In 1949 the most famous singer in the world arrived at Waterloo Station from Southampton after crossing the Atlantic from the US, met by two activists in the anti-colonial movement. Paul Robeson had not set foot in the UK for 10 years and he had a busy nationwide tour ahead of him, kicking off with a sold out performance at the Albert Hall.
But MI5 spooks were keeping close tabs on the entertainer, who had just had a four months of concerts in America cancelled at a stroke because of his outspoken views.
In fact Robeson’s visit to Britain was only permitted after he promised not to attend any political events. When MI5 learned via an intercepted phone call that he would be performing for Spanish anti-fascists the International Brigade, it duly informed the FBI, just in case.
The two month tour, which ended with two ‘recital for the people’ shows at Harringay dog track in north London, was a resounding triumph as thousands thronged to hear the superstar whose message of peace, equality and justice had resonated around the world.
But the net was steadily closing in. The following year Robeson’s passport was seized after he said it was unthinkable for black people to go to war against the Soviet Union. Unable to travel, he faced life in the wilderness, his fight with the government culminating in an appearance before the dreaded House of UnAmerican Activities Committee in 1956 over his alleged communist membership.
The astonishing lengths with which the authorities went to silence him is revealed for the first time in Jordan Goodman’s A Watched Man. Based on new material, it is a cracking read, as much a reflection of Robeson’s courage as it is of the government’s crazy Cold War paranoia.
“I was fascinated how this enormous world character was forced into a cage and how he was able to handle himself,” says Goodman, author of the well received The Devil and Mr Casement, another story of one man’s battle for human rights, this time set in 1900s Peru.
“The committee was immensely powerful and almost everyone to a person buckled. But Robeson managed to turn the tables on his inquisitors, accusing them of being unAmerican. He was prepared to risk everything for his principles and this incensed them even more.”
Robeson eventually got his passport back, though only on a legal technicality and the authorities continued to hound him. He resumed his career in earnest but years of sustained propaganda would achieve their aim. “There has never been another popular entertainer who made so much political impact yet he has been effectively erased from history,” says Goodman, a Canadian who settled in Britain in the 1970s to pursue an academic career. “I knew about Robeson because my mother was a huge fan. But when I was thinking of writing about him, I realised I knew very little about him even though I was a historian, and I wondered why.”
As Goodman began his research, it became clear that wherever Robeson went he was spied on, chiefly by the FBI, MI5 and the innocuous sounding Royal Canadian Mounted Police. They all left a handy trail of paperwork for posterity, although some of it has become only recently available.
When it came to the State Department, which had been responsible for withdrawing Robeson’s passport, Goodman, an honorary research associate at UCL, hit a brick wall: “I sent in a freedom of information application but never heard back.”
Fortunately Robeson’s lawyer had archived documents connected with his seven year passport battle. “That is how I was able to create a picture of their paranoia and to reveal what they were thinking – how they saw him as an embarrassment and a political meddler.”
One might have hoped that Robeson’s fellow African Americans would have rallied around him in his time of need. Alas, no. As anti-communist hysteria gripped the country, prominent members of the community began to back away. Among the first was Jackie Robinson, the hugely popular baseball player whose testimony against him before the committee became a major media event. Even more damaging, a string of civil rights leaders, one time allies of Robeson, made a point of denouncing him at every opportunity.
Goodman believes this changed the course of the civil rights movement. “It was a clear tactic – they did not want the movement tainted by accusations of anti-Americanism. They said ‘Robeson does not speak for us’ and they were responsible for not only effacing him from the struggle but for watering down their own demands in the hope that there would be a gradual accretion of rights. All those who were at the front of of the March on Washington in 1963 were people who were critical of Robeson.”
As always, Robeson maintained a dignified stance under fire and expressed little of the hurt he felt. “Robeson kept his cards very close to himself,” explains Goodman. “Although some of his papers have been deposited at Harvard they are not personal but relate to his business. The Robeson family are also very guarded as they were upset by a previous biography of him. Paul Robeson Jnr [Robeson’s son] never got back to me either.”
What we are presented with is a portrait of a man on a mission as he enters, endures and survives – just about – his 10 year battle with his government. But the fact that he was a ‘watched man’ can no longer be put aside as an unfortunate episode in history, given, as Goodman points out in the book’s preface, that government surveillance is now ubiquitous, this time in the name of the war against terror.