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Noel Beasley, international vice president of UNITE HERE, spoke on “Robeson as Labor’s Champion” (see conference schedule). The moderator was conference director John T. McCartney, professor and head of government and law at Lafayette.

Throughout his career as a singer and actor, Paul Robeson worked tirelessly, fiercely, and in new ways to champion the rights of all working people, Noel Beasley said.

Beasley pointed out that Robeson’s quest for justice in the workplace extended to people of all races in all parts of the world—a novel idea for his time.

“Robeson’s life and work are remarkable from every perspective,” Beasley said. “It’s impossible to fully appreciate the international and cultural milieu we are surrounded by without Robeson.”

Beasley said Robeson grew up in a hard-working family and lived among other hard-working people.

“There’s nothing romantic about Robeson’s view of either work or the working class,” Beasley said, adding that Robeson brought a particularly strong academic background to his role as a supporter of trade unions and workers’ rights. “Very few leaders of the working class have been able to match Robeson’s scholarly achievements.”

Beasley pointed out that Robeson, unlike anyone else of his era, effectively used his abilities as a performer to bring workers together and rouse them to action.

“A concert tour was a political act—as important as an unwavering picket line,” Beasley said.

Beasley added that Robeson usually went to extraordinary lengths to communicate with the people to whom he sang and spoke. One example, he said, was a trip to Hawaii in the late 1940s to support Japanese and Filipino pineapple workers.

“Characteristically, before he went, he sat down and read the history of the Philippines,” Beasley said, adding that Robeson also learned the language well enough that he could both sing and speak to the workers.

Beasley noted that Robeson often faced potential and actual violence from strikebreakers and others opposed to his work, adding that the ultimate violence came in the form of the revocation of Robeson’s passport—and his opportunity to perform for and be with workers in all parts of the world.

Even then, Beasley said, Robeson and workers found ways to bond, including four concerts sponsored by the Mine, Mill and Smelters Workers in 1952 and 1953, during which Robeson sang across the Canadian border between Blaine, Wash., and White Rock, British Columbia, to audiences of more than 40,000.

Beasley said that today, trade union members need to once again understand that the rights of workers are in peril-and that they must find new ways to empower themselves.

“Our unions are surrounded by the threat of extinction if they get out of bounds,” he said.

Beasley predicted that the AFL-CIO convention this summer in Chicago will likely serve as a turning point and include “a thorough discussion and debate about the purpose of staying aboard the Titanic.”

Through it all, Beasley said, union activists should look to Robeson’s example for guidance: “This was an individual who was unprecedented in his century.”

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