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James E. Lennertz, associate professor of government and law at Lafayette, spoke on “Paul Robeson’s Lifelong Brush with the Law” (see conference schedule). The moderator was 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.

The mark of a legal education is indelible, even for a stage star like Paul Robeson, who turned away from the law as a career, said Jim Lennertz.

Robeson’s love of the law remained an influence and important tool throughout the controversial figure’s life, Lennertz said.

Robeson’s respect for law bolstered his faith in the future of African Americans in the United States as nation of laws. And it let him turn the tables and cross-examine his interrogators on the House Un-American Activities Committee, Lennertz said.

Robeson employed his legal education as he went head-to-head with the U.S. government of the McCarthy era.

Lennertz noted that as an undergraduate at Rutgers University, Robeson was already pondering the law, and wrote his senior thesis on the ways in which Constitution’s 14th Amendment could be used to fight for civil rights.

“He came to the law because of the 14th Amendment as a way to get the lion to lie down with the lamb,” Lennertz said.

After Rutgers, Robeson graduated from Columbia University Law School and practiced law briefly, quitting after a secretary refused because of his race to take his dictation.

Robeson viewed the outcome of laws as more important than procedural niceties, and saw Soviet and European laws as having a more positive emphasis than U.S. amendments, which often declared “thou shalt not,” Lennertz said.

“A good lawyer is a wordsmith,” said Lennertz, noting that Robeson was fluent in several languages and that oral tradition was important to him. “To Robeson, the sound resonating through his bass voice would serve to disarm” adversaries, the professor said.

Lennertz added that he would have loved to “see Robeson as a barrister,” because of Robeson’s talent for verbal theatricality. He recounted other episodes in Robeson’s life for which his legal education was invaluable: the tightrope Robeson walked in “explaining his music” to concert-goers in Albany, N.Y., while under court order not to lecture; the violently disrupted concert at Peekskill, N.Y., and his questioning by HUAC.

He was also deeply involved in the breaking of the color barrier in baseball, helping black veterans vote, and fighting an epidemic of lynching, noted Lennertz.

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