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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.

Lamont Yeakey, associate professor of history, California State University, Los Angeles, will speak on “Robeson: Forgotten Hero Who Laid the Foundation for a Movement” at 10:30 a.m., Friday, April 8, in Colton Chapel (see conference schedule). Moderating the session will be Curlee Raven Holton, professor of art at Lafayette and director of the College’s Experimental Printmaking Institute.

In 1969, when he was a graduate student at Columbia University, Lamont Yeakey attended a lecture that would change his life.

Lloyd Brown, who had co-written Paul Robeson’s 1958 autobiography, Here I Stand, was speaking about Robeson, describing his extraordinary accomplishments as a scholar, athlete, lawyer, actor, singer, and civil-rights activist.

“He talked about this fellow in such admirable terms, and also with a great measure of specificity about what he’d done,” says Yeakey, now an associate professor of history at California State University, Los Angeles.

Yeakey says that although he prided himself on a thorough knowledge of his subject, he was taken aback by the lecture; the Robeson that Brown described was completely different—far more accomplished and complex—than the near-caricature of a performer that Yeakey had heard of and read about.

“The first thing that came to my mind was, ‘This is fraudulent. This is not right,’” Yeakey says. “Then, a second emotion hit me, and that was one of anger. If there was such a person, I was angry that I hadn’t heard or known anything about him. I wanted to know why we hadn’t heard of his great achievements. I channeled my anger into a pursuit, an investigation.”

Yeakey’s research revealed much that had been written about Robeson in the 1920s and 1930s, which had been removed from later editions of many books.

“I found it fascinating,” Yeakey says. “I decided I was going to write and tell people about this man.”

Since then, Yeakey has done quite a bit of writing about Robeson, making him the focus of his M.A. thesis at Columbia and a number of scholarly articles and essays, including “A Student Without Peer: The Undergraduate College Years of Paul Robeson” in the Journal of Negro Education (Fall 1973, vol. XLII, no. 4) and “Paul Robeson,”in The American Radical (New York/London: Routledge, 1994).

He has also curated exhibits on Robeson, worked as a consultant for shows on Robeson produced by the British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC) and Century Communications, and spoken widely on Robeson’s life.

Yeakey’s presentation at Lafayette will focus on Robeson’s role as a pioneer of the civil rights movement.

“Robeson really was one of the foundations for the civil rights movement,” says Yeakey, whose Ph.D. dissertation focused on the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott, which began as Robeson was struggling under intense CIA surveillance. “He was at the forefront.”

In his speech, Yeakey hopes to show how Robeson championed the causes of racial, ethnic, and gender equality, and used his artistry to advance a new cultural pluralism and to dismantle the social and psychic underpinnings of prejudice and inequality.

He points out that in the late 1930s, well before Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, Robeson was meeting with the commissioner of baseball, asking why no black player had ever been selected for a major-league team.

“He called it ‘tenderizing the field,’” Yeakey says.

By 1940, Robeson’s appeal was so great that “both political parties tried to woo him to speak at their national conventions.”

During World War II, Yeakey adds, Robeson’s recording of “Ballad for Americans” had sold more copies than Kate Smith’s “God Bless America.”

In addition, Yeakey says, Robeson’s curiosity about social issues throughout the world led him to travel widely and learn to speak more than 20 languages.

“He spent his time when he wasn’t acting and singing in study,” Yeakey says. “He understood that language was a key. To really know a language is an indispensable guide to understanding people.”

Yeakey says Robeson used his fame, language skills, and money to stand up for the rights of workers throughout the world and oppose imperialism in Africa, Asia, and the Americas following World II.

“He’s a guy who practiced what he preached,” Yeakey says. “As a champion of civil rights, he was there He could reach literally millions of people. He used his art not just to entertain, but to help people help themselves.”

Today, Yeakey says, “Robeson informs much of what I do, certainly as a professional and as a private citizen. I carry much of the legacy and understanding of what this man led me to do with my life. His passion for justice and equal and human decency pervades all I do, not just as a historian but as a member of the human family.”

Yeakey says he hopes he and other presenters at Lafayette’s conference can convey Robeson’s contributions to a new audience and show why his life and work remain relevant.

“We may not be imbued with a great voice or acting ability, but we can be human beings,” Yeakey says. “We can be decent people. We can be ethical in our conduct It’s important for every generation to learn and know about this man.”

Robeson, he says, “was a guy who had many gifts to give and he gave them freely and lavishly. So many people appreciated what he did. He had a deep and extraordinary love for people. It didn’t matter what color, what ethic group, what nationality—he could embrace everybody. He lived with integrity.”

Yeakey adds that although Robeson’s name still appears infrequently in the history of the civil rights movement, “he raised the ante. Legally, it was no longer tenable to practice segregation. Those walls had to come tumbling down and Robeson was a major force in battering those walls. He persevered and he prevailed.”

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