Robeson’s Legacy Should Be Celebrated, Not Attacked

Courier News (Somerville, New Jersey), October 18, 2010

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Erick Opczynski, president of the Rutgers-Camden College Republicans, has started a campaign to rename the Paul Robeson Library on his campus because of the namesake’s “radical socialism.”

Opczynski told the Philadelphia Daily News that Robeson was a “personal admirer of Josef Stalin” and had an “unsavory, almost disgraceful past.”

Opczynski seems to be channeling the blighted spirit of Joseph McCarthy, one of the most disgraced American politicians of the 20th century who smeared those suspected of being sympathetic of Communism. McCarthy was content to blacklist the living; Opczynski wants to blacklist the dead.

Robeson, a black man who was born in Princeton in 1898 and raised in Somerville, was a 20th Century Renaissance man. Robeson, whose father was a slave, was an exceptional athlete at Rutgers and a world-famous actor and singer. A civil rights pioneer, he was celebrated internationally not only for his enormous talents but for his courageous battles for social justice and equality.

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But Robeson’s passion for justice never died and his struggle for justice never ended. In 1958, Robeson told the members of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, who led the paranoid persecution, “you are the un-Americans, and you ought to be ashamed of yourselves.”

Those same words apply to Opczynski and his fellow travellers in the growing culture of hatred and intolerance that’s poisoning American culture.

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But Opczynski is a poster child for those who shoot off their mouths first, then examine the facts. His wrong-headed campaign is characteristic of the depths to which political and cultural discourse has descended in this country. In a political and cultural climate dominated by vitriol, the rant has replaced the voice of reason.

Robeson deserves to be revered and respected. At a time when black people were treated in this country like second-class citizens, Robeson was a pioneer for civil rights. It’s hard for today’s college students to imagine that not so long ago, Robeson lived in a country in which blacks were subjected to segregation and institutionalized racism.

Robeson fought a brave battle against intolerance. {snip}

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