Robeson Library conveys wrong message

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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.

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  1. Dear Sir/Madam:

    As a former editor of The Gleaner I read with great interest your birthday edition over the internet. Well done to you all. I am truly proud to call myself one of you.

    Scanning the articles in this edition, I happened on the opinion piece, “Robeson Library conveys wrong message” (The Gleaner, 20 September 2010) by Eric V. Opczynski. My interest soon turned into great concern as I realized that Mr. Opczynksi was propagating removing Paul Robeson’s name from the library because he was a communist and therefore, in the author’s mind, anti-American.

    As one of the people involved in getting the library on the Camden Campus named in honor of Paul Robeson for his fight againts racism, among other things, I am alarmed at this call. I knew Paul Robeson was a communist but never understood him as anti-American.

    To help you understand my predicament, let me state that I am a South African who studied at Rutgers-Camden when my own country would rather kill me then allow me an education because I opposed Apartheid, which was the formal policy of our country under the Nationalist Party rule since 1948. I now head the Mamelodi Campus of the University of Pretoria. My university, being the largest contact university in South Africa with 64 000 students in total, has six campuses of which my campus is one. 15 years ago, a black person like myself would not have been able to occupy this position at a historically white Afrikaans university in my country.

    At the time I attended Rutgers-Camden, I was exiled from my country because of my involvement in the political struggle against Apartheid. During the coarse of our struggle against Apartheid, many of us, including the world renowned Nelson Mandela, were labeled terrorists and were either jailed, maimed or if lucky, escaped into exile, like I was able to.

    Notwithstanding the changes over the years regarding a number of things such as our understanding of communism and its problems, Paul Robeson is a hero to many of us. We are proud of his association with Rutgers University and continue to believe he brings great honor and respect to our alma mater because he elected to pursue his beliefs and suffered tremendously for this as well. Some of us know the meaning of this in real terms.

    The freedoms and liberties Mr. Opczynksi appropriates for himself and disowns Paul Robeson are freedoms people like Paul Robeson fought for and helped secure during a troubling time in US and world history. His spirit of dissent needs to be celebrated and cherished, as the naming of the library on the Camden Campus so aptly does.

    Because Mr. Opczynksi disagrees with what Paul Robeson stood for is not sufficient grounds to remove his name from the institution he graced and brought great attention to by his association and having studied there. He has earned and rightfully deserves a place of honor among Rutgers University alumni as the naming of the library righfully provides.

    When addressing Rutgers-Camden students visiting South Africa a few years ago, as I have every years since returning to a free and democratic South Africa in 1999, I reminded my fellow Rutgers students that Nelson Mandela and many leaders of my country were still considered terrorists in the US in 2008. This was even after Mandela had received America’s highest honor, the Liberty Award medal presented to him by President Bill Clinton at the Independence celebrations in Philadelphia in July 1993. See http://www.afrik-news.com/article13164.html for an article reporting the then US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice’s embarrasment with this particular situation.

    I would caution Mr. Opczynksi to have his visibly skewed and value laden judgement reading of Paul Robeson’s life color the significance of this great American who was deeply troubled by his country’s actions against his own kind and others–a view supported by many Americans then and now.

    I would also like to register I will object and fight any attempt to remove Paul Robeson’s name from the library on the Camden Campus.

    As a proud Rutgers University Camden alumni, Paul Robeson’s name on the library is a great acknowledgement of the achievement of one of our university’s most notable graduates, regardless of his beliefs.

    Though our views and understanding of issues may evolve and change over time, some things remain constant. Paul Robeson is a stellar graduate of our university and we need to take great pride being associated with him and being able to claim and celebrate him as one of us.

    Thank you.

    Edwin T. Smith
    RUC Class of ’95

  2. I thought we had moved beyond the false Communist/American binary that so defined the Cold War mentality. The radical left ideology is as much a part of the diverse American political scene as any other political ideology. To remove Robeson’s name from the Library would be an act of discrimination against Robeson for his political beliefs, and would also make those who identify with the radical left feel unwelcome. In a country which names buildings after slave-owners, I think it is reasonable to allow a building to be named after an American Communist.

