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BLACK HISTORY MONTH LESSON PLAN: Paul Robeson

For some, the last anti-Communist attack on Paul Robeson took place two years after the death of one of the greatest artists, athletes and activists of the 20th Century. The incident took place at the national convention of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) in Boston in 1977. The AFT Black Caucus, at that time a well organized and definitely progressive center in an otherwise conservative union, scheduled its annual luncheon in honor of Paul Robeson. Reactionaries in the national and local leadership "went bonkers," according to one insider.

Paul Robeson as a young man.And so while the Black Caucus held its luncheon in honor of the recently deceased international hero, AFT President Albert Shanker scheduled a thing he called the "International Labor Luncheon" -- featuring as its speaker the infamous CIA agent, Irving Brown. Brown's topic was The American Labor Movement & The International Scene. It was delivered to the Labor Education Luncheon of the 61st Annual Convention of the American Federation of Teachers, August 17, 1977, in Boston. At the time, few at the convention knew that Irving Brown, introduced as an expert on international "free trade unions," had been the most famous CIA agent in the labor movement during the years after World War II. And Chicago teachers were caught in the middle of a historical dispute that continues into the 21st Century.

The dueling luncheons took place in the middle of the national convention of the second largest teacher union in the USA, at a time when most teachers could not simply Google "Irving Brown" and read a sordid story of the meddling of the AFL-CIO in international affairs in the years after World War II. Irving Brown was "labor's man" in France and Italy, funded by the CIA to make sure that the Left in both nations did not win more. Because the Communists and their allies had been in the leadership of the resistance movements against the Nazis and their collaborators, it was difficult for the US government to demonstrate to the average person -- especially the average unionist -- that the AFL - CIO version of reality was worth supporting.

Irving Brown was key to these early efforts in the Cold War -- and to the long-term discrediting of the line of the "Free World." After all, it was the CIA which had recruited the infamous chief of the Nazi Army eastern intelligence services, Reinhard Gehlen, to become part of what was being depicted as the "free world."

Irving Brown (center). Yet in 1977, the AFT President was so angry at the decision of the Black Caucus to honor Paul Robeson that Shanker pushed the "International Labor Luncheon" and Irving Brown in direct confrontation with the Black Caucus event.

But the Chicago connection to the entire affair was even deeper than that.

In Chicago, a former comrade of Paul Robeson, Lester Davis, was one of those who planned the Black Caucus Luncheon. But at the last minute, CTU President Robert M. Healey ordered Davis, who worked for the union as editor of the Chicago Union Teacher, to remain behind in Chicago. Davis was not in Boston to honor the man with whom he had worked. The chairman of the luncheon, Hudson Wadlington, a print shop teacher at Simeon Vocational High School, began to cry when he told the luncheon that Lester Davis couldn't be there. And then the luncheon continued, with dramatic tributes to the life of one of the most talented Black men to emerge in the USA during the 20th Century. While "upstairs" Irving Brown poured Cold War stories out to those who came.

Paul Leroy Robeson (April 9, 1898 January 23, 1976) was an African-American singer and actor who became a leader of the civil rights movement and more. At Rutgers University, he was an outstanding football player, then had an international career in singing, as well as acting in theater and movies.

"He became politically involved in response to the Spanish Civil War, fascism, and social injustices,' Wikipedia reports, ignoring the centrality of Robeson's activist opposition to American racism as central to his life's works.

"His advocacy of anti-imperialism, affiliation with Communism, and his criticism of the US government caused him to be blacklisted during McCarthyism," the story continues. Much of Robeson's career was undermined by McCathyism, as he was denied a passport and therefore was unable to travel internationally. Even after he became ill during the 1960s, what some referred to as "unpopular political stances" continued until his death two years before the AFT convention that honored him.

By any measure, Paul Robeson was a genius. He won an academic scholarship to Rutgers University, where he became a football All-American and the class valedictorian. He earned a law degree at Columbia University while playing in the National Football League (NFL). At Columbia, he also he sang and acted in off-campus productions. After graduating, he became a participant in the "Harlem Renaissance" with performances in The Emperor Jones and All God's Chillun Got Wings.

By those years,, Robeson also began to become an international celebrity because of his talents. He began with a theatrical role in Great Britain, settling in London for the next several years with his wife Essie.

Robeson next appeared as Shakrespeare's "Othello" at the Savoy Theatre. Then, thanks to Hollywood, he became an international movie star through roles in Show Boat and Sanders of the River.

While growing in personal celebrity, Paul Robeson "became increasingly attuned towards the sufferings of other cultures and peoples." Acting against advice, which warned of his economic ruin if he became politically active, he set aside his theatrical career to advocate the cause of the Republican forces of the Spanish Civil War. He then became active in the Council on African Affairs (CAA).

