This Day In History: August 16, 1955

August 16, 1955 Paul Robeson loses appeal over his passport

Famous entertainer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson loses his court appeal to try to force the Department of State to grant him a passport. The continued government persecution of Robeson illustrated several interesting points about Cold War America.

Robeson was the most famous African-American entertainer in the world, renowned for his work on Broadway, in films, and his incredibly powerful bass-baritone singing voice. Beyond these dramatic talents, Robeson was also an extremely intelligent advocate of civil rights in the United States. He became so dismayed about segregation and racism in America that he left the country in 1928, and lived in Europe until the outbreak of World War II in 1939. During his time abroad, Robeson became enamored with the Soviet Union, particularly its very public disavowals of racism and discrimination. During World War II, when the United States was allied with the Russians against Hitler, Robeson’s views were tolerated and he gave numerous performances to U.S. troops around the world. After the war, as the Cold War developed, Robeson’s very public statements in support of the Soviet Union began to cause problems.

In 1950, he attempted to renew his passport so that he could travel abroad to fulfill contracts for singing and acting performances. The State Department insisted that Robeson sign an affidavit declaring that he was not a member of the Communist Party and that he was loyal to the United States. Robeson refused and filed suit in federal court. In August 1955, a federal judge ruled that the State Department was within its legal rights to refuse Robeson a passport. After the decision, Robeson declared that it was “rather absurd” that he was not “allowed to travel because of my friendship–open, spoken friendship–for the Soviet people and the peoples of all the world.”

Robeson was seen as a danger because he often interspersed his performances with comments about race relations in the United States. Before and after his performances, he gave numerous interviews condemning segregation and discrimination in America. For some U.S. policymakers, who viewed America’s poor record of race relations as the nation’s “Achilles’ heel” in terms of the propaganda war with the Soviet Union, having a well known African-American denounce segregation and praise the Russians was unacceptable.

In 1958, Robeson finally won his court case and his passport was grudgingly restored. The damage to Robeson’s career, however, was already done. He performed for a few more years, and then retired in the 1960s, although the FBI kept up its investigations of Robeson until his death in 1976.

D. K. Smith

D. K. Smith

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