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Left-wing Radicalism in the United States: A Foreign Creed?

Performing Dissent: Pete Seeger and Paul Robeson before HUAC (1955-1956)

Jodie Childers


Dans cet article, j’analyse la façon dont le témoignage de Pete Seeger et celui de Paul Robeson devant la commission de la Chambre des représentants sur les activités anti-américaines (HUAC) éclairent la façon dont les artistes de gauche mettaient en scène leur identité radicale en réaction aux accusations d’anti-américanisme dont ils faisaient l’objet pendant le Maccarthysme. Resituer les témoignages respectifs de Seeger et Robeson dans leur contexte biographique permet une lecture fine de ces deux documents, qui sont ici analysés en tant qu’archives, mais également en tant que performances historiques illustrant la manière dont Seeger et Robeson conçoivent l’identité nationale, tout en demeurant internationalistes. Les méthodes employées par Seeger et Robeson pour attaquer la commission ne sont pas anodines. Si, en août 1955, Seeger se fait le porte-voix de la liberté individuelle et de la liberté d’expression, en fondant sa position sur le premier amendement de la Constitution des États-Unis, Robeson, qui témoigne en juin 1956, invoque une vision internationaliste de la justice sociale, et associe une position politique de gauche au mouvement des droits civiques aux États-Unis et aux luttes contre le colonialisme à travers le monde.

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Hold the Line

  • 1 I would like to extend my gratitude to Asha Nadkarni and the American studies Works in Progress gro (...)
  • 2 Founded in 1946, the Civil Rights Congress was spearheaded by the attorney William Patterson, a fri (...)

1In August 1949, Paul Robeson was scheduled to perform a concert with Pete Seeger and other musicians in Westchester County, New York.1 Sponsored by the Civil Rights Congress,2 a radical civil rights organization that advocated for racial justice in the legal system, the event was canceled before Robeson even arrived, when right-wing agitators armed with baseball bats stormed the outdoor venue and assaulted the audience members. The organizers rescheduled the concert for September, countering the accusations of un-Americanism in the design and program of the concert itself. Folk standards, labor songs, and patriotic anthems such as “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “America the Beautiful” were performed, the latter by Robeson himself. The protestors returned again, disparaging the performers with anti-communist, racist, and anti-Semitic propaganda. During the performances, local union workers protected the musicians by creating a human barricade, but after the concert came to a close, this mob of anti-communist agitators, which included local conservatives and Ku Klux Klan members, descended on the performers and audience members as they left the site, hurling racial epithets and throwing rocks at people and their cars. The police did not intervene to stop the violence. Interweaving racial and anti-communist paranoia, this riot brought to the fore clashing visions of American national identity during the second Red Scare, a period when the left struggled against state-sanctioned suppression that was instituted through policy and, as this incident indicates, enacted by the public.

2Responding to the attacks in an open letter to President Truman, Robeson pushed back against allegations of “un-American” conduct and denounced the riot as “the product of that perverted Americanism which brands as un-American those who speak out for peace, who stand up for their constitutional rights and those of their fellow-men or who are concerned with freedom for colonial peoples rather than with the raw materials that can be stolen from their lands” (Robeson, “Open Letter” 253-236). The attack left a lifelong impression on Seeger as well, whose car was pummeled with stones, shattering the windows. Seeger saved the rocks that landed in his car and built them into the mantle of his fireplace. He and Lee Hays, a fellow folk musician, also memorialized the incident in the song “Hold the Line,” completed two weeks later, which calls out the fascist mob and implicates the police for their complicity in what came to be known in American history as the Peekskill Riots (Dunaway 15).

3In this instance and throughout their careers, Robeson and Seeger were frequently labeled as un-American and anti-American even as they strategically foregrounded their American identities, cited American history in their music and writing, and performed American cultural staples while promoting and defending their political beliefs. The Peekskill Riots illustrate just how high the stakes were for left-wing artists during this period. The scrutiny of these two prominent cultural figures culminated when both artists were called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in the 1950s. The testimonies delivered by Seeger (1955) and Robeson (1956) shed light on how left-wing artists “held the line” as they performed their radical identities and defended themselves from charges of un-Americanness during the height of anti-communist suppression. Situating the testimonies of Seeger and Robeson within their respective biographical contexts, this paper analyzes these documents not only as historical archives of dissent, but as rhetorical performances that reversed the power dynamics of the inquisition, effectively putting the committee on trial in the court of public opinion.

  • 3 Albert Einstein, for instance, was opposed to pleading the Fifth, which he felt presumed guilt. Cer (...)

4Reading these two testimonies in juxtaposition illuminates how Robeson and Seeger deployed patriotic rhetoric strategically to counter and deflect accusations of un-Americanness. Both artists responded to the construction of radicalness as tied to “un-Americanism” and “foreignness” by highlighting their rights as American citizens and their protections under the Constitution, while also questioning the legitimacy of the committee and the American political establishment. These two testimonies are also significant as they evince two different legal methods of dissent, based on the First and Fifth Amendments, a topic of debate among political leaders, intellectuals, artists, and others who were concerned about HUAC’s affront to civil liberties.3 While Seeger’s testimony in August 1955 championed artistic liberty and freedom of speech, using the First Amendment as the foundation for his position, Robeson pleaded the Fifth in his testimony, delivered in June 1956, and interrogated not only the committee but American society more broadly, invoking an internationalist sense of social justice that linked left-wing politics, the civil rights movement, and anti-colonial struggles around the world.

McCarthyism and McCarranism

5Left-wing radicals in the United States faced two acute periods of political suppression. While anarchists were the primary target of the first Red Scare, which peaked from 1919 to 1920, by the 1950s, the emphasis had shifted to communism, although J. Edgar Hoover remained one of the consistent figures between both periods. Hoover served as an assistant to Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer in 1919 and was a key player in the Palmer Raids the following year. In 1924, Hoover became the head of the Bureau of Investigation, which was renamed the FBI in 1935, the agency whose G-men were responsible for the notorious surveillance campaign of alleged subversives. Yet, it was not only Hoover, but also the ideological threads and “nativist patterns” that linked these two periods of political suppression (Preston 2). According to William Preston, Jr., in his classic work Aliens and Dissenters, the federal government conflated “antialien and antiradical” sentiments during the first half of the twentieth century, suppressing radical ideas and enacting anti-immigrant legislations in tandem, which resulted in tightened border restrictions and deportations. As Ellen Schrecker has stated powerfully, “The history of American repression is strewn with the bodies of the foreign born” (1996-1997 393).

  • 4 Written during the 1950s, John Higham’s work Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, (...)

6Although Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin was the legislator popularly associated with communist suppression during the 1950s, it was Nevada Senator Pat McCarran whose politics reenacted the “antialien and antiradical” discourse of the 1920s.4 McCarthy’s bombastic rhetoric imagined a bifurcated world divided between communism and capitalism, and expressed a fear of communist infiltrators within the American government with a particular disdain for the elite domestic communists “born with silver spoons in their mouths,” whom he called out in his speech delivered at Wheeling, West Virginia, in 1950. McCarran’s paranoia fixated on the immigrant as subversive and his name was attached to two of the most controversial legislative measures during the period, the Internal Security Act, or McCarran Act (1950), and the Immigration and Nationality Act, or McCarran-Walter Act (1952), both of which increased the scrutiny of political radicals and tightened border restrictions.

