The Revolutionary Life of Paul Robeson: Scholar Gerald Horne on the Great Anti-fascist Singer, Artist, and Rebel
Click HERE to listen to this episode of Intercepted with Jeremy Scahill
AS DONALD TRUMP campaigns for reelection, he is increasingly sounding like a fanatical Cold War relic, railing against the communists, anarchists, and socialists while pledging to protect the real Americans from this growing Red Menace. This week on Intercepted: As Trump vows to smash leftist movements, we take a comprehensive look at the life of the revolutionary Black socialist, anti-fascist, and artist Paul Robeson. University of Houston historian Gerald Horne, author of “Paul Robeson: The Artist as Revolutionary,” discusses Robeson’s life from his early years to his time in Europe on the brink of a fascist war. The son of an escaped slave, Robeson rose to international fame as a singer and actor, but committed himself to the liberation of oppressed people across the globe and was a tenacious fighter for the freedom of Black people in the U.S. Robeson was heavily surveilled by the FBI and CIA, dragged before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and was stripped of his passport by the U.S. government.
Audio of Robeson’s testimony at the House Un-American Activities Committee, used throughout this episode, is a dramatization by actor James Earl Jones in the stage play, “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been?”
Sean Hannity: Joining us now on the phone is President Donald Trump from the White House tonight. Mr. President, thank you, sir, for being with us.
Donald Trump: Well, thank you very much. And how good is Mark?
[Sounds of toilet]
SH: I want to start — Um, Mr. President? We have an election in 117 days, Mr. President, and —
DJT: I actually took cognitive tests.
DJT: Very recently when I proved I was all there because I aced it. I aced the test —
SH: You know —
DJT: — in front of doctors and they were very surprised. They said that’s an unbelievable thing. Rarely does anybody do what you just did.
SH: What is your second term agenda?
DJT: Our country will suffer. Our stock markets will crash. Cases all over the place. People dying.
SH: Thank you for your time. We appreciate you being with us. And 117 days to go. Alright.
DJT: Thank you very much, Sean. Thank you.
Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.
JS: I’m Jeremy Scahill, coming to you from my basement in New York City. And this is episode 138 of Intercepted.
Catherine Herridge [CBS]: Why are African Americans still dying at the hands of law enforcement in this country?
DJT: And so are white people. So are white people. What a terrible question to ask. So are white people — more white people by the way.
JS: The United States is in the midst of a period of great reckoning. While many major media outlets have moved on in their coverage, demonstrations for racial justice and Black Lives continue in cities and towns across this country.
Protesters: George Floyd! Say his name! George Floyd! Say his name! George Floyd!
JS: At the same time, the pandemic is continuing its carnage, due in no small part to the criminal incompetence of President Donald Trump. While Wall Street celebrates its gains and basks in the perceived contradictions, workers across this country are suffering. Millions of people are at risk of losing or already have already lost their employer-based health care. The paltry means-tested so-called economic stimulus was at its inception an inadequate bandaid, and now the wounds on working families are becoming infected. At the same time, the billions doled out to corporations are shrouded in unaccountability and secrecy.
And, as Trump campaigns for re-election, he is increasingly sounding like an early Cold War fanatic, railing against the communists, anarchists, socialists while pledging to protect the real Americans from this growing Red Menace.
DJT: We are now in the process of defeating the radical left, the marxists, the anarchists, the agitators, the looters, and people who, in many instances, have absolutely no clue what they are doing.
JS: In these times, the long shadow of history stretches over us all. And in thinking of the magnitude of the current world and national crisis, I’ve found myself reading books, watching films, listening to music that was produced during times of crisis and struggle throughout history.
[“Water Boy” sung by Paul Robeson plays.]
Paul Robeson: [Singing] Water boy, where are you hiding? If you don’t come, I’m going to tell your Mamie.
JS: One of the great stories of the past century is that of the life of Paul Robeson. He was born in New Jersey to a father who escaped slavery. He was an athlete, a lawyer, an actor, and a singer. And his songs propelled him to international fame beginning in the late 1920s and early 1930s.
