Academic journal article Albany Law Review

A Champion for African Freedom: Paul Robeson and the Struggle against Apartheid

Academic journal article Albany Law Review

A Champion for African Freedom: Paul Robeson and the Struggle against Apartheid

Article excerpt


On February 28, 2013, I was honored to deliver the Paul Robeson lecture at Columbia Law School, an annual event to commemorate the life and legacy of Paul Robeson, a graduate of Columbia Law School (Class of 1923). This article is a slightly expanded version of my lecture. (1)

This article will have four components: first, it will highlight the achievements of this extraordinary man, an advocate for social justice, a world-renowned artist, and an accomplished sportsman. Second, in this article I explore Paul Robeson's connections and commitment to the African anti-colonial struggle, and in particular the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. Third, this article examines the legal developments in South Africa with the collapse of formal apartheid, and outlines the broad contours of the constitutional text, particularly the bill of rights and the constitutional and human rights jurisprudence of the Constitutional Court. Finally, the article will end with the question: what would Paul Robeson say about the contemporary moment that post-apartheid South Africa finds itself in?

Professor Acklyn Lynch, in his 1976 article, Paul Robeson: His Dreams Know No Frontiers, said this of Paul Robeson: "Mr. Robeson was a man whose versatility has been unparalleled in American history as scholar, linguist, actor, singer, athlete, humanitarian, and whose striving for excellence in every undertaking was embroidered by a deep humility which endeared him to the hearts of millions of people around the world." (2)

On February 19, 2001, the Columbia Daily Spectator, in an article to accompany the Paul Robeson Annual Lecture, said this about Paul Robeson:

   Paul Robeson, [Columbia] Law '23, struggled against racism
   his entire life. As a scholar he encountered intolerance while
   trying to achieve a higher education. As an artist he tried to
   unify people through music, once performing slave spirituals
   alongside Russian serf songs. And, most significantly,
   Robeson risked his entire artistic career to break down
   barriers of race not only in the United States but around the
   world as well. (3)


We know that Paul Robeson was born in Princeton, New Jersey on April 9, 1898, the son of a former slave who became a preacher. (4) He was a talented child who demonstrated great promise in academics, music, and athletics. (5) At the age of seventeen, Paul Robeson won a statewide writing competition that earned him a four-year scholarship to Rutgers University. (6)

Paul Robeson was the third African-American ever to enroll in the university, and despite intimidation from his teammates, he joined the football team. (7) A two-time All-American for football, he also earned fifteen varsity letters in basketball, baseball, and track. (8) During his college career, Paul Robeson won the school's annual oratory contest four times, once speaking out against the inadequate educational opportunities for African-Americans. (9)

After graduating from Rutgers, Paul Robeson was accepted to Columbia Law School, and to help pay for tuition, he played professional football and tutored in Latin. (10) He graduated from Columbia and worked briefly at a law firm, but he resigned when a white secretary refused to work for him. (11) Paul Robeson then vowed that he would never enter "any profession where the highest prizes were from the start denied to [him]," and turned to the stage. (12)

A. An Internationalist Humanitarian

Paul Robeson was one of those early twentieth century internationalist humanitarians who connected at a deep and profound level with the struggles of his own community in the United States, but also with those people everywhere who struggled against racism, fascism, colonialism, imperialism, and apartheid. (13) What is remarkable is his courage and determination, operating in the much diminished space for dissent during the Cold War era. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.