  3. David F. Spaeth on

    Great article, Erik! I agree 100% and will support your cause in any way I can.

    -David F. Spaeth
    Rutgers-Camden class of 2010
    Current MPA student

  4. Michael Foresta on

    Edwin,

    I respect your opinion and I am proud to hear from a fellow Rutgers alumni. However, I am a close friend of Mr. Opczynski and I happen to agree with this movement. Paul Robeson while a man of many accomplishments still doesn’t undermine the fact that he was associated with a murderer. For the record, this has nothing to do with race. Despite evidence to the contrary, whether he was white, black, Asian, Hispanic or anything else, he still did things that were questionable and he should not be the face of our library. Too many people pass through the library and only know the partial truth of Paul Robeson. In fact, there are very few places that even mention his relationship with Stalin. I understand no one is perfect but his conduct is goes against the grain of Americana. I want to leave you and everyone else with this one question: Should people that supported Stalin Hitler, Hussein and others be celebrated or should we honor those who fought against these evils?

    Michael Foresta
    Rutgers University Camden-Class of 2012

  5. I don’t understand how someone who strongly supported governments like Stalin and Mao’s, which greatly suppressed media and the expression of ideas, has a library named after him.

    Robeson, whether you believe he was a great American or the epitome of being Anti American, is a notable Rutgers alumnus and it’s unfortunate that he’s been removed from mainstream history. Considering his achievements in theater and athletics and his support for regimes that were more likely to burn libraries than champion them, it would make more sense to name something else (like a theater or a stadium) after him.

  6. Michael Foresta on

    Anyone who supports Stalin should not have a library named after him. It wasn’t just communism, Stalin instituted a police state much like Hitler. A widely known school such as Rutgers should not have a man who supported genocide represent the library. Slowly, people will know the whole truth about Paul Robeson. And no, this is not a question of race. He could of been of any nationality, the fact is he associated himself with a man of pure evil. I will do whatever it takes to help remove his name from the library and instead put someone we can all be proud of.

    Michael Foresta
    Rutgers University Camden-Class of 2012

  7. Benjamin Rathbone on

    I agree with Michael Carr here. While Robeson’s identification with Stalin obviously seems horrifying, it should be kept in mind that the exact nature of Stalin’s monstrosity is something that history has unveiled over time. I disagree with Robeson’s political ideology as far as communism goes, but I believe that his lifelong fight for equal rights overshadow his other beliefs.

  8. There are so many great Rutgers Camden Alumni it could be named after, yet they picked a person who associates himself with murders. It’s just not right to name a library paid for by taxes after a communist, or wait that might make sense then. Robeson has got to go, there are much better names we could put up there!

  9. Honestly, I do not agree with this article at all and it angers me. It’s thoughts and ideology like this that has incited so much hatred and discrimination in the world. I thought we were past the communist vs. democracy debate. We are NO LONGER living in the COLD WAR era. There are BIGGER and far more worse issues that need to brought to public attention than the naming of a library that has been around for decades.

    Although I do not agree with Paul Robeson’s political agenda, there are so many other things that he is known for. He was an accomplished actor/musician, philanthropist, as well as athlete. To remove his name from the library now, would be an act of slander, and therefore unconstitutional.

  10. Tyrone Jefferson III on

    Okay so if we remove a “communist” from the library’s name, shouldn’t we take down every Martin Luther King Jr. related? You know he was a passionate socialist who fought for labor rights.

  11. Alright, many interesting points are mentioned here. However, this library has held this name for a while and I’m sure there’s a reason it hasn’t been re-named already. Very interesting article though I must say.

  12. Very interesting… I, like many others who attend Rutgers currently, had no idea about Robeson’s history. Certainly thought-provoking, though I cannot find myself overwhelmingly agreeing with either side of this argument.

