Paul Robeson was a popular performer and African American political activist. He attacked racism and imperialism and advocated for African decolonization. He appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1956. He invoked the Fifth Amendment and refused to cooperate.
Mr. ARENS: Are you now a member of the Communist Party?
Mr. ROBESON: Oh please, please, please.
Mr. SCHERER: Please answer, will you, Mr. Robeson?
Mr. ROBESON: What is the Communist Party? What do you mean by that?
Mr. SCHERER: I ask that you direct the witness to answer the question.
Mr. ROBESON: What do you mean by the Communist Party? As far as I know it is a legal party like the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. Do you mean a party of people who have sacrificed for my people, and for all Americans and workers, that they can live in dignity? Do you mean that party?
Mr. ARENS: Are you now a member of the Communist Party?
Mr. ROBESON: Would you like to come to the ballot box when I vote and take out the ballot and see?
Mr. ROBESON: Gentlemen, in the first place, wherever I have been in the world, Scandinavia, England, and many places, the first to die in the struggle against Fascism were the Communists and I laid many wreaths upon graves of Communists. It is not criminal, and the Fifth Amendment has nothing to do with criminality. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Warren, has been very clear on that in many speeches, that the Fifth Amendment does not have anything to do with the inference of criminality. I invoke the Fifth Amendment.
Mr. ROBESON: Could I say that the reason that I am here today, you know, from the mouth of the State Department itself, is: I should not be allowed to travel because I have struggled for years for the independence of the colonial peoples of Africa. For many years I have so labored and I can say modestly that my name is very much honored all over Africa, in my struggles for their independence. That is the kind of independence like Sukarno got in Indonesia. Unless we are double-talking, then these efforts in the interest of Africa would be in the same context. The other reason that I am here today, again from the State Department and from the court record of the court of appeals, is that when I am abroad I speak out against the injustices against the Negro people of this land. I sent a message to the Bandung Conference and so forth. That is why I am here. This is the basis, and I am not being tried for whether I am a Communist, I am being tried for fighting for the rights of my people, who are still second-class citizens in this United States of America. My mother was born in your state, Mr. Walter, and my mother was a Quaker, and my ancestors in the time of Washington baked bread for George Washington’s troops when they crossed the Delaware, and my own father was a slave. I stand here struggling for the rights of my people to be full citizens in this country. And they are not. They are not in Mississippi. And they are not in Montgomery, Alabama. And they are not in Washington. They are nowhere, and that is why I am here today. You want to shut up every Negro who has the courage to stand up and fight for the rights of his people, for the rights of workers, and I have been on many a picket line for the steelworkers too. And that is why I am here today. …
Mr. ROBESON: In Russia I felt for the first time like a full human being. No color prejudice like in Mississippi, no color prejudice like in Washington. It was the first time I felt like a human being. Where I did not feel the pressure of color as I feel [it] in this Committee today.
Mr. SCHERER: Why do you not stay in Russia?
Mr. ROBESON: Because my father was a slave, and my people died to build this country, and I am going to stay here, and have a part of it just like you. And no Fascist-minded people will drive me from it. Is that clear? I am for peace with the Soviet Union, and I am for peace with China, and I am not for peace or friendship with the Fascist Franco, and I am not for peace with Fascist Nazi Germans. I am for peace with decent people.
Mr. SCHERER: You are here because you are promoting the Communist cause.
Mr. ROBESON: I am here because I am opposing the neo-Fascist cause which I see arising in these committees. You are like the Alien [and] Sedition Act, and Jefferson could be sitting here, and Frederick Douglass could be sitting here, and Eugene Debs could be here.
Mr. ARENS: Now I would invite your attention, if you please, to the Daily Worker of June 29, 1949, with reference to a get-together with you and Ben Davis. Do you know Ben Davis?
Mr. ROBESON: One of my dearest friends, one of the finest Americans you can imagine, born of a fine family, who went to Amherst and was a great man.
THE CHAIRMAN: The answer is yes?
Mr. ROBESON: Nothing could make me prouder than to know him.
THE CHAIRMAN: That answers the question.
Mr. ARENS: Did I understand you to laud his patriotism?
Mr. ROBESON: I say that he is as patriotic an American as there can be, and you gentlemen belong with the Alien and Sedition Acts, and you are the nonpatriots, and you are the un-Americans, and you ought to be ashamed of yourselves.
THE CHAIRMAN: Just a minute, the hearing is now adjourned.
Mr. ROBESON: I should think it would be.
THE CHAIRMAN: I have endured all of this that I can.
Mr. ROBESON: Can I read my statement?
THE CHAIRMAN: No, you cannot read it. The meeting is adjourned.
Mr. ROBESON: I think it should be, and you should adjourn this forever, that is what I would say.
Source: Committee on Un-American Activities, Investigation of the Unauthorized Use of U.S. Passports (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1956), 4492-4509. Available online via Internet Archive (https://archive.org/details/investigationofu0304unit).