson’s death, it is important to look back toward his belief that the Constitution holds the key to equality, says Lennertz, adding that the upcoming conference will provide a forum for doing so.

“It’s not a bad time for us, especially in view of the movement of the ‘red states and blue states,’ to examine the boundaries of how far we’ve come and ask how we make sure we continue the progress toward those aspirations that that Robeson saw in the Constitution,” Lennertz adds.

“Especially since 9/11, we’ve been in a period that mimics in some sense the kind of passion and insecurity the we saw in the 1940s and ’50s with communism. People say, ‘You’re absolutely right, we should not profile Arabs and Muslims as terrorists, but on the other hand, we can’t afford to be as tolerant and fair as we used to be.’

“I don’t mean to say in that, in a sense, there aren’t real concerns and needs, but to look at the struggle that Robeson and African Americans went through in general, to look at this period, we have to ask ourselves if we realize the implications of the values that we think make American great.”

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