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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.

Noel Beasley, international vice president of UNITE HERE, will speak on “Robeson as Labor’s Champion” at 9 a.m. Saturday, April 9, in Kirby Hall of Civil Rights 104 (see conference schedule). Moderating the session will be conference director John T. McCartney, professor and head of government and law at Lafayette.

Most people would not think to compare Paul Robeson to current pop-culture icon Bruce Springsteen. But it could be said that Robeson created the model embraced by today’s stars, like Springsteen, who use their fame and influence to unite people and draw attention to causes they champion.

Noel Beasley says that while it’s commonplace for today’s superstars to take the podium and ask fans to join in support of a political or humanitarian cause, during Robeson’s day it was unheard of for cultural figures to use their clout to sway public opinion. At Lafayette’s conference Beasley will review the distinctive relationship Robeson had with working-class people and their plight as it related to the trade-union movement.

“I don’t think there was anything that paralleled that in the 20th century,” explains Beasley, who is international vice president of UNITE HERE. Formed last year through the merger of the Union of Needletrades, Textiles, and Industrial Employees (UNITE) and Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union (HERE), the union represents more than 440,000 active members and more than 400,000 retirees throughout North America. Beasley is also manager of the union’s Chicago and Midwest Regional Joint Board, which represents 30,000 textile, clothing, garment, hotel, and restaurant workers in 10 Midwestern states. His essay “On the Front Lines: The Labor Movement Around the Country” appeared as a chapter in the 1998 anthology Not Your Father’s Labor Movement.

“Unlike a lot of African American leaders and other cultural leaders who exploited their relationship with workers, Robeson understood that relationship. Robeson was intelligent and widely read, and he understood cultural heroes. An athlete and an accomplished actor and singer, he understood that typically people are attracted to such figures and to what they have to say,” Beasley says.

Not only was Robeson outspoken in his beliefs about social issues, he followed up his words with actions, appearing at picket lines and rallies, Beasley says. More than simply maintaining a presence at such events, Robeson used his talents and prestige to gain solidarity with people and their struggles. On more than one occasion Robeson performed concerts to raise money for the people and their cause, he adds.

“He understood that as a cultural hero for both black people and working people, he had obligations, and he resolved to fulfill them,” Beasley says.

But Robeson’s use of his name and power to shed light on inequities in the system did not end with trade unions and the working class.

“He was involved in the anti-war movement of the 1960s and had had earlier roles in the peace movement and the anti-atomic-bomb movement in the 1950s. He was able to understand the context,” Beasley explains. “When was the last time you met a football player who could sing Negro spirituals who could lead a trade union rally and then have lunch with a political leader?”

He was so successful at bringing to light inequities in the system that the government attempted to quiet him, Beasley adds. And that’s why he feels Lafayette’s conference is important.

“We have to resolve to guarantee that the history of workers and heroes is preserved and available to working people,” Beasley says. “For some time I’ve been involved with the Eugene V. Debs Foundation, whose mission is to make sure that people like Debs are not forgotten. People like Debs and Robeson were consciously written out of history, and we have to fight to get them written back into the curricula.”

Beasley says that if people such as the trade-union leaders and workers he represents understand their history, they will understand better how to grapple with the conditions they are in right now.

“Understanding the trajectory of Robeson’s life and career can help us understand the relationship between government and political leaders. Political leaders, social leaders, and all of these other issues are important to understand if we’re going to understand social change and be able to move on.”

Beasley says it was during his college years – he received a bachelor’s degree from Pepperdine University in 1966 and a master’s degree from Purdue University in 1968 – that he began to learn about Robeson’s life beyond his songs and acting roles. His study of Robeson’s accomplishments has guided Beasley in his union responsibilities and the way he conducts business and has given him perspective on his own life.

“It’s humbling to look at someone like him and understand the incredible range of his accomplishments. It helps to keep you from over-inflating your own accomplishments,” Beasley says.

Beasley hopes the conference gives him an even better understanding of Robeson and enables him to use Robeson’s example even more in his own endeavors, which include serving as a director of the Amalgamated Bank of New York and chairing its Trust Committee; being a trustee of a number of the union’s pension funds and health and welfare funds, and serving as a member of the National Steering Committee of the Labor Party.

“I’d like to figure out a way to restore his memory to the workers that I deal with in the trade-union movement,” Beasley says. “I’m hoping that participating in the conference helps me think of ways to put this remarkable individual back into the center of people’s awareness.”

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