But Paul Robeson represented something much bigger than his art or his biography. His ascent to fame came as the world was in upheaval, the market crash and the Great Depression, the rise of fascist forces in Europe, and the grinding oppression of Jim Crow America. Robeson spent many of his prime years living outside the United States. He said he felt more free as a Black artist abroad than he did in the land of his birth. He traveled the world performing in the great concert halls and theater venues of Europe and beyond. He was enamored of the Soviet Union and the great hope that he placed in the liberation of Black people from the shackles of colonialism in Africa. He mastered several languages, among them German and Russian, and he gave in London what is to this day considered to be one of the greatest performances of Othello ever staged.
Paul Robeson reciting Shakespeare’s Othello: Soft you, a word or two before you go. I have done the state some service, and they know’t. No more of that. I pray you, in your letters, when you shall these unlucky deeds relate, speak of me as I am. Nothing extenuate, nor set down aught in malice.
JS: Paul Robeson was an international man of resistance, of worker solidarity, and he was a proud Marxist. He could have lived a life of extreme comfort and luxury. He could have chosen to just be an artist. But at his core, Paul Robeson believed that the struggle to liberate workers across the globe and to overthrow the tyranny of fascists was connected to the liberation of Black people in the United States. And when Robeson was outside of the U.S. or inside of it, he always spoke with an international perspective. After visiting with coal miners in the Welsh valley in the U.K. in the 1950s, Robeson described his political evolution in a radio interview on KPFA.
PR: And I went down in the mines with the workers and they explained to me that Paul, you may be successful here in England, but your people suffer like ours. We are poor people. And you belong to us, you don’t belong to the bigwigs here in this country. And so I today feel as much at home in the Welsh valley as I would in my own Negro section in any city in the United States. And I just did a broadcast by transatlantic cable to the Welsh valley a few weeks ago. And here was the first understanding that the struggle of the Negro people, or of any people, cannot be by itself. That is, the human struggle. And so I was attracted then to… met many members of the Labor Party and my politics embraced also the common struggle of all oppressed peoples, including especially the working masses, specifically the laboring people of all the world. And that, that defines my philosophy. It’s a joing one of, we are a working people, a laboring people the Negro people. And there’s a unity between our struggle and those of white workers in the South. I’ve had white workers shake my hand and say, “Paul, we’re fighting for the same thing.” And so this defines my attitude toward socialism, and toward many other things in the world. I do not believe that a few people should control the wealth of any land, that it should be a collective ownership.
JS: Today on the show, we are going to take a journey through the life and times of Paul Robeson. From his early years to his rise to fame, to his time in Europe on the brink of a fascist war. We will hear how Robeson traveled to the frontlines of the war against General Franco to perform for the international anti-fascist brigades. We’ll hear of the FBI investigations, Robeson’s appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee and of how Paul Robeson was stripped of his passport by a U.S. government afraid that he would become a “Black Stalin.”
Our guest for today’s program is the historian and scholar Dr. Gerald Horne. He currently holds the John J. and Rebecca Moores Chair of History and African American Studies at the University of Houston. He is a prolific author and among his works is the recent book “Paul Robeson: The Artist as Revolutionary.” Dr. Horne’s newest book, just published, is “The Dawning of the Apocalypse: The Roots of Slavery, White Supremacy, Settler Colonialism, and Capitalism in the Long Sixteenth Century.” Dr. Gerald Horne, thank you so much for joining us here on Intercepted.
Gerald Horne: Thank you for inviting me.
JS: As we’ve watched these events unfold over the past months, not just with the pandemic, but centrally with the uprisings that we’ve seen around the country in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, I found myself thinking a lot about Paul Robeson.
Dramatization by James Earl Jones as Paul Robeson: Is that when I am abroad, I speak out against injustices against the Negro people in this land. That is why I’m here. I’m not being tried for whether I’m a communist. I’m being tried for fighting for the rights of my people, who are still second class citizens in this country, in this United States of America. My 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.
JS: Paul Robeson was a militant anti-fascist, a radical thinker, and in your book on him, you say that he was the forerunner to Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, and that in studying his life we can understand better this history that we all continue to live through. For people that are not familiar, just give an overview of why you put Paul Robeson in that historical context.
GH: Well, Paul Robeson was born in New Jersey in 1898, passes away in Philadelphia in 1976. In between, he was a star scholar at Rutgers University, one of the few Black Americans admitted to that state school. He was also an All-American football player and a baseball catcher. He also attended Columbia University Law School and practiced law for a while. But it was soon revealed and discovered that he had a marvelous singing voice.
