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Lamont Yeakey, associate professor of history at California State University, Los Angeles, spoke on “Robeson: Forgotten Hero Who Laid the Foundation for a Movement” (see conference schedule). The moderator was Curlee Raven Holton, professor of art and director of the Experimental Printmaking Institute at Lafayette.

While marches and boycotts are the Civil Rights Movement’s familiar tools, Paul Robeson used art to champion the cause, said Lamont Yeakey.

“He felt that music was a powerful art form that could bring people together,” Yeakey said. “He used his talent to improve the human condition.”

“It’s a long way from Robeson in Emperor Jones to Denzel Washington in Training Days—now a black actor can be really bad. And we’ve come a long way from Robeson’s proud ballads to Poitier’s Lilies of the Field.

“Robeson opened up the field of cinema in a way that no one had before—the democratizing of the film industry,” Yeakey continued. “He would discuss his films, explain what he was trying to do, and picket his own films if he felt they did more harm than good. He eventually abandoned the film industry and became a critic.”

Through films, Robeson showed clearly how much the races have in common. He was the first actor to do complete concerts of African American music for white audiences, Yeakey said.

“Robeson never abandoned his own people. They were his base-rock. The more he traveled, the more he noticed similarities in the human condition. He felt that art would unite people against poverty and war. He celebrated the commonalities among people but respected their differences,” Yeakey said.

“He believed that rights are derived from birth, not something given to you. He felt that people were innocent until proven guilty—the McCarthy hearings undermined that.”

Yeakey said he felt Robeson would be dismayed by efforts today to weaken civil liberties and labor laws and employers’ attempts to avoid paying benefits and call a 38-hour workweek “part time.”

“We’ve learned a lot of lessons from Robeson,” Yeakey said. “The issues and the cast of characters will change, but we must continue to seek the truth and practice justice in all we do, and have a love of life. As Socrates said, ‘An unexamined life is not worth living.’ This is what Robeson did, although some would criticize him as a radical.”

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