  13. Bart H. Everts on

    This commentary brings out no new information, instead it follows a pattern of present day right wing ideologues slowly tearing down those who spoke up against right wing ideologues of the past. Why this “information” about Robeson should, in 2010; suddenly shock or inform, is both amazing and frightening. As an RU-C alumnus, I strongly support the current name.

  14. Dreadfully Disillusioned on

    Shall we burn Marx’s Communist Manifesto? Shall we scourn the very names of Marx and Engels? Shall we erase Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco from our history? Shall we forget their significance? While it cannot, should not, and will not be denied that these men committed unforgivable crimes, should their names be erased from history books? Shall we disregard Communism as a violent and brutal political theory? Likewise, should we erase the name of one of the most famous and enigmatic people of Rutgers?

    It cannot be denied that the crimes of Stalin are atrocious. But Paul Robeson did not have the blood of millions of people on his hands like Joseph Stalin did. Paul Robeson is a piece of history. You can erase his name from the library. But unfortunately for you, it will not be erased from history. He will not be forgotten. Why, you ask? Because he is a part of history, and a part of OUR history at that. What does it tell us that a man as brilliant, talented, and as gifted as Paul Robeson, was in fact so disillusioned as to become a Communist?

    Whether or not the name of the Paul Robeson library gives Rutgers a besmirched reputation or not, Robeson stands as a monument of history. A library named after arguably one of the most important former Rutgers students does not make Rutgers Communist or Stalinist. This effort is sorely lacking in persipicaciousness; Robeson was a man of his own time. He should not be seen in a historical vacuum. Paul Robeson’s character has been taken dreadfully out of context. Should we also besmirch the name of Thomas Jefferson because he was a large slaveowner? While slavery is brutal and inhumane, Jefferson was a man of his time. He is arguably the most important figure in all of American Hisory. Why, I ask, is it then acceptable to make an effort to besmirch the name of Robeson? Shall we make an effort to hide the fact that Robeson went to Rutgers? Shall we be ashamed of our history?

    Erasing Paul Robeson’s name from the library would ignorant, close minded, and ultimately, fruitless. Do what you will, but your effort will not erase his name from history or from the legacy of Rutgers. To make an effort to dissociate Robeson with Rutgers would be absolutely all of the books in the aforementioned library?

    You claim that Paul Robeson “is not in keeping with our timeless American values.” What is not in keeping with our timeless American values is disregarding the historical significance and context of a person because of their radical political opinions. Rutgers University has in no way, shape, or form ever promoted “Paul Robeson’s extremism,” which you so prematurely besiege.

    If you would like to see Paul Robeson as an ill-fated piece of Rutgers History, that is fine. But do not presume that you speak or hold the same opinion as the rest of us. You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to speak on behalf of everyone. If you wish to regard Paul Robeson as someone “who despised the liberties that America stands for,” then fine. But don’t drag the rest of us into close-minded and ethnocentric opinion.

    I thought the Iron Curtain already came down. Perhaps I was mistaken. Please, don’t put it back up.

  15. How quickly we forget. If you want to remove Robeson’s name from the library, how bout taking all of the presidents who owned slaves pictures’ off the currency we carry. Or how bout we charge war crimes to the ones that actually supported Hussein, Bin Laden, then turned on them because thay were getting to powerful. In this country full of contradictions it’s easy to cherry pick the stories that we don’t agree with. But you can’t forget the stories that other people don’t agree with.

    America is the land of the free. Free speech, free beliefs, and while I’m sure Robeson touted his beliefs strongly, I’m sure he wasn’t trying to convery this country to socialism. He lived here, he knew this was a democracy or republic or what have you, he hung out with the folks who made sense to him, then he came right back home.

    I say all that to say, communist or not, he was a great american. The library has been so named for this long don’t rock the boat. Then other people will start seeking answers for other ravesties and one of the questionable figures could be your hero. Put the shoe on the other foot, man.

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