7The excesses of McCarranism did not go uncontested even within the federal government. Both bills were vetoed by President Truman, but his vetoes were overridden by Congress with overwhelming support. The Internal Security Act mandated communist groups to register with the Subversive Activities Control Board. In his veto, Truman endorsed the requirements for the Communist Party but questioned the broad reach:

In so far as the bill would require registration by the Communist Party itself, it does not endanger our traditional liberties. However, the application of the registration requirements to so-called communist-front organizations can be the greatest danger to freedom of speech, press and assembly, since the Alien and Sedition Laws of 1798. This danger arises out of the criteria or standards to be applied in determining whether an organization is a communist-front organization. (Truman)

8The Immigration and National Security Act was particularly harsh on political dissidents, who were deemed “ineligible to receive visas and excluded from admission” (United States Congress 182). Among others, the law banned a range of political radicals as follows:

(A) Aliens who are anarchists;
(B) Aliens who advocate or teach, or who are members of or affiliated with any organization that advocates or teaches, opposition to all organized government;
(C) Aliens who are members of or affiliated with (i) the Communist Party of the United States, (ii) any other totalitarian party of the United States, (iii) the Communist Political Association […]. (United States Congress 184-185)

  • 5 A friend and ally of Robeson’s, Benjamin J. Davis (1903-1964) was an African American politician, l (...)

These two laws also worked in tandem with the Smith Act of 1940, which made it illegal to aid and abet the overthrow of the government. The Smith Act had served as the grounds for the 1949 indictment of eleven communist party leaders including Benjamin J. Davis.5

9Because of these means of attack, left-wing radicals frequently appropriated patriotic rhetoric or called out what Robeson labeled “perverted Americanism” as a form of self-defense to ward off accusations of un-Americanness and garner support within the larger culture. This was not a new strategy. From the early twentieth century, left-wing radicals had been forced to devise tactics to protect themselves from the repressive hand of the state. According to Alice Béja, anarchists in the early twentieth century, like Emma Goldman, were looking not only to legitimize and disseminate their ideas while responding to political suppression, but also to “rewrite the genealogy of American dissent to make room for anarchism” (10). Béja argues that “anarchists like Goldman in the United States wanted to Americanize anarchism” (11). Similar strategies were deployed by communists and alleged party members during the second Red Scare as they attempted to make a case for their beliefs and protect their political freedoms. This was certainly the case for Paul Robeson and Pete Seeger, two towering figures of American music and performance on the left in the 1950’s. Facing scrutiny by both the government and the American public for their political views and affiliations, Seeger and Robeson recounted their family histories, stressed personal ties to the country, and appealed to American ideals such as freedom of speech to justify their positions. They situated their own experiences of suppression in larger histories of American dissent, oftentimes invoking such important American historical figures as Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois in their songs and their rhetoric. For Seeger and Robeson as artists, this project also helped forge a distinct American radical aesthetic.

100 % American Communist: Pete Seeger’s Testimony, 18 August 1955

10Pete Seeger’s problems with the American government began prior to the Cold War and the question of his loyalty to the country was at the core of the line of inquiry he faced from the beginning. The government’s scrutiny commenced during World War II, when Seeger was stationed at Keesler Field, in Mississippi. According to his FBI file, the impetus for the investigation stemmed from a letter he wrote to a branch of the American Legion in California, dated 15 October 1942. In this letter, Seeger denounces the chapter’s public support for (1) the deportations of Japanese citizens and noncitizens, and (2) a ban on citizenship for their descendants. He notes the absurdity of the proposition, pointing out that the United States would also need to ban those from Italy, Germany, and so forth. Employing patriotic rhetoric, Seeger’s letter ultimately makes an argument for a multicultural popular front that must unite to fight against fascism.

  • 6 Regarding his time in college, Seeger notes: “I got so interested in politics I didn’t keep up with (...)

11This brief letter prompted a full-scale investigation into Seeger’s character, politics, and loyalty to the state. It is not surprising that such a missive would draw scrutiny considering that, as Ellen Schrecker observes, the American Legion was “perhaps the most active organizational advocate of political restrictions on immigration” (1998 400). Indeed, there were ties between the federal government and the American Legion, most notably, Watson Miller, who after a stint in the Federal Security Agency became Commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service in 1947 (1998 400). Seeger’s case file shows evidence that officials interviewed his friends and acquaintances, including a report of a conversation with fellow singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie that took place in 1943. Seeger’s school records from Harvard (he dropped out in 1938) were consulted and his personal letters, including many to his partner Toshi Ohta, were intercepted, closely read, and analyzed in disturbing detail.6

12The government was particularly concerned with his engagement and subsequent marriage to Toshi Ohta. In a section of a report dated 23 March 1943 by the Military Intelligence Division that includes six points of adverse information against Seeger, his relationship to Ohta is noted as one of the main areas of concern: “Subject is engaged to Miss Toshi Ohta, the daughter of an American mother and a Japanese father, who was banished some years ago from Japan for political reasons” (“Pete Seeger 116”). Toshi Ohta was born in Germany, the child of Takashi Ohta and Virginia Harper Berry. According to family accounts, Toshi’s grandfather had been sentenced to exile from Japan because he had translated Marx into Japanese. Instead, his son Takashi accepted his father’s penalty, which was permitted under law. Seeger himself is described in his FBI file by Second Lieutenant Alan Swartz as “100 % American though rather immature and inclined to be a little drastic in his talk” (“Pete Seeger” 46).

13The file expresses concern about Toshi and her father’s participation in the Japanese Committee for American Democracy, an organization for the defense of Japanese Americans’ civil rights. In fact, one of the reports concludes by proclaiming the danger of their intimate relationship to the security of the state:

Correspondence between the two indicated that both Subject and his then fiancée were deeply interested in political trends, particularly anti-Fascist, and that she was a member of several Communist infiltrated organizations. Their marriage will quite possibly fuse and strengthen their individual radical tendencies. (“Pete Seeger” 19)

Due to these factors, Seeger’s “loyalty to the United States” was deemed “under all circumstances questionable.” While the rest of his unit at Keesler was sent abroad, he was forced to stay behind and only later dispatched to Saipan in the Western Pacific to entertain troops. After the war he, along with many of his friends and fellow musicians, continued to garner suspicion from the government because of their ties to the folk music scene. At the same time, Seeger and his folk quartet, the Weavers, had never been more successful, having hit #1 on the Billboard Chart in 1950. While the Weavers were rising in fame, they faced scrutiny from both the right and even some of their allies on the left, who questioned their financial success, their patriarchal rhetoric, and their appropriation of black culture after they sold millions of copies of their cover of one of Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter’s signature songs “Goodnight Irene” (Dunaway 174-175).

  • 7 An anti-communist newsletter, Counterattack: The Newsletter of Facts on Communism was published by (...)
  • 8 An ethnomusicologist, Alan Lomax collected, recorded, and preserved world folk music for the Librar (...)
  • 9 A Canadian-American folk singer who performed with Pete Seeger, Lead Belly, and other prominent Ame (...)

