The story surrounding Colin Kaepernick, the National Football League quarterback who defied tradition by refusing to stand during the national anthem, will not go away. In fact, it seems to be gaining steam.
The controversial former Forty-Niner QB now graces the December cover of GQ magazine as the “Citizen of the Year.” The choice of a person who once wore socks depicting the police as pigs and has elicited the ire of both the president and vice-president of the United States has, predictably, met with various opinions ranging from praise to condemnation.
Perhaps a more deserving selection would have been J.J. Watt of the Houston Texans who raised $37 million for victims of Hurricane Harvey. But such is the current world of politics, advertising and opportunism.
In my own case, when I think of a person who combined playing football with a passionate opposition to racism, my thoughts go to a most extraordinary person of color who is now referred to as “the forgotten man.” If it is too late for GQ to anoint him as “the citizen of the year” it is certainly not too late to remind people of both his greatness as well as his inimitable versatility.
I am speaking of Paul Robeson.
Paul Leroy Robeson was born in Princeton, N.J., 1898. His mother was from a prominent Quaker family and his father, who had been born into slavery, was a Presbyterian minister. Tragedy struck the family when six-year-old Paul’s mother died in a fire. The father was left to raise five children single-handedly.
Paul attended a high school in Somerville, N.J., where he performed in Julius Caesar and Othello, sang in the chorus and excelled in football, baseball, and track and field. At age 17 he won a scholarship to Rutgers University. He was the third Afro/American to be enrolled at that school and the only black at that time. Racism was ever-present. A southern football team refused to take the field against an opponent who had a black player.
Nonetheless, Robeson was named to the All-American team in both his junior and senior years. His finished his tenure at Rutgers with four annual oratorical triumphs and varsity letters in four sports. In addition, he was accepted into Phi Beta Kappa and, as class valedictorian, exhorted his classmates to work for equality for all Americans.
In 1919, Robeson entered the Law School at Columbia University. He played professional football for the NFL’s Akron Pros and later for the Milwaukee Badgers while attending law school. He passed the New York State Bar exam and worked briefly at a law firm until a white secretary refused to take dictation from him.
With the encouragement and support of his new wife, Eslanda, whom he married in August 1921, he turned his attention to theater and movie performances and to singing. Possessed with what has been called a “booming baritone voice,” he carved a name for himself with a rendition of Ol’ Man River that became the benchmark for all future performances of the song.
In his diary, reflecting on his extraordinary life, he stated that it was all part of a “higher plan” and that “God watches over me and guides me. He’s with me and lets me fight my own battles and hopes I’ll win.”
He was a champion of human rights and equality throughout the world. He traveled to Spain where he visited hospitals and sang for wounded soldiers. He was honored by miners in Wales for his defense of equality. He met with Commissioner of Baseball Kenesaw Landis and pleaded with him to admit black players to Major League Baseball. In this regard, he was ahead of his time.
It is not easy to find another person whose excellence in a diversity of fields could match those of Paul Robeson. Pope St. John Paul II comes to mind, who was also an actor, athlete, orator, linguist, and champion of civil rights. Robeson was fluent or nearly fluent in 12 languages and sang in 25.
At the same time, let it be known that Robeson was by no means a saint. And his political judgments, especially concerning Stalinist Russia, were not always shrewd. Because he refused to sign an affidavit swearing he was not a Communist, the U.S. State Department revoked his passport.
“Whether I am or am not a Communist is irrelevant,” he told the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1956.
An eight-year struggle ensued in which Robeson tried to regain it and travel abroad.
During that time he met with Albert Einstein to discuss the possibility of world peace, published his autobiography – Here I Stand – and sang at Carnegie Hall. His passport was finally reinstated. The Supreme Court ruled in 1958 that the State Department could not deny citizens the right to travel because of their political beliefs or affiliations.
Robeson’s battles, persecutions and frustrations took their toll. Toward the end of his life he suffered from depression for which he received 54 doses of electroshock treatment. His condition at this time is clouded in uncertainty, some believing that he may have been drugged by the CIA. At that time, the CIA was running a project called MKUltra, designed to manipulate people’s mental states and alter brain function.
There can be no doubt, however, that the U.S. government, on several occasions, tried to put a stop to Robeson’s work as an advocate for civil rights. But opposition to him continued from the secular press. A book published in the 1950s which was purported to be a complete record of college football failed to list Robeson as ever having played with the Rutgers team or as ever being named an All-American.
Paul Leroy Robeson should not be forgotten. If ever America had a towering figure, it was he. We can admire his gifts, his unswerving dedication to civil rights, and his larger-than-life persona. We can advance his legacy, without imitating his faults. Contemporary black people have a worthy role model who, perhaps in a qualified sense, might be a legitimate candidate for the honor of citizen of the century.
Dr. Donald DeMarco is a senior fellow of Human Life International, professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College in Cromwell, Conn. This editorial appeared in the Nov. 30, 2017 edition of The Wanderer.