PR: [Singing] I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night, alive as you and me. Says I, “But Joe, you’re ten years dead.” “I never died” says he, “I never died” says he.
GH: And he quickly transferred to being a star concert singer and a star of the stage, and ultimately film.
PR: Lord God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel.
GH: From the 1920s up through the late 1930s, he was actually in exile. He lived in London. And there he came into contact with many anticolonial leaders. But a turning point in Paul Robeson’s life comes in the early 1930s, when he comes face to face with fascism as it’s rising in Germany. And his transition to becoming this stellar anti-fascist activist is assisted in no small measure by his good friend, another Black lawyer, speaking of William Patterson, who went on to spearhead the defense of the Scottsboro Nine in the 1930s. Recall these are the nine Black youth in Alabama who are accused falsely of sexual molestation of two Euro-American women. Their case becomes a cause célèbre all over the world. It’s not unlike the antiapartheid movement, which in the 1980s and 1990s becomes an international movement. And in fact I argue that the Scottsboro Nine, in some ways, was a precursor and necessary prelude to the eruption of the anti-Jim Crow movement in the 1950s in the United States of America.
In any case, Paul Robeson becomes an advocate of socialism. He visits the Soviet Union early on. The turning point, in a sense, in Paul Robeson’s life comes with the dawning of what London would call World War II, that is to say 1939. And he felt that with his family he might be caught in the midst of a war so he decided to return to the land of his birth. And for a while it seemed as if he was in accord with main political trends in the United States after all. But alas, with the end of World War II, you see the rise of the Red Scare, the Cold War. Robeson quickly becomes persona non grata. A turning point again in his star-crossed life comes when he confronts President Harry Truman in the White House, when Mr. Robeson is campaigning against lynching — the extrajudicial murder of Black Americans, non unlike what befell George Floyd in Minnesota in May 2020.
PR: A very broad committee went in to protest the lynchings of the Negro boys in the South. He said that it wasn’t politically expedient to do anything about lynching.
GH: And as Mr. Truman was being berated by Mr. Robeson, therein you can espy the onset of the decline of Mr. Robeson. He quickly becomes “blacklisted.” He becomes an early victim of McCarthyism. He still has a certain kind of contact with the emerging civil rights movement. I mean, for example, he rubs shoulders with Malcolm X while in London. He confers with Dr. Martin Luther King and some of Dr. King’s representatives. But it’s fair to say that the final decade of his life is spent generally in seclusion and he passes away in Philadelphia in early 1976.
JS: As Robeson discovers his gift for the performance arts, particularly singing and acting in the United States, and he is given some early opportunities to perform in the plays of Eugene O’Neill, what was Robeson’s life like as he entered entertainment? And ultimately what brings him then to Europe?
GH: After leaving Rutgers, he enrolls in law school and is well on his way to becoming a well-paid lawyer. But like many people, that is to say many Black people in particular, he felt that his individual success was insignificant compared to the kind of relentless Jim Crow and mindless lynching that his people were being subjected to. But, as suggested, he left that particular life and that particular career. And then, in the early 1920s, moving to London on the premise, which proved out, that there would be more opportunities in London for a Black performer than in the land of his birth.
While in London, he’s exposed to a number of radical intellectuals when Britain was considered to be a so-called top dog in the imperialist and capitalist world. That process led to the creation of a number of leading anti-fascist, anti-imperialist intellectuals. And this kind of environment influenced Robeson quite deeply and, as suggested, along with his trip to Germany as fascism was being born, helped to move him decisively to the left.
PR: I would say that, unquestionably, I am an American. Born there. My father slaved there. Upon the backs of my people was developed the primary wealth of America. The primary wealth. There’s a lot of America that belongs to me yet, you understand? But just like a Scottish-American is proud of being from Scotland, I’m proud for being African. Now in our school books they tried to tell me that all Africans were savages until I got to London and found that most Africans that I knew were going to Oxford and Cambridge and doing very well and learned their culture. So I would say today that I’m an American who is infinitely prouder to be of African descent, no question about it, no question about it. I’m an Afro-American and I don’t use the word American ever loosely again.