14Like Hollywood, the folk scene had also become subject to special scrutiny during the height of McCarthyism. Issued by the US Army, the pamphlet “How to Spot a Communist,”, which circulated during the 1950s, notes that “such hobbies as ‘folk dancing’ and ‘folk music’ have been traditionally allied with the Communist movement in the United States” (6). With its tradition of cloaking political and subversive messages in stories and fables, folk music was especially vulnerable to J. Edgar Hoover’s accusations of “Aesopian” language, a potentially dangerous type of propaganda, which he viewed as the tool of communists to “mislead the public” (Hoover 130). Because of his participation in May Day rallies and other political events, Seeger’s name was listed in Red Channels, the infamous blacklist put out by Counterattack7 in 1950, which also included Alan Lomax8 and Oscar Brand9 among others associated with folk music and culture. The FBI informant Harvey Matusow identified Seeger as a professed communist in 1951, which was another blow to his career and reputation. Facing increasing surveillance and a lack of opportunities to perform, the Weavers officially broke up in 1952.

15It was inevitable that Seeger would be called before HUAC, the notorious House committee formed in 1938 in charge of investigating alleged subversives. By the mid-1950s, the committee had already subpoenaed a range of high-profile artists including the Hollywood Ten, Bertolt Brecht, and Langston Hughes among others. On 18 August 1955, Seeger, accompanied by his lawyer Paul Ross, was brought before a HUAC subcommittee at Foley Square, amid four days of testimonies in which twenty-three individuals were questioned. Ross was well known for working on cases defending the civil liberties of left-wing figures and also encountered the government’s suspicion, not only for his legal work, but for his progressive political affiliations and civil rights activism. Leading up to the testimony, Seeger deliberated over whether to plead the Fifth or the First. Enraged by the committee’s overreaches, Seeger told Ross: “I want to get up there […] and attack these guys for what they are, the Worst of America, the witch hunters” (qtd in Dunaway 207). Ross advocated a more cautious approach (Dunaway 207) and Seeger ultimately opted to implicitly plead the First. In an interview with the CBC in 1965, he noted: “I didn’t actually take any [amendment], but my lawyer said the only defense he could make of me was on the basis of the First.” In the same interview, his anger towards the committee was still apparent ten years later, as he characterized HUAC as “a group of American Fascists” and explained why he did not plead the Fifth: “I wanted to say you have no right to ask any American citizen this question” (“Pete Seeger on being Black Listed”).

16Francis E. Walter presided over Seeger’s hearing and the two most vocal participants were Gordon Scherer, a Republican Representative from Ohio’s first district, and Frank S. Tavenner, chief counsel for the committee. In his testimony, Seeger verbally invoked no amendment but implicitly pleaded the First. After the prosecution of the Hollywood Ten in 1947 (who were all convicted of contempt while appealing to their First Amendment rights) most unfriendly witnesses opted to exercise their Fifth Amendment right to resist self-incrimination, or as popularly understood, the right to remain silent. Seeger, however, chose “to make a broader attack upon the committee” (Incompleat Folksinger 468), situating his argument within debates over freedom of speech.

  • 10 In fact, directly after his testimony before HUAC, Seeger performed the patriotic song “Jefferson a (...)

17In his testimony, Seeger enacted several strategies of dissent by refusing to answer the committee’s questions, conflating religious and political freedom as core American ideals, and arguing that political belief is protected as free thought and speech. Stressing his American identity and invoking his rights as an American citizen, Seeger’s tactics of resistance to the repressive state apparatus also included citing familial forefathers and pointing out his aforementioned military service to the nation during World War II. On the stand and in public forums, he defended his reputation and shielded his views with the language of American freedom and liberty as a form of self-defense. These tropes can be seen not only in his testimony but in other documents he wrote surrounding his case, including letters, public interviews, and autobiographical writings, platforms he used to take control of his narrative and defend his reputation within the public sphere.10

18Seeger’s approach also brought to the fore the inherent conflict between national security and individual liberty during the period. By emphasizing his own humble aspirations and his status as a banjo-picker, Seeger constructed a persona that could be viewed by the public as non-threatening in appearance, profession, and rhetoric. The New York Times took the bait and Milton Bracker described Seeger’s appearance at the HUAC testimony as follows: “Pete Seeger, 36, who called himself ‘a banjo picker’ appeared wearing a tweed jacket, over a dark plaid shirt with a yellow tie. He cited no amendment, rejecting the whole line of inquiry as ‘improper’ and ‘immoral’” (Bracker).

19Appealing to ethos was foundational to Seeger’s rhetorical approach as he projected the image of an affable, courteous persona while simultaneously refusing to cooperate with the authorities. By emphasizing his songs rather than his politics, Seeger sidestepped any direct political engagement and instead underscored the issue of freedom of expression, stressing the government’s encroachment upon his individual liberty and freedom of belief and opinion, which, he maintained, was an ideological foundation of American thought. This strategy was indeed a conscious one, and in his autobiography, The Incompleat Folksinger, Seeger maintains that his goal was to construct a narrative that showed one individual up against HUAC. In other words, he was engaging in a form of public performance to expose the committee’s absurdity as well as its danger to the country.

20More specifically, Seeger “played the rube,” a strategy taken directly from the rural folk cultures that had such an important influence on his musical work, as he projected and performed the role of a naive, guileless persona while craftily manipulating the situation to his advantage. Playing the role of the folksy musician while maintaining complete control of his demeanor and language, he prodded and poked his interrogators throughout the testimony, expertly pulling back and maintaining an innocent posture all the while brazenly refusing to reveal any pertinent information. He used colloquial language, often adding unnecessary information, seizing time, and frustrating the committee’s sense of control over the situation. When Tavenner asked him if New York had been his “headquarters for a significant period of time,” Seeger replied informally as if responding to a question from a new acquaintance: “No, I lived here only rarely until I left school, and after a year or two or a few years living here after World War II, I got back to the country, where I always felt at home” (Seeger, “Testimony” 687). When asked about his “profession,” he responded with a short conversational reflection on his early years:

MR. SEEGER: It is hard to call it a profession. I kind of drifted into it and I never intended to be a musician, and I am glad I am one now, and it is a very honorable profession, but when I started out actually I wanted to be a newspaperman, and when I left school—
CHAIRMAN WALTER: Will you answer the question, please?
MR. SEEGER: I have to explain that it really wasn’t my profession, I picked up a little change in it. (Seeger, “Testimony” 687)

His informal behavior expressed absolute disrespect for the committee’s authority even as his peaceful, convivial demeanor only served to emphasize the aggressiveness of the committee’s manner and line of questioning. As a friendly “unfriendly” witness, Seeger’s prepared statement shut off any line of inquiry about his politics while opening other forms of dialogue outside the bounds of the committee’s focus. He refused to name names or implicate himself in any way, yet he frequently offered to provide information about the content, meaning, and significance of his songs, even offering to perform them for the committee. This was not simply a testimony but a performance constructed to shape public opinion about the committee’s infringement upon an “ordinary” American’s private life.