During World War II, Robeson supported America's war efforts while at the same time praising America's ally, the Soviet Union, which bore the greatest burden in the land war against Nazi Germany. During the war, Robeson won praise for his portrayal of Othello on Broadway.

But the red baiters and J. Edgar Hoover's FBI were already attacking Robeson. The CAA was placed on the Attorney General's List of "Subversive Organizations" and Robeson was investigated during during the "McCarthy Era". He refused to recant his previous positions or his public advocacy of pro-Soviet policies, he was denied a passport by the U.S. State Department. His income, consequently, plummeted. He moved to Harlem and published a periodical critical of US policies. His right to travel was eventually restored as a result of a lawsuit, but by then his health had broken down. Robeson retired and he lived out the remaining years of his life privately in Philadelphia. Upon his death in 1978 a world mourned.

And within two years, the national teachers union, the AFT, should have been proud to make honoring Paul Robeson a central part of its convention. By any measure of talent and scholarly success, the multi-lingual actor, singer, athlete and activist should have been hailed as a role model for children for the remainder of the century. Instead, the J. Edgar Hooverism that was also at the top of the AFT forced the confrontation that took place in Boston.

MORE TO COME, INCLUDING PEEKSKILL....



Comments:

February 6, 2014 at 8:09 PM

By: Susan Ohanian

Paul Robeson

As always, I thank Substance for the history lesson, about which I was totally ignorant. Kahlenberg's "Tough Liberal" does not mention this luncheon and identifies Irving Brown as "instrumental in setting up free trade unions in Western Europe to counter the Communist unions." Thus history is written by those who pay for the pen.

As a coda to this lesson, I recommend watching/hearing Robeson sing "Joe Hill" for workers at Sydney Opera House in November 1960. The first "concert" at the opera house was thus performed for the workers who built it.

http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/intothemusic/paul-robeson-opera-house/4737960

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Eg7bPgrosAE

The Australian government puff piece about the opera house contains this bit: "Prior to its opening in 1973, the renowned black American actor and singer Paul Robeson climbed onto the scaffolding of the Sydney Opera House during construction, and sang to the workers."

Read John McCutcheon's account of what this event meant to a worker at the site.

https://myspace.com/johnmccutcheonmusic/music/song/joe-hill-82443520-90862070

February 7, 2014 at 1:45 AM

By: Kim Scipes

AFL-CIO foreign policy

Susan and others interested in AFL and later AFL-CIO operations around the world--I brought out a book in 2010 (hardback/2011 paperback) --that focuses specifically on this subject: the book is titled "AFL-CIO's Secret War against Developing Country Workers: Solidarity or Sabotage?" (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books). Irving Brown was a key operative in this, working with, for and sometimes independently of the CIA, especially in France, and also, later in Africa. The most extensive site to find articles/books on Labor's foreign operations is my web site "Contemporary Labor Issues" at http://faculty.pnc.edu/kscipes/laborbib.htm .

February 7, 2014 at 2:09 AM

By: George N. Schmidt

Irving Brown and Kahlenberg's mythical histories

After Kahlenberg's book came out, friends asked me what I thought about being identified as a "Chicago Communist" who had published some of the facts about Al Shanker's cooperation with the CIA in international affairs. As we've reported at Substance and discussed in Chicago, the ugliest example of that was not the Irving Brown luncheon, but the AFT national office's cooperation with the CIA coup d'etat on September 11, 1973 against the elected government of Chile. One of the funnier ironies about Kahlenberg's hagiographic nonsense is the historical moment, contemplating a "libel" lawsuit.

After I read Kahlenberg, some people asked me about suing the guy. I'm opposed to such attacks on the First Amendment in principal, although given the recent attacks on historical memory in the name of Fox News and other corporate nonsense, you have to wonder. Anyway, there was no way I was going to sue Kahlenberg, and so I'm proudly the "Chicago Communist" who outed Al Shanker's diversions and political perversions.

But this topic brings to mind another memory for Black History Month. Immediately after the AFT convention at which we began selling "The American Federation of Teachers and the CIA," brother Lester Davis came to me and said that Sandy Feldman was demanding that Al Shanker get the AFT Executive Council to sue me for libel, slander and all the rest.

According to Lester, Shanker almost laughed and told Sandy, with whom he was very close but apparently not close enough at that time to share everything, that was not a good idea. The reason, of course, known to Shanker and to us at Substance, was that were I sued I would have had two defenses. First, Al was a public figure. Second, truth is an absolute defense to libel in the USA. I would have gotten the power to get evidence not only of the truth of what I had published but about much else.

The last thing those guys wanted was to five my lawyers the power to depose them and demand discovery to prove not only the truth of what I had written, but also much much more. That's a story that remains to be told, as is the story of the proud career of Lester Davis, as I have begun to report here in the Paul Robeson lesson.

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