By 1937 Paul Robeson had become world famous as a concert singer, stage and movie performer, and he was still under forty. That year fast-moving global events forced him to face what he called “a major turning point in my life” and make a decision that forever altered his life. Fascist forces had begun their march to World War II: Japanese troops had invaded China in 1931, Italian forces had overrun Ethiopia in 1935, and General Francisco Franco and some other generals, with the aid of Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy, mobilized Spain’s regular army to overthrow the legally-elected Republican government.
In the summer of 1936 twenty Nazi transport planes ferried Franco’s forces from Morocco to Saville, and he began what everyone thought would be a rapid victory march on Madrid. He was joined by troops from Fascist Portugal, Mussolini provided upwards of 50,000 soldiers fresh from Ethiopia, and Hitler supplied troops, technical assistance, including his Gestapo. The Nazi Luftwaffe provided Franco air cover. Though this was the opening gun of World War II—the moment to stop fascism in its tracks—the western democracies did nothing. Many politicians in England, France and the United States were sympathetic to Hitlerism. France closed its borders to the Republican Spain, cutting if off from foreign aid. U.S. oil companies supplied Franco with most of his oil, and three fourths of his trucks came from General Motors, Studebaker and Ford.
Amid daily bombings Madrid civilians tried to organize a volunteer army to defend their capitol. Then Spain appealed to the world for help and a miracle happened. For the first time in history people from every continent left their homelands to fight for the principle of democracy. 40,000 men and women volunteers arrived from 53 countries “to make Madrid the tomb of world fascism.” Most of these foreigners had little military experience, especially the young 2,800 Americans, but they formed International Brigades and hoped their courage and sacrifice would awaken the world to the fascist danger. By June Spain’s civilians and International Brigaders stopped the fascist armies at the gates of Madrid.
But Hitler and Mussolini sent in more planes, troops and technicians and Republican forces with their old rifles, few planes, machine guns or cannons, were outgunned and running out of luck. “Save Spain” rallies were organized in London and Paul Robeson and his wife Essie flew in to participate. The first rally was sponsored by such notables as W.H. Auden, Virginia Wolff and H.G. Wells. But it was Robeson’s rich baritone that delivered the night’s most memorable speech. He spoke from deep conviction:
The artist must take sides. He must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative.
Robeson had suddenly entered the global stage in a new role—the voice of anti-fascist resistance. By December Robeson addressed four rallies for the Republican cause, and he was also denouncing fascist attacks on Africa and China. No longer would he appear in decadent Hollywood films, he stated, but instead would portray “the life, hopes and aspirations of the struggling people from which I come.” At one rally, he changed the lyrics of “Old Man River”—turning a personal lament forever into his own credo: “I must keep fightin’ until I’m dyin’.’”
By the end of December, Robeson told his wife, Essie “I want to go to Spain.” When she argued it was highly dangerous, and urged him to stay and rouse the democracies, he answered, “This is our fight, my fight,”
By January 1938 Paul and Essie Robeson had arrived in Barcelona, Spain where the government provided them a seven passenger Buick tour car. With their driver, an Army captain whose five brothers were at the front, the Robesons rode off to bring hope to those in trenches, hospitals and fields.
Wherever Robeson appeared soldiers of many nations recognized and greeted him with the clenched fist anti-fascist salute, and a hearty “Salud!” “You don’t get people like that every day running to a war to see how things are going,” said a British volunteer.
Most Robeson performances were at hospitals to bolster the morale of men, women and children injured by fascist bombs and bullets. One day he gave three concerts at different hospitals in little more than an hour. Bursting shells, enemy planes and the rumble of war were rarely distant from his concerts and sometimes disturbed the Robesons’ sleep at night. When Robeson said “I have never seen such courage in a people,” his press coverage brought this to many corners of the globe.
Robeson was delighted to meet the American men and women of The Abraham Lincoln Brigade, including about ninety-five African Americans. At a time when there were monthly lynchings and a rigidly segregated U.S. Army back home, the Lincoln Brigade stood tall as the first integrated American army. The Robesons heard about the heroism of Captain Oliver Law, an African American from Texas and one of the few Lincolns with military experience.
In 1937, the year General Colin Powell was born, Lincoln Brigaders chose Oliver Law as their commander, making him the first Black man to lead an integrated American Army. In the major battle of Brunete that July he insisted on personally leading his men. Shouting, “Let’s go! Let’s go!’ Law and his men charged against entrenched enemy positions, and he was killed by enemy machine gun fire. Robeson wanted to make a movie about Law, but never found the financial backing.
During their month in Spain Robeson’s concerts, press conferences and public appearances focused a spotlight on fascist imperialism. Robeson left Spain but never stopped speaking on behalf of those who resisted Hitler and Mussolini. He raised funds for the Spanish Republic, and to aid returning wounded Lincoln veterans in need of medical care.
Fascist armies overran Spain in 1939 and five months later World War II began. The alarm sounded by Republican Spain, International Brigaders and Paul Robeson had proven prophetic.
Robeson and the Lincoln Brigade continued their warm relationship. Moe Fishman, director of the New York office of the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (VALB), still remembers how Robeson’s visit boosted the morale of the Spanish people and the International Brigades.
In 1940 the veterans formally made him an honorary member, a tribute bestowed on only three other world figures. After Pearl Harbor the VALB and Robeson accelerated their anti-fascist fight by assisting the united nations in World War II. “Whenever we called on him to help in the struggle against fascism, he was always available,” Fishman recalled.
During the cold war the veterans returned the favor. In 1949 when a fascist-like mob threatened a Robeson concert at Peekskill, New York — and state police refused to intervene — Lincoln veterans surrounded and protected their hero. When the U.S. State Department lifted Robeson’s passport so a man almost as admired by the world as President Franklin Roosevelt could not travel or give concerts abroad veterans of the International Brigades acted. In the United States and Canada they defied the ban and helped organize a concert in which Robeson sang across the Canadian border by telephone.
By speaking, singing, and by traveling to war-torn Spain, Robeson threw himself into humanity’s last real chance to halt fascism’s march to war. Paul Robeson bravely sounded the early alarm and consistently urged that unified resistance the nations of the world finally marshalled to crush Hitler and Mussolini.