21One of the most interesting aspects of Seeger’s case revolves around his perspective on religious and political belief. By tying politics and religion together under a broader category of belief, he sought to separate private matters from matters of the state. He also frequently used language with religious connotations both during the hearing and when writing about the case afterwards. In his clearly prepared statement of refusal, he conflated political and religious freedom explicitly:

I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked especially under such compulsion as this. I would be very glad to tell you my life if you want to hear of it. (Seeger, “Testimony” 688)

To avoid charges of having advocated the “violent overthrow of the government” under the Smith Act, Seeger frequently insisted that he had not engaged in any “conspiratorial” behavior, pointing out that he had performed in a diverse range of public and private spaces for artists of all political persuasions. Even more significantly, he argued that music as personal expression and politics as personal belief were shielded by the clauses under the First Amendment that protected freedom of religion and freedom of speech. Although the First Amendment does not explicitly mention freedom of political belief, Seeger essentially separated belief from action, a line of reasoning that shared some similarities with one of the key arguments that would overturn the convictions of communist leaders in Yates v. United States in 1957, by differentiating between “abstract principles” and actions.

22The religious language continued throughout the testimony alongside Seeger’s use of an interrogative approach. At one point, for example, he was asked to identify his own image in a photograph taken of a May Day parade in 1952. He looked at the photograph and responded with a rhetorical question: “It is like Jesus Christ when asked by Pontius Pilate, ‘Are you King of the Jews?’” Tying together politics and religion once again, this remark struck a chord with journalists and was quoted in articles published by The Washington Post and The New York Times. Later in a 1963 letter to Harold Leventhal, the manager of the Weavers and a promoter of other important folk musicians including Judy Collins and Bob Dylan, Seeger reflected upon his political views and elaborated on the deeper significance of this question and on the nature of questions in general:

Actually, everyone knows there are lots of questions you can’t settle with a yes or no answer. After all, why did Jesus Christ refuse to give a yes or no answer when Pilate asked him “Are You King Of The Jews?” The reason was that either a yes or a no answer would have been misleading or untrue. Jesus did not consider himself any temporal ruler, but in the deepest spiritual sense the King of all Mankind. (Seeger, “As Communist” 113)

  • 11 Seeger uses the figure of Christ and the language of religious liberty as a metaphor for his own ex (...)

Seeger was charged with contempt, but he continued to discuss religious freedom during the appeal process.11 The religious language also persisted in later documents tied to his case. In his statement to the court in his 1961 appeal, he invoked his familial forefathers, positioning his own story as political dissenter in a lineage of religious dissenters: “Some of my ancestors were religious dissenters who came to America over 300 years ago. Others were abolitionists in New England of the 1840s and ’50s. I believe that in choosing my present course I do no dishonor to them, or to those who may come after me” (Seeger, “Statement” 107). In this subsequent prepared statement before the court, he described his experience before HUAC as a form of public humiliation: “The House committee wished to pillory me because it didn’t like some few of the many thousands of places I have sung for” (“Statement” 107). The thrust of Seeger’s argument was still that politics fall under a larger category of beliefs that, he maintained, are protected under freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and the right to peaceful assembly. His emphasis on a private individual self also shows the influence on his thought of writers like Emerson and Thoreau, the latter of whom he first read at the age of thirteen (Seeger, “My Political Bio” 92). By braiding together religious and political freedom, Seeger positioned himself as a political dissenter not unlike religious dissenters in early colonial histories—a legacy that was, of course, also invoked in 1953 by Arthur Miller in The Crucible about the Salem witch trials in seventeenth-century Massachusetts.

23Despite the indirect rhetoric in his testimony, Seeger admitted later, during his subsequent trial, that his approach to HUAC was not merely about defending himself. In a letter to Bess Hawes, Alan Lomax’s sister, Seeger explains that his goal was not just to prove his own innocence, but to challenge the entire enterprise as “a complete distortion of the correct practices and the legal practices of Congress” (Seeger, “Letter to Bess Hawes” 111). He goes on to claim that his attack was offensive: “And my best defense, frankly, is a hard-hitting offense to try and put this committee out of business” (111). Intersecting religious and political language again, he argues that “the question” at the center of his trial is “not one of conspiracy but heresy” (112), differentiating more specifically between plans to overthrow the government and “the legal right to believe in heresy of whatever form” (112). He goes on to assert: “Congressman Walter has a perfectly good right to proclaim his belief that certain ideas are harmful to America, but he has absolutely no right to go unchallenged with his claim that these beliefs are illegal and conspiratorial and un-American” (112). Emphasizing themes of plurality and dialogue as foundational ideals of American society, he argues that freedom of belief includes the right to heresy, whether religious or political: “America has plenty of room for heresies. It would not be such a good country without them” (112).

24As Seeger fought a long battle in the court system over the contempt charges, he continued to face scrutiny not only from the government, but also from the American public. The American Legion was particularly antagonistic, staging protests and pickets in front of his concerts even into the 1970s. But similar themes persisted in Seeger’s rhetoric as he brandished patriotic rhetoric as a means of defending himself from attack on his character and music. In April 1956, he was scheduled to participate in a folk concert at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Only months after his testimony, several veterans groups protested his presence at the concert, receiving public support from the Brooklyn Borough President, John Cashmore. Seeger responded to these attacks by highlighting his own military service during World War II and proclaiming that he sang “all of American history” (“Singer Draws Fire”).

25Prior to his trial, Pete Seeger even attempted to contact the President of the United States directly. In a letter dated 5 March 1961 found in the Kennedy archives, Seeger outlined his story and appealed his case, including direct quotes from the testimony itself, highlighting the moment when Tavenner interrogated him about the song “Wasn’t That a Time.” As in his testimony and other texts associated with the case, Seeger cites a familial forefather: he tells the story of his uncle, the poet Alan Seeger, whom he describes as “the second American to die in World War I.” He includes one of Alan Seeger’s poems, which calls out America’s neglect of social issues and laments that “each man must share / The stain he lets the country wear.” He concludes the letter with a rhetorical question that reflects upon the poem: “Should we not heed it now?” (“Letter to JFK”). Pointed rhetorical questions like these were an important tactic for Seeger. Similarly, he concluded his 1961 statement before the court of appeals with a question: “Do I have the right to sing these songs? Do I have the right to sing them anywhere?” (“Statement” 108).

26Seeger’s right to sing his songs was ultimately protected in a long court battle that resulted in a reversal of his contempt charges in 1962, but the experience left a strong imprint on him. In his autobiography, Seeger discusses the lingering effects of the committee on America’s global reputation: “The HUAC and similar inquisitions hurt America a great deal. Our reputation throughout the world suffers when citizens in other countries read in their papers about Americans being pilloried or jailed for their opinions. If one truly loves America, one should try to put inquisitors out of business” (Incompleat Folksinger 467). Regarding his own personal political and religious opinions, he continued to remain elusive. A poet at his core, he encouraged those interested in figuring out his politics to look deep within the lyrics of his songs. In his autobiography, he defines a “left-wing extremist” as “Someone who stands up to defend the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence and the Sixth Commandment (Thou Shalt Not Kill)” (Incompleat Folksinger 462). This definition reveals his belief that radical thought is rooted in the foundation of American society, and amounts to no more than upholding and protecting the liberties built into the very structure of the nation. One of the most direct statements of his larger worldview can be found in a passage where he uses an eccentric mixture of theology and folklore to outline some of his thoughts on human relationships and the planet:

  • 12 Seeger frequently referenced the Swedish mystic theologian Emmanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) in his w (...)
  • 13 An American folk hero and New Church missionary, Johnny Appleseed (1774-1845?) was best known for t (...)

