GLASS: U. should do more this year to honor character of Robeson
One hundred years ago, the 1918 football season marked the conclusion of one of the most successful four-year periods in Rutgers history. There are many contributors to a successful team. Nonetheless, one contributor stands out — the senior tackle Paul Robeson. He was one of the greatest football players during the era from 1869 to 1918 and without question one of the two greatest alumni in the long history of Rutgers. That you may not have known that is the latest twist in the battle over his legacy.
Robeson was raised in Princeton and Somerville. His father was a minister who had been a runaway slave. Robeson won an academic scholarship to attend Rutgers, making him one of the first Black people to attend RU.
Robeson starred in several sports at Rutgers and played professional football. Beyond his overall athletic excellence, Robeson was a remarkable individual with remarkable achievements. An outstanding student, he was Phi Beta Kappa and Valedictorian. He went on to receive a law degree from Columbia. That being said, he is best known for his contributions to the legitimate and musical theater. Among his achievements, Robeson starred in the title role in Eugene O’Neill’s "The Emperor Jones" and sang "Old Man River" in Rodgers and Hart’s seminal musical "Showboat." He played the lead in "Othello." Robeson starred in movies and on radio. He spoke many languages and was an international star. Using his rich baritone voice, he brought folk music from around the world, especially black spirituals, to an international audience.
It is difficult to imagine today his presence on the world scene in his own time. If you can imagine what it would be like if Michael Jordan and Michael Jackson were the same person, you have some idea. Robeson used his fame to fight for civil rights and economic equality for all Americans.
Robeson is so much less well known today because of a successful effort to blot him out of history in the 1950s. The reason was his political views. Throughout his life Robeson believed in an organization of society in which race and inequality of any kind played no role. He was a strong union supporter. Robeson supported friendship with the Soviet Union as the embodiment of the ideal of a race-free, egalitarian society. During World War II the Soviet Union was an American ally and such a view was useful to the war effort because it obscured the fact that the Soviet Union was a brutal totalitarian state. Robeson was an enthusiastic and highly effective supporter of the war effort. But after the war, the Soviet Union became the principal adversary of the U.S. Robeson was asked to recant his view of the Soviet Union and refused to do so. Today, it is possible to think that not condemning the obvious evil of the Soviet Union was the wrong decision but understand Robeson’s reluctance to do so. Robeson viewed the Soviet Union as the one place at least giving lip service to the idea of an egalitarian, race-neutral society and could not bring himself to repudiate the very imperfect implementation of the ideal without feeling that he was also implicitly recanting the possibility of the ideal ever being implemented at all. But, at the time Robeson stood his ground the Soviet Union was correctly viewed as an existential threat to the United States. So everyone on the planet was forced to be on one side or the other. Thus, Robeson was viewed by many Americans as an enemy of America. In response, he lost his livelihood and a deliberate effort was made to blot out all mention of his existence.
In the U.S., Robeson was no longer able to book venues to give concerts. He was no longer hired to appear in movies or on the radio. Robeson had his passport revoked (yes, the government once was able to that) so that he could not obtain work abroad. When his autobiography was published it was mentioned only in the Black press.
Previously, Robeson had never been elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame because he was Black. Now Robeson was excluded because he was a communist sympathizer. The Pro Football Hall of Fame even went one step further. There was an exhibit listing the college football All-Americans for each year that they were selected. Visitors were treated to oddity of there being only 10-name lists for 1917 and 1918 when all the other lists had 11 names. Robeson had been plotted out of football history.
To its credit, Rutgers, and especially the football program, never failed to support its most brilliant alumnus. The athletic department nominated him again and again for membership in the Pro Football Hall of Fame until, sadly after his death, he was finally admitted. He is also on the wall honoring notable Big Ten alumni at the Big Ten headquarters. He is a visible presence on the RU campus.
Therefore, it is extremely sad that the current athletic department has reversed tradition and belatedly decided to join the campaign of silence. In this, the centennial of his final football season there is no poster showing him looking down on the current team and no mention of the centennial in the media guide. None of the home games are named in his honor. In failing to honor him the athletic department denies the current generation of Rutgers students an important inspiration. Robeson, and all of us, deserve better.
Arnold Glass is a professor in the Rutgers Psychology Department. His column, "Extra Curricula," runs on alternate Thursdays.
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