In August 2006 I set in motion a journey that began as purely academic, but soon evolved into a social experience that I will never forget. It was at my first visit to Rutgers-Camden, while I was still in high school, that I decided this was the place for me. I toured the Fine Arts building, the Campus Center (pre-renovation), and the Paul Robeson library during my first visit, not fully realizing that I might be reflecting on that very day some four years later.
My late father, who graduated from Rutgers-Camden in 1966 and worked in downtown Camden until 2005, pointed out to me his concern that the library (which did not exist during his time at Rutgers) was named after a communist. Although I was certainly a political buff by that time, I did not give much thought to my father’s observation that day. It was at my freshman orientation the following year where Dr. Woll of the Honors College, upon providing a more detailed tour of the school, asked, “Now, you’re all smart, does anyone know who Paul Robeson was?” I remembered my father’s comment instantly, but I did not speak up – nor did anyone else. As far as I can recall, Dr. Woll did not mention Robeson’s communist past once in his ensuing mini-biography during the tour of the library.
Since that time, I have come to realize that just about no one at Rutgers-Camden knows Paul Robeson’s legacy. Robeson was brilliant during his years at Rutgers, which spanned from 1915-1919, and in addition to graduating as the class valedictorian, he was a star athlete in multiple sports. After receiving his law degree from Columbia University in 1923, Robeson found fame with a singing and acting career, which allowed him to travel around the globe.
Through his travels, Mr. Robeson developed a taste for radical socialism, and by the 1930s he was actively supporting the communists in the Spanish revolution. Following WWII, Robeson formed and participated in several socialist organizations that were poorly disguised as racial equality movements, including his Freedom journal. It was in this periodical during 1954 that Robeson claimed escalating American involvement in Vietnam was surely a result of “white imperialism,” and he became an adamant supporter of North Vietnam and the Vietcong throughout the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s.
To Americans, Vietnamese, and world spectators, the Vietnam War was a raw conflict between Soviet-sponsored communism (NVA, Vietcong) and Western-backed freedom (U.S. forces, ARVN). Even so, Robeson managed to create a false dichotomy in his mind: every world event was based on black and white. This is a man who, during heated testimony at the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), just one year after the Second World War ended, strongly suggested that he was a member of the Communist Party of America, and furthermore declared that he could not support America’s struggle against communism in the Cold War.
Perhaps the most damning evidence was Robeson’s acceptance of the “Stalin Peace Prize” in 1952, and his subsequent eulogy at Stalin’s 1953 funeral, titled “To You Beloved Comrade,” in which he described his deep admiration for one of the most brutal dictators in world history. Josef Stalin, who executed some 20 MILLION human beings, was a personal idol of Paul Robeson – the same Paul Robeson whose name is emblazoned on the Rutgers-Camden library.
When questioned about his unwavering support for Stalin during Congressional testimony, Robeson refused to comment and instead attempted to make the issue a racial one, testifying, “I have told you, mister, that I would not discuss anything with the people who have murdered sixty million of my people,” in reference to white Americans. Many black figureheads of the time, including leaders the NAACP and baseball great Jackie Robinson, denounced Robeson’s questionable activities, which included Robeson sending his child to a Soviet Russian school for some time.
It can be said that Paul Robeson was at worst a Communist American who despised the liberties that America stands for, and at best a Soviet-sympathizer who saw all world events in terms of skin color. Rutgers-Camden, as a public institution of higher learning, should be ashamed that a library – one of America’s most important promoters of freedom – bears the name of an unabashed Communist, who despised the capitalism and liberty we are so fortunate to enjoy. The use of Mr. Robeson’s name on the walls and buildings of Rutgers-Camden suggests to students a clear message that the university may reward you even if you decide to become a racist, anti-capitalist, anti-American activist.
It is certainly not in keeping with our timeless American values, layed out over 230 years ago by our founding fathers in the Constitution, for New Jersey’s finest public university to endorse a man as unsavory as Paul Robeson. I respectfully ask the current administration to remove Mr. Robeson’s name from the library, and name the library after an alumnus who has set a better example for students. Although many names should be explored, we should look to fine Rutgers alumni such as Camden’s Mayor, Dana Redd (Class of 1996), or perhaps students should simply choose an icon who represents our mutual values. No matter what we do, it is imperative that we develop a plan to end the university’s promotion of Paul Robeson’s extremism.
Views in this opinion are written by Erik Opczynski, the Chairman of the College Republicans at Rutgers-Camden.