If I had to accept any kind of label, I’d call myself some kind of Naturalist, perhaps like the Swedenborgians12—although I haven’t read enough about it to know for sure. But I so admired Johnny Appleseed,13 who was a Swedenborgian, that I named my magazine column after him. I’m not a vegetarian, but I do believe that Man must learn to live in harmony with nature or we shall destroy this earth and ourselves. I guess I’m about as Communist as the average American Indian was. (Incompleat Folksinger 479)

Published in 1972, these comments reflect on his experiences during his trial, while also illustrating his turn towards environmentalism, which he began to explore more explicitly in his music and activism in the 1960s. In 1969, Seeger, along with a group of civil rights activists and folk musicians, sailed the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, a 106-foot historical replica ship, from Maine to New York to raise awareness about water pollution. In 1970, they took the boat to the first Earth Day. With McCarthyism behind him, this idiosyncratic mixture of left-wing radicalism and environmentalism would inform the anti-war, human rights, and environmental work that Seeger devoted himself to for the last fifty years of his life.

All-American Communist: Paul Robeson’s Testimony, 12 June 1956

27In a 1937 speech for the National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief, an association formed to coordinate relief efforts during the Spanish Civil War, Paul Robeson offered a strong statement about his belief on the relationship between art and politics: “the artist must take sides. He must elect to fight for freedom or for slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative. The history of the capitalist era is characterized by the degradation of my people” (P. Robeson, “Artist” 119). This choice to stand against racism, capitalism, and imperialism came with profound consequences for Robeson, and he experienced the brutal hand of the repressive state apparatus throughout his life. Like many black artists and political leaders who spoke openly about politics during the Cold War, Robeson countered the projected image of the United States as a moral superpower by bringing to light and denouncing segregation and other forms of racial injustice within the country. Influenced by W.E.B. Du Bois as well as by African intellectuals and political leaders, whom he met while studying in London and traveling the world during the 1930s and ’40s, he connected racism within the United States with a larger project of colonization and Western imperialism. His study of African histories, cultures, and languages also informed both his aesthetics and politics. In his discussion of Robeson’s interest in languages, Gerald Horne points out that “language was not just a tool of communication, but also a way to forge a deeper connection with social—and political—consequence” (9). Robeson employed these gifts in political rhetoric and his artistic talents in film, theater, and music as an instrument for Black liberation.

  • 14 In his 1941 State of the Union Address, President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously called for a world (...)

28Robeson’s political and artistic projects were seen as particularly dangerous to US foreign policy during the period. As the United States moved toward a strategy of containment (prompted by George Kennan’s “Long Telegram” and enacted from 1947-1961 to actively impede the spread of communism throughout the world), this also played out on the cultural front. In this “ideological war,” artists could be potential subversives, not only domestically but also abroad, as their bodies and unregulated cultural works crossed national boundaries. Musicians, writers, artists, and filmmakers who performed for or created work for international audiences had the potential to shape the image of the United States or to circulate “dissident” ideologies through their works and through their political speeches and publications, thus undermining or even subverting the American government’s strategy of political and cultural containment. As Mary Dudziak argues in Cold War Civil Rights, activists, artists, and writers who talked openly about racial oppression in the United States exposed the failure of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms on the home front, calling into question the very ethos of the American capitalist project.14 Robeson refused to allow the federal government to control the narrative about racism in the United States, and with his expansive global network, from the relationships he built with African political leaders like Jomo Kenyatta to his travels in the Soviet Union, he had manifold opportunities to dispute the watered-down version of American racism disseminated by the official channels of the federal government. According to Gerald Horne, Robeson’s life and work embodied a “radical internationalism” that was particularly dangerous to the American political establishment, “since he was effectively eroding Washington’s sovereignty in pursuit of racial equality domestically and the socialist commonwealth globally that would guarantee it” (11). Not only in his rhetoric, but also in his art, which built bridges across world folk cultures, Robeson expressed and enacted his political beliefs, boldly stating his anti-capitalist perspective at a time when political expression was being curtailed:

On many occasions I have publicly expressed my belief in the principles of scientific socialism, my deep conviction that for all mankind a socialist society represents and advance to a higher stage of life—that it is a form of society which is economically, socially, culturally, and ethically superior to a system based upon production for private profit. (P. Robeson, Here I Stand 47)

  • 15 Although not subpoenaed, Jackie Robinson offered to testify before HUAC upon the bequest of John S. (...)
  • 16 Founded in 1937 as the International Committee on African Affairs, this anti-colonial organization (...)

29Though an idealist in his philosophical views about race, class, and empire, Robeson was also a pragmatist and with his background in law (he received his law degree from Columbia University in 1923), he appealed to the Constitution and other forms of legislative resistance to defend himself against anti-communist attacks and advocate for black liberation in the United States and the world. Several years before presenting his own testimony before HUAC, Robeson criticized the committee on many occasions, frequently terming it “the Un-American Activities Committee.” Challenging the hegemony of HUAC by refusing to allow the committee to function as a nameless, faceless entity, he disseminated information about its individual members. In a press conference following the friendly testimony delivered by the prominent African American baseball player Jackie Robinson,15 Robeson focused his critique not on Robinson, but on the committee itself, calling out Georgia Representative John S. Wood: “We cannot forget that John S. Wood chairman of the committee, once called the Ku Klux Klan an American institution” (P. Robeson, “Let’s Not Be Divided” 220). In a news release from 20 July 1949, put out by the Council on African Affairs,16 Robeson again accused the committee of complicity in racial violence: “The Un-American Activities Committee moves now to transform the Government’s cold war policy against Negro people into a hot war. Its action incites the Ku Klux Klan, that openly terrorist organization, to a reign of mob violence against my people in Florida and elsewhere” (“Statement” 218). He personally experienced this intersection of anti-communist and racist targeting in the mob attack at the Peekskill Riots only a few months later.

  • 17 Eslanda Robeson’s testimony before this Senate committee, presided over by Joseph McCarthy, is part (...)

30If the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952 served to control immigration and prevent dissident ideas from penetrating US borders, the passport restrictions of US citizens under the Internal Security Act of 1950 stymied the free movement of people and radical ideas outside the country. In this way, the American government attempted to gain more control over the perception of the United States abroad, while also blocking potential transnational radical encounters, particularly between left-wing thinkers like Robeson and the rising tide of anti-colonial independence movements and activist campaigns in India, Ghana, and Kenya among others. In 1950, Robeson attempted to renew his passport and was ordered to sign an affidavit declaring his loyalty to the state. He refused to do so, and his application was denied. In his reflection on his passport situation, he noted that after the Hollywood Ten were convicted of contempt when pleading the First, he resolved never “to comply with any demand of legislative committees or department officials that infringes upon the Constitutional rights of all Americans” (P. Robeson, Here I Stand 47). Not only did this keep Robeson from performing abroad, but it also affected the political, artistic, and personal relationships he had spent years building around the world. Unable to perform concerts or act in theater or film projects abroad, while also facing continued blacklisting within the United States, Robeson’s professional opportunities were severely limited. He was not the only prominent black radical affected by these stringent controls. Du Bois lost his passport in 1952. A writer and anthropologist, Robeson’s spouse Eslanda Robeson, was called before the US Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Committee on Government Operation in 1953 and lost her passport as well.17 Much to his great disappointment, Robeson was not able to travel to Indonesia to attend the Bandung Conference in 1955, a meeting of Asian and African leaders focused on world peace, decolonization, and international collaboration. However, during this period of repression, Robeson continued to build transnational connections through the arts, exploiting new technological means, performing concerts via telephone, sending audio recordings abroad, and even performing concerts for workers at the border between Canada and the United States.

