If Jackie Robinson’s integration of major league baseball in 1947 foreshadowed Poitier’s emergence in No Way Out, then Robinson’s testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in July 1949 portended Poitier’s subsequent dilemma.
At issue was a statement by Paul Robeson, the black star of song and stage. The large, handsome, All-American football player and Columbia Law School graduate had achieved celebrity for his deep bass singing voice and considerable acting skill. The star of the 1943 Broadway production of Othello had also acted in films, including The Emperor Jones (1933) and Sanders of the River (1935), but he abandoned that medium for its stereotypical portrayals of blacks. By the late 1940s Robeson’s popularity was waning. Inspired by radical socialism after a 1934 visit to the Soviet Union, he became an outspoken critic of the United States, just as Americans grew paranoid about Communism. Robeson’s concert dates dwindled, and angry picket lines greeted his performances.1
In April 1949, world press agencies reported Robeson’s declaration that black Americans would not fight against the Soviet Union. “It is unthinkable,” he told a Paris conference, “that American Negroes would go to war on behalf of those who have oppressed us for generations against a country which in one generation has raised our people to the full dignity of mankind.”2
A public uproar ensued, culminating with the HUAC hearings. A string of prominent black leaders reassured white Americans of black patriotism, crowned by the star witness, Jackie Robinson. Whatever Robinson’s misgivings about the committee’s tactics, he was a World War II veteran and anti-Communist. He indicted Jim Crow and avoided criticizing Robeson, but he believed that blacks would “do their best to help their country stay out of war; if unsuccessful, they’d do their best to help their country win the war—against Russia or any other enemy that threatened us.”3