in a (n event Entitled “Black Activism, Then and Now,” hosted by the Princeton Public Library on Tuesday February 15, panelists discussed local, national and international activism from Paul Robson, a musician, athlete, and prominent racial equality activist. Born in the city of Princeton, Robeson’s legacy of ongoing student activism at the university is still prominent today.
The panel was moderated by Nyle Fort GS ’21, who is completing his Ph.D. in Religion and Interdisciplinary Humanities with a Focus on Afro-American Studies, with Dr. Shana L. Redmond, President-Elect of the American Studies Association and Scholar of English Literature and Race at Columbia University; Meena Jagannath, Director of Global Programs Movement Law Laboratory, a social justice legal organization; and Reverend Lukata Mjumbe, pastor of Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church in the city of Princeton, as a panelist for the event.
Robeson’s multifaceted legacy was a key focus of the conversation.
“A lot of people just want to talk about Paul Robeson and the deep baritone Old Man River, and that’s so important as a part of who he was,” Mjumbe said. “But would you have really loved Paul Robeson when he was alive, when he was burned in upstate New York, when his passport was confiscated, when he thought he had been poisoned when he was electrocuted? Treatment when when he was assaulted and slandered before the House Un-American Activities Committee?
Redmond explained the opposition Robeson faced from the US State Department during the second Red Scare in the 1940s and 50s. He was “an enemy of the state, they didn’t allow him to travel abroad from 1950 to 1958,” she said after his passport was revoked after being accused of being a communist, which made most of his income from his Career eliminated a musician.
“He was one of the petitioners and organizers of the 1951 petition We Charge Genocide that went to the United Nations,” she said. “He delivered the malleable copy to the UN in New York City.”
Jagannath linked Robeson’s experiences with what she saw as an advocate, particularly working with young people in Chicago in the mid-2010s amid the early years of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“The US is promoting its reputation as a bastion of human rights on the world stage,” she said. “And all the while it’s killing its own people, driving tanks through the streets, and detaining people at random off the coast, among many other abuses of its own people.”
Mjumbe spoke about how Robeson’s life inspired him to become active in his community.
“Even before I became a pastor and was inspired by his father,” Mjumbe said of William Robeson, who served as minister of Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church from 1880 to 1901. “Paul Robeson inspired me. Paul Robeson inspired me as an activist, as an organizer, as someone who thought locally, worked locally but had a global vision.”
Robeson was an active opponent of a number of policies that Woodrow Wilson’s 1879 tenure as university president enacted, particularly those that barred colored students from the university.
“He demanded that one of Paul’s older brothers be allowed to enroll at Princeton University,” Mjumbe explained. “But the answer was that here at Princeton University we don’t have color.”
That legacy of activism continues in Princeton, panellists noted. Fort recalled the campus atmosphere when he arrived at the university to begin his PhD in 2014 in the wake of national protests following the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Miss. educated black student activist group, had led a series of protests.
“I think what you said about Paul Robeson and President Woodrow Wilson’s relationship is important because the students fought against the naming [public policy] School under Woodrow Wilson, but we don’t always see ourselves in the tradition of a Paul Robeson who has already fought and resisted those broader structures that go back to the very beginning of Princeton’s history,” he said.
Redmond also spoke about the lack of recognition given to Robeson’s name and his work in today’s world, telling Fort, “If I had a friend who knew his name, I would consider myself lucky. Unfortunately, there are too many people who don’t know his name.”
“It was a forced oblivion, right?” she added. “It was in the hands of the State Department both in the US and in various other colonial nations around the world.”
Mjumbe also commented on the importance of learning more about Robeson and his story. “I think in a way you can’t understand Princeton — you certainly can’t understand Black Princeton — if you don’t understand the legacy of the Robeson family,” he said.
Redmond also spoke about the legacy of activism at Princeton that is progressing, particularly as it relates to campus policing.
“How do we actually abolish policing on campus?” she asked. “These are places of education, these are places that should be welcoming and accommodating for everyone. And the police, we know, don’t make us safer, they make us more vulnerable.”
Jagannath emphasized the importance of these movements.
“The manifestations of injustice that we see at the local level are all interconnected, as are the systems that produce injustice,” she said. “You know, in Princeton, in Miami and in other places, there are the same systems that oppress people elsewhere.”
The event was co-hosted by the Pace Center for Civic Engagement and the Paul Robeson House of Princeton and made possible with the support of the National Endowment for the Humanities. It was hosted on Zoom from 7pm to 8pm
Katherine Dailey is Co-Head News Editor and often reports on breaking news, politics and university affairs. She can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @kmdailey7.