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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.

Nelson Peery, veteran revolutionary organizer, founding member of the League of Revolutionaries for a New America (formerly the Communist Labor Party), and award-winning author, will speak on “Paul Robeson and the Cold War” at 10:30 a.m. Thursday, April 7, in Oechsle Hall 224. (See conference schedule.) Moderating the session will be Ilan Peleg, Dana Professor of Government and Law at Lafayette.

The mid-1940s is a time Nelson Peery remembers well.

America’s young men, both black and white, had just returned from foreign lands, where they had fought for democratic ideals and equality of all men.

But the home to which they returned was a segregated and racist America, inhospitable to the ideals the United States supported so strongly abroad, Peery says. He was not granted the same privileges as white veterans. He was not allowed to vote.

Fighting for democracy at home proved more challenging than fighting for the same beliefs in another country.

“People had come back and made the slightest demands, demands the government supported for the people in Europe, and they were attacked,” Peery says.

For example, Peery says, 150 black veterans demonstrated for the right to vote in Birmingham, Ala., in January 1946, and were attacked by police and their dogs. Within a month, five of the demonstration’s leaders had been murdered by police.

“On a personal level, by the time I got home from WWII, of course, the whole world was becoming radicalized, certainly I was,” Peery says. “We figured if we could fight in those jungles for democracy, we could damn well fight for democracy in the United States.”

As black revolutionaries continued to fight for a real democracy though the 1940s and into the Cold War, one man in particular led the effort with more force than anyone who had come before him, Peery says.

“Paul Robeson was shaped by the Cold War. What he added to that period was to reveal the United States’ propaganda to create democracy in Communist countries while maintaining a racist reality and segregation at home.

“The United States was teaching a doctrine of spreading democracy, but refused to give to the African Americans what they were ready to go to war over to give the East Germans,” Peery continues. “The African American question was the American Achilles heel in the Cold War, and Robeson understood that and kept hammering them with that question.”

“There’s this old concept that men create history, but history also creates men,” says Peery, author of Black Fire: The Making of an American Revolutionary (2000) and The Future is Up to Us (2002). “And the duplicitous atmosphere in the United States was what shaped the Robeson we talk about today. His writing and his acting were all very important – he was an exceptionally gifted person. But what the world remembers about Robeson is his uncompromising stand for democracy, and that could not have happened outside of the context of the Cold War.”

While scholars today recognize Robeson’s significant role in the U.S. civil rights movement, Robeson’s contemporaries were horrified at his radical views, Peery says.

“The governmental leadership at the time put all of their money on the heads of the NAACP and the gradualist movements, so when Robeson spoke out, they attacked him, and when they attacked him, he moved further to the left so he could speak more clearly, and so it went,” Peery explains. “We should never forget that Robeson was betrayed by the entire black upper stratum, deserted for his outspokenness.

“Everybody says Robeson was ahead of his time, but he was actually right on the money. A slave mentality dominated the black bourgeois, and they were not prepared to compromise their growing wealth because of his radical statements.”

This desertion of his fellow black leaders went hand in hand with the United States’ ostracism of him in the late 1940s and 1950s.

Conversely, the black working class embraced Robeson’s outspokenness and demands for immediate black equality, Peery says.

“It’s kind of hard to see nowadays, but the black world then was much less nationalistic and much more class conscious. There was a distinction between the well-to-do black and the working black, and the working people understood clearly that the upper classes’ agenda was not their own,” Peery explains. “People on the left side weren’t like people today – I’m talking about people like Albert Einstein who were outspoken socialists – they were people who struggled for a different kind of world, and this kind of thinking trickles down to the masses.”

To Peery, Robeson’s message resembled nothing like a slow trickle.

“I heard Robeson speak once. He and a war hero were talking about a U.S. conspiracy involving the atom bomb, and all of us in the audience were soldiers. We did not want to see another World War II because we were committed to peace,” Peery says. “And to hear this black man stand up and articulate himself and be so sure of himself, we were all swept up off our feet by Robseson. Here was a guy moving more and more toward the working class and saying that the black worker was the key to things.”

It was his ability to motivate large groups of people – at the risk of endangering himself – that made Robeson’s contributions so great, Peery adds.

“I think no leader is a leader on his own. What they do is lead a movement, they lead something that’s subjective, and for Robeson it was this groundswell created by black veterans. He grabbed onto that and led it out,” Peery says.

“What made Paul Robeson Paul Robeson was not that he was for democracy, but that he was for the quality of all people – now – and he was going to fight for it no matter what it cost him. Thank God there was a Paul Robeson,”

Peery said those who fight for civil and human rights today must not only remember what Robson did as remarkable, but continue to fight in Robeson’s uncompromising style

“Even as much as I like to talk, I wouldn’t consider coming to Lafayette’s conference to speak if all we did was to talk about what he did 50 years ago. We’ve got to talk about the path of Robeson’s life,” Peery says.

“Here was a man who gave everything he had – fortune, popularity – to the struggle, and it was counter to the reality of the upper section of the black population. We must grasp the reality of Robeson, his dedication to a cause, the vision the he put forth, in order to stand on his shoulders and continue to march. If we want to honor Robeson, then we must pick up the spear where it fell and continue marching.”

Because, Perry adds, Robseson’s goal hasn’t entirely been achieved.

“Robeson’s goal wasn’t simply black equality. Black equality was one of the keys in getting to his goal, which was world peace,” he says. “His vision of a happy, orderly world, so much a part of what he fought for, has been achieved — but not really. It’s changed its form more than else.”

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