31Beginning in 1950, Robeson waged a long legal battle against the State Department to have his passport reinstated. For this well-publicized case, which received international attention in no small part due to Eslanda Robeson’s publicity work, his lawyers argued that the denial of his right to travel violated both his First Amendment rights and his property right or “right to earn a living by practicing his profession” (E. Robeson). In the July-August 1955 issue of the Harlem-based newspaper Freedom, founded by Louis Burnham and himself, Robeson discusses the invitations he received from around the world to speak and perform, and declares that “despite all these invitations, the State Department continued to deny me a passport, refused my Constitutional right to go where I please and when I please so long as I don’t break the law” (“Constitutional Right” 406). During this period, the federal government (as his FBI file shows) also scrutinized every aspect of Robeson’s political and personal life in the United States and this culminated when he was brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee on 12 June 1956. Because of the passport case, which went through several appeals and about which he wrote frequently, Robeson was well-prepared for this moment. His background in law, the arts, and political activism also made him the ideal candidate to take on such a monumental task. His testimony before HUAC, by any assessment, is an astounding document of American history. Invoking the Fifth Amendment, Robeson, who was accompanied by the prominent civil liberties lawyer Leonard Boudin, moved adeptly and fluidly between legal and rhetorical tactics, as he chastised and questioned the committee and turned the courtroom into a public platform to advocate for black liberation in the United States and the world.

32One of Robeson’s key strategies was to interrogate the committee. From the beginning of the testimony, Robeson questioned its legitimacy, thus reversing the power dynamics and putting its members on trial. From demanding that the committee members introduce themselves and state their positions to asking them pointed questions about themselves and the legal process, Robeson dismissed the institutional hierarchy and instead inserted his own expertise and knowledge into the courtroom, by assuming the role of a moral prosecutor and cross-examining the committee members. Although resolute and austere in his argumentation, he also used biting sarcasm on several occasions to highlight the absurdity in the line of questioning. When Richard Arens asked him if he was a member of the Communist Party, he retorted: “Would you like to come to the ballot box when I vote and take out the ballot box and see?” (“Testimony” 773). When Arens demanded that he identify a document with his photo on it, Robeson merely noted that he owned a copy of it himself.

33Robeson used his extensive knowledge of American history to contextualize his own antagonistic relationship with the state within a longer narrative of political resistance and dissent. When questioned by Arens about alleged anti-American views based on his comments against American imperialism, Robeson reframed the discourse by comparing himself to the well-known black abolitionists Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman (“Testimony” 782). Referring to these American historical figures served to position his own narrative in a lineage of American political dissidence on the right side of history. While aligning himself with fellow American dissidents, he also highlighted the precedents for his experience of political repression, revealing the committee’s own legal lineage: “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” (785). By referencing the controversial 1798 Alien and Sedition Acts, which put dually stringent restrictions on immigration and political expression, Robeson placed the committee within a history of suppressive measures. He also cited his own family history, alluding to ancestors who contributed to the American Revolution as well as enslaved ancestors who built the nation: “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” (778).

  • 18 A World War II veteran who had allegedly given Franklin D. Roosevelt a letter opener made from the (...)

34One of the most significant examples of Robeson’s usage of moral prosecution emerged in his historic encounter with Chairman Francis E. Walter, Pennsylvania Representative.18 The incident occurred after Robeson addressed the chairman directly, disrupting a particularly tedious onslaught of questions. “Could I ask whether this is legal?” Robeson demanded. Walter responded by hiding himself behind institutional language: “This is legal. This is not only legal but usual. By a unanimous vote, this Committee has been instructed to perform this very distasteful task” (“Testimony” 777). Robeson’s subsequent confrontation with the chairman forced Walter to publicly admit his role in perpetuating American racism and xenophobia, an admission not only for the press but for the annals of history:

MR. ROBESON: To whom am I talking?
THE CHAIRMAN: You are speaking to the Chairman of this Committee.
MR. ROBESON: Mr. Walter?
MR. ROBESON: The Pennsylvania Walter?
THE CHAIRMAN: That is right.
MR. ROBESON: Representative of the steelworkers?
THE CHAIRMAN: That is right.
MR. ROBESON: Of the coal-mining workers and not United States Steel by any chance? A great patriot.
THE CHAIRMAN: That is right
MR. ROBESON: You are the author of all of the bills that are going to keep all kinds of decent people out of the country.
THE CHAIRMAN: No, only your people.
MR. ROBESON: Colored people like myself, from the West Indies and all kinds. And just the Teutonic Anglo-Saxon stock that you would let come in.
THE CHAIRMAN: We are trying to make it easier to get rid of your kind, too. (“Testimony” 777)

In this rhetorical back and forth, Robeson refused to allow Walter to cloak himself in anonymity and hide behind his institutional position, instead forcing him to publicly acknowledge his views in a quotable audio bite, which was picked up by the Chicago Defender among other papers. By ironically flattering and then baiting Walter to admit his racism publicly, Robeson won the moral battle, and his victory would be in the public record.

35In a similar vein, Robeson expounded the ways in which racism factored into red-baiting. He went so far as to claim that the threat posed by the Soviet Union should challenge the United States to confront its racism directly. When the committee members brought forward his affiliations with the Soviet Union, Robeson remained evasive and instead turned the emphasis back to the problem of racism in the United States, a strategy he frequently used when called upon to justify his relationship with the Soviet Union. After pointing that his passport rejection had been motivated by his anti-colonial work, he noted the crux of the matter:

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 […].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 of the United States of America. (“Testimony” 778)

History has proven Robeson’s perspective valid and this explains why so many other black artists who did not identify as communists were also scrutinized by the government; for example Josephine Baker, a performer and public figure whose political work focused exclusively on racial justice, had an extensive FBI file that shows evidence of agents monitoring her travels around the world, despite the fact that she became a French citizen in 1937.

36Robeson’s 1956 HUAC testimony culminated with his chastisement of the committee, in which he inverted notions of un-Americanism, accusing the committee of civil liberty violations, once again citing the Alien and Sedition Acts as a historical precedent for the anti-communist witch hunt of the twentieth century. The dialogue grew particularly tense when Robeson was questioned about his relationship with the Communist Party leader Benjamin Davis. Rather than remaining silent, Robeson proudly acknowledged his relationship with the Party leader who had been indicted under the Smith Act in 1949. He then praised Davis before castigating the committee: “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 non-patriots, and you are the un-Americans, and you ought to be ashamed of yourselves” (“Testimony” 789). In this intrepid rhetorical move, Robeson symbolically indicted the committee while staking a claim for political dissent as a patriotic act. This also bifurcated the debate, differentiating between two versions of, and visions for, America: the “perverted Americanism” and nativism of the Alien and Sedition Acts, and the patriotism of communists like Benjamin Davis, who, Robeson argued, were fighting for a better future for the country and the world.

