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Remembering Paul Robeson's legacy as his 125th birthday approaches

One of Rutgers' most famous alums, Paul Robeson was known for his work in the arts and activism.  – Photo by Wikimedia

As his birthday approaches, it's time that we remember and reflect on one of Rutgers' most famous alumni, Paul Robeson. His legacy as a performer, athlete, academic scholar and activist lives on, and we should all recognize him for the strides he made for the Black community and those suffering from injustice. 

Known as a Renaissance man, Robeson was born and raised in New Jersey and graduated as class valedictorian from Rutgers in 1919. During his time at Rutgers, he was a star athlete for the football team.

Though his athletic abilities are more than notable, he's most remembered for his work as an actor and activist in the fight against fascism and for global equality.

After graduating from Rutgers, Robeson attended Columbia Law School, earned his bachelor of laws degree and began practicing law. Unfortunately, he faced much discrimination and bigotry at his law firm, causing him to resign from the legal profession.

With his legal career disrupted, Robeson went on to pursue his love of theater and music while still holding onto his passion for activism. He promoted African and African American history and culture in his music, becoming one of the most famous concert singers of his time and well-known for his rendition of "Ol' Man River."

A true master of the arts and a true giver to the people, Robeson was one of the first Black men to act in serious roles in predominately white American theaters, and his performance in and as "Othello" is still considered one of the greatest ever done. He secured numerous roles in popular films of the time and donated the proceeds from his films to Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler's Germany.

An international icon and clearly a man of many talents, Robeson used his fame and influence to share different cultures and promote labor and social movements. In 1945, his career was nearly ended when he encouraged President Truman to support anti-lynching legislation and created the American Crusade Against Lynching.

He was then framed as a Communist by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Robeson spoke out against the accusations and felt it was well within his constitutional rights to protest injustice.

Robeson had strong views on Black nationalism and anti-colonialism, and in the 1950s, as one of many attempts made to silence and discredit him, the U.S. government revoked his passport. He wasn't able to travel abroad to perform after becoming an international legend on the stage, and his career was constrained for eight years.

The curtain was closing for Robeson in 1963 when he was misdiagnosed and treated for several physical and psychological problems. His ailments took a toll so severe that he made the decision to retire from the spotlight.

Robeson passed away on Jan. 23, 1976. At his peak popularity, Robeson was a national trademark, a leader in the war against racism and fascism and an accomplished man of the arts.

In 1995, he was added to the College Football Hall of Fame and has since had various organizations and locations dedicated to him, including the Paul Robeson Cultural Center on Busch campus and Paul Robeson Plaza on the College Avenue campus.

This Sunday, on Robeson's birthday, we should recognize him as a man who not only fought for his own voice but also the voices of anyone subject to oppression and persecution. But the best way to honor Robeson is to continue the fight against fascism, racism and injustice.

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