37Robeson also wrote a prepared statement that he intended to read during the hearing. Though he repeatedly asked the committee for permission to read this document, they refused to grant it. In this statement as in his testimony, he questions the questioners, calling the committee members out by name and demanding that they take responsibility for their “un-American” activities:

It would be more fitting for me to question Walter, [James] Eastland and [John Foster] Dulles than for them to question me, for it is they who should be called to account for their conduct, not I. Why does Walter not investigate the truly “un-American” activities of Eastland and his gang to whom the Constitution is a scrap of paper when invoked by the Negro people and to whom defiance of the Supreme Court is a racial duty? And how can Eastland pretend concern over the internal security of our country while he supports the most brutal assaults on fifteen million Americans by the White Citizens’ Councils and the Ku Klux Klan. (“Statement” 977)

In a litany of invitations and endorsements from organizations such as the Workers Music Association, Ltd., and the South Wales Miners, he also emphasizes the backing for his case around the world, forcing the committee to look beyond the provincial confines of domestic politics and view its actions in a global perspective. He concludes by highlighting his contributions to American national life and culture: “By continuing the struggle at home and abroad for peace and friendship with all of the world’s people, for an end to colonialism, for full citizenship for Negro Americans, for a world in which art and culture may abound, I intend to continue to win friends for the best in American life” (“Statement” 980).

38On “Red Monday” 17 June 1957, in Yates v. the United States, the Supreme Court overturned the convictions of communist leaders in California. This ruling was one of the first steps towards attenuating the Smith Act, but the passport restrictions remained in effect. Still without his passport in May 1958, Robeson performed a concert at Carnegie Hall, in New York City, one of the most acclaimed stages in the world. In this performance, he used music to transport his audience to the other side of the Iron Curtain, performing political, creative dissent amid a tense period of both personal and political repression. In this performance, Robeson connected the local with the global, appealing to an internationalist sense of human connectedness in an affective, defiant performance indicting the state’s infringement upon his creative liberty and right to travel. As the concert recording shows, Robeson sang a selection of songs, giving a transcendent reach not only to spirituals like “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” but also to folk standards like “Joe Hill.” One of the most provocative and emotionally evocative pieces in the concert was his rendition of “The Song of the Volga Boatmen” in both English and Russian. This is a simple, repetitive work song that was historically sung by burlaks, or barge-haulers, who were tied together to drag barges from the water. The song was collected in the nineteenth century and has become an important cultural symbol of Russian national identity. Through his powerful performance, Robeson channeled the embodied pain of the Russian worker; yet, rather than a patriotic anthem of triumph, he lingered over the melancholy notes, transforming his own experience of political repression at the hands of the state into an act of creative dissent. One month later, on 15 June 1958, in Kent v. Dulles, the Supreme Court ruled that “The right to travel is a part of the ‘liberty’ of which a citizen cannot be deprived without due process of law under the Fifth Amendment.” Robeson’s passport ban was lifted. Although the public witch hunts of the McCarthy era were finally coming to an end, Hoover’s covert strategies under COINTELPRO (1957-1971) would serve as the next phase of a brutal campaign of political suppression directly targeting Robeson’s political descendants, the Black Panther Party, among other left-wing groups.


  • 19 The editor of the California Eagle, Charlotta Spears Bass was the first African American woman to r (...)

39Although left-wing rhetoric took a more anti-establishment tenor during the 1960s, the patriotic rhetorical gestures used by figures like Robeson and Seeger remained largely uncontested by the left-wing press or by fellow artists and activists during this period of political suppression. Both Robeson and Seeger were celebrated in the Daily Worker after testifying before HUAC. Robeson’s 1950 passport case was carefully followed by the Daily Worker and the Sunday Worker, and it received international support from left-wing political leaders and fellow artists such as Charlie Chaplin and Pablo Neruda. In fact, Seeger, among other musicians, performed at many of the numerous benefit concerts organized to raise awareness about Robeson’s passport case. As Barbara J. Beeching has shown, the response to Robeson’s passport case by the black press was varied, with some papers like the California Eagle, steered by Charlotta Bass,19 showing unequivocal support, and others offering neutral or negligible coverage. For the left, Robeson’s defiant testimony before HUAC was the climax in a narrative that had been unfolding for years. The day after his testimony, Robeson’s story was on the front page of the Daily Worker with the headline “Un-Americans Cite Robeson as He Blasts Racism.”

40Although it received less coverage, Seeger’s testimony was also highlighted in the Daily Worker, in an article by David Platt which featured the lyrics to the song Seeger attempted to sing before the committee, “Wasn’t that a Time?” Platt describes it as a “patriotic” song about “Valley Forge, Gettysburg, and the fight against Fascism.” Emphasizing the lines in the song that express the speaker’s concern about the encroachment of fascism into the United States, Platt also comments that “The Un-Americans couldn’t afford to have Pete sing out those truths and thus explode their preposterous charges of subversion in their faces” (6). After his own trial, which ended in 1962, Seeger reflected upon his experience and articulated his respect for Robeson’s strategy with a hint of regret: “I feel I was too damn polite. I wish I had stood up and shouted at that HUAC, as did Paul Robeson, ‘YOU ARE THE UNAMERICANS!’” (Incompleat Folksinger 479). In 1998, Seeger went on to add that “one of this country’s greatest Cold War crimes was the stopping of [Robeson’s] voice, so it could not be heard by the hundreds of millions” (“Remembering” 59).

41Although Robeson and Seeger came from two different lineages in American left-wing thought, they shared many political and musical influences, and their respective testimonies exhibit some notable similarities. Both responded to allegations of un-Americanness by situating their stories within historical traditions of American dissent, emphasizing their familial forefathers, and appealing to American laws, the Constitution, and such solid ideological foundations as freedom of speech. While Seeger’s approach to HUAC stressed themes of personal and artistic liberty, Robeson’s testimony and subsequent trial challenged not only the committee, but the entire American establishment, confronting the history of racism in the United States and calling out key players’ complicity in perpetuating racist policies at home and abroad.

42Examining these testimonies in juxtaposition provides useful insight into how two radical artists strategically countered constructions of un-Americanness and attempted to reframe public discourse on radicalism by arguing that left-wing ideas were indeed American ideas, while connecting this distinctly American radical tradition to a larger internationalist vision, through politics and the arts. These two testimonies are foundational documents of a form of American dissent that not only imagined, but actively fought to make space for radical left-wing political expression in American public discourse.

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1 I would like to extend my gratitude to Asha Nadkarni and the American studies Works in Progress group at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, as well as the two anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments on early drafts. Special thanks also to Ron Welburn and Traci Parker who assisted in the development of this article in its incipient stages.

2 Founded in 1946, the Civil Rights Congress was spearheaded by the attorney William Patterson, a friend of Robeson’s. The organization protected and defended civil rights in the legal system by publicizing cases and aiding defendants who were caught within a racist court system. Key campaigns included the case of Willie McGee and the Trenton Six.

3 Albert Einstein, for instance, was opposed to pleading the Fifth, which he felt presumed guilt. Certainly McCarthy exploited that potential for doubt as he chastised “Fifth Amendment Communists” in his speeches on college campuses and other organizations. After the Hollywood Ten pleaded the First on grounds of freedom of speech but were all charged with contempt, the predominant legal strategy was to invoke the Fifth.

4 Written during the 1950s, John Higham’s work Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925 was a study prompted in part by the resurgence of nativism during the second Red Scare. In the final chapter of the book, he remarks, “History may move partly in cycles but never in circles. With every revolution some new direction opens, and some permanent accretion is carried into the next phase” (330).

5 A friend and ally of Robeson’s, Benjamin J. Davis (1903-1964) was an African American politician, lawyer, and writer, who served as the editor of the Daily Worker and held various positions within Communist Party leadership at the local and national levels. A two-term city council member in New York, Davis among other party leaders was convicted of aiding and abetting the overthrow of the government under the Smith Act in 1940 and served over three years in a federal prison. In 1962, he was charged again under the Internal Security Act, but passed away before the case went to trial.

6 Regarding his time in college, Seeger notes: “I got so interested in politics I didn’t keep up with my studies, lost my scholarship, dropped out of college, and in NYC joined a ‘Youth Workshop’ part of the YCL (Young Communist League)” (Seeger, “My Political Bio” 92).

7 An anti-communist newsletter, Counterattack: The Newsletter of Facts on Communism was published by the organization American Business Consultants, Inc. (ABC) and published weekly into the 1960s. Launched in 1947 by three former FBI agents Theodore C. Kirkpatrick, John G. Keenan, and Kenneth M. Bierly, ABC was devoted to disseminating information about alleged subversives.

8 An ethnomusicologist, Alan Lomax collected, recorded, and preserved world folk music for the Library of Congress, the BBC, and Columbia Records. In 1945, Lomax, together with Pete Seeger, founded People’s Songs, a group of musicians and folk enthusiasts who preserved, created, and disseminated American labor songs. Robeson was on the board. Due to his interest in folk culture and his support for the progressive candidate Henry A. Wallace, Lomax was investigated by the FBI for subversive activities although he was never called before HUAC. He left the United States for England in 1950 and spent the greater part of the 1950s collecting folk music in Europe.

9 A Canadian-American folk singer who performed with Pete Seeger, Lead Belly, and other prominent American musicians, Oscar Brand, who was not a communist, caught the attention of the FBI for his weekly radio show Oscar Brand’s Folksong Festival on WNYC in New York City, which promoted folk music and free artistic expression. Despite the government’s suspicion, the radio show ran for seventy years, serving as a bridge between an older generation of folk singers like Seeger and Woody Guthrie, and newer voices such as Bob Dylan, whose first radio debut was on the show.

10 In fact, directly after his testimony before HUAC, Seeger performed the patriotic song “Jefferson and Liberty” outside the courtroom for the press. See also The Incompleat Folksinger, where he reflects upon his case in 1968 and connects his environmental interest with a list of dissenting forefathers: “It now is quite clear to millions that the America which Tom Paine and Jefferson fought to build, which Thoreau, Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Mark Twain, and W.E.B. Du Bois tried to develop, is steadily being destroyed. Not only are the rivers, the air and streets polluted, but the gulf between rich and poor becomes wider, the gulfs between different sections of the population become wider” (Incompleat Folksinger 479).

11 Seeger uses the figure of Christ and the language of religious liberty as a metaphor for his own experience of political suppression rather than as a literal expression of his own belief. Regarding his own spiritual views, Seeger observes in a 1992 meditation: “I guess I’ve gradually come to the opinion that everything’s connected more closely than I realized. You can’t really solve the problem of poverty on earth unless you can also solve the problem of pollution on earth. And vice versa. My guess is we won’t solve the problem of racism and sexism and a whole lot of other things until each of us individually, realizes how much we depend on others—sometimes those near and dear to us, sometimes those faraway and unknown. It gets you to thinking about eternity, about the spiritual, about the ways we are connected to one another […]. These days, I look upon God as everything” (“There are No Old Bold, Pilots” 333).

12 Seeger frequently referenced the Swedish mystic theologian Emmanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) in his writing, even though he was not a member of the New Church, the religious movement that was inspired by Swedenborg’s visionary writings.

13 An American folk hero and New Church missionary, Johnny Appleseed (1774-1845?) was best known for traveling the country and planting nurseries. Certainly, Johnny Appleseed’s unconventional, itinerant life must have resonated with Seeger’s own mixture of bohemianism and environmentalism.

14 In his 1941 State of the Union Address, President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously called for a world built upon four essential freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. By exposing racism and discrimination in the United States, black activists, intellectuals, and artists illuminated the double standards in the country’s domestic and foreign policies. One of the most important campaigns in this vein was the 1951 “We Charge Genocide” petition, which showed how lynching, police brutality, and racial discrimination within the United States accorded with the United Nation’s definition of genocide. On 17 December 1951, Paul Robeson, who did not have a passport, delivered a copy of this document to the United Nations headquarters in New York, while William Patterson presented it in Paris.

15 Although not subpoenaed, Jackie Robinson offered to testify before HUAC upon the bequest of John S. Wood. In his statement, presented in July 1949, Robinson spoke out against racism and segregation, but did not defend Robeson. Later in his autobiography published in 1972, Robinson reflected on his experience: “I knew that Robeson was striking out against racial inequality in the way that seemed best to him. However, in those days, I had much more faith in the ultimate justice of the American white man than I have today. I would reject such an invitation if offered now” (Robinson 83).

16 Founded in 1937 as the International Committee on African Affairs, this anti-colonial organization (for which Robeson served as chairman) provided a link between political struggles in Africa and the United States. Important campaigns included support for general strikes in Nigeria in 1945 and a gold mine workers’ strike in South Africa in 1946. Publications such as the 1953 pamphlet “Resistance against Fascist Enslavement in South Africa” informed members about struggles abroad. In 1953, the CAA was accused of serving as a communist-front organization by Attorney General Herbert Brownell.

17 Eslanda Robeson’s testimony before this Senate committee, presided over by Joseph McCarthy, is particularly interesting because she appealed not only to the Fifth Amendment but also to the Fifteenth, arguing that the committee did not represent the interests of black Americans due to voting restrictions in the South (Ransby, 2013b 105). See also Barbara Ransby’s biography Eslanda: the Large and Unconventional Life of Mrs. Paul Robeson (2013a).

18 A World War II veteran who had allegedly given Franklin D. Roosevelt a letter opener made from the arm bone of a Japanese soldier, Francis E. Walter was the other name behind the McCarran-Walter Act (Weingartner 60).

19 The editor of the California Eagle, Charlotta Spears Bass was the first African American woman to run for vice-presidential nomination in 1952 on the progressive party ticket. She was monitored by the FBI for her civil rights activism, her publishing work, her political campaigning, and her affiliations with prominent black leaders like Robeson and W.E.B. Du Bois.

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Jodie Childers, « Performing Dissent: Pete Seeger and Paul Robeson before HUAC (1955-1956) »Transatlantica [En ligne], 2 | 2021, mis en ligne le 07 décembre 2021, consulté le 28 mars 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Jodie Childers

University of Massachusetts, Amherst

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