JS: In 1934, he travels to Moscow for the first time and Robeson said that, “Through Africa I found the Soviet Union.” Talk about how that first trip to the Soviet Union really profoundly changed Robeson’s trajectory.
GH: Well, you know, I find that people in the United States, at least certain elites and certain folks who don’t know better, they’ve really been able to convince Black people in the United States that everybody hates us. You go anywhere in the world, they don’t like Black people. Which, of course, sort of lets U.S. Jim Crow and U.S. apartheid off the hook, lets U.S. white supremacy off the hook because the U.S. is just reflecting these global trends. But of course you don’t have to be a historical materialist to recognize that these anti-Black attitudes come out of a particular cultural and historical context.
And if you look at Russia, in particular, a European country that, I think it’s fair to say, that was not as avid a participant in the African slave trade as some of its Western European counterparts — including England and France and Portugal and Spain most notably — and not only that but the man who’s considered to be the founder of the modern Russian language, speaking of Pushkin, was of partial African descent himself and still is seen as a hero today.
Then there’s the rather pragmatic political point, which is that the Soviet Union, at that time, needless to say, was being encircled by a number of antagonists, including imperial London, including imperial France, including Germany. So there was a pragmatic reason for Moscow to try to win favor amongst the colonial subjects of its antagonists. Not to mention those who were victimized by bigotry and racism and white supremacy in the United States of America.
There were many good reasons and many sound historical reasons for Moscow to open its embrace to Robeson. It helped to solidify his already growing attraction to the ideas of socialism. And of course he was not alone in this. This circle included many of the Black intellectuals of that time and this pro-Moscow, pro-socialist attitude is not unusual because Black people were looking for allies against U.S. imperialism and white supremacy. Just like by June 22, 1941, when Germany invades the Soviet Union, the United States is looking for allies. Which is why you have this rapid turn about in the United States of America with regard to its opinion of the Soviet Union. Joseph Stalin becomes man of the year according to Time magazine. You have Hollywood producing pro-Soviet movies, which I think you can still find on YouTube.
[Mission to Moscow clip plays.]
Mr. Davies: I believe, sir, that history will record you as a great builder for the benefit of mankind.
Stalin: It is not my achievement, Mr. Davies. Our five-year plans were conceived by Lenin and carried out by the people themselves.
Mr. Davies: The results have been a revelation to me. I confess I wasn’t prepared for what I found here. You see, Mr. Stalin, I’m a capitalist as you probably know.
Stalin: Yes, we know you’re a capitalist. There can be no doubt about that.
GH: Which presents a vision of the Soviet Union which contrasts with the pre-World War II and post-World War II approach. And of course we all know that after the war ends, these Hollywood creators are then dragged to Washington and grilled as to why they made these pro-Soviet movies.
Newsreel: Investigating alleged communism in Hollywood, the Washington Committee on Un-American Activities has been hearing the testimony of prominent film personalities.
Eric Johnston: The motion picture industry has been accused of putting subversive and un-American propaganda on the screen. We deny that without any reservation. The pictures themselves are complete proof of its falsity.
GH: Of course, the answer was that Franklin Delanoe Roosevelt suggested that this was a good idea in order to massage U.S. public consciousness so that the U.S. population would be more prone to go along with this alliance with the Soviet Union against imperial Tokyo and fascist Berlin.
And so Robeson was part of that overall political environment. The difference is, is that after 1945, the U.S. did a 180 degree reversal with regard to its pro-Soviet attitudes. Robeson chose not to, not least because the Soviets were still supporting African liberation movements. Now this rather simple political historical understanding, it’s oftentimes difficult for whatever reason for many of our friends in the United States to grasp.
PR: For the first time, as I stepped on Soviet soil, I felt myself a full human being — a full human being. So it’s unthinkable for me today that colored peoples in any part of the world would ever join a war or attacks upon the Soviet Union. I’m an anti-fascist and I would feel perhaps that any war against the Soviet Union would be a fascist war. Why not talk about peace and friendship with the Soviet people.
Journalist: What are your political opinions? Have they been changed today?
PR: My political opinions about the Soviet Union have only been deepened. As I said, in the Soviet Union, I’m a believer in socialism and I would say with Dr. Du Bois that I believe that the socialist lands, in the sense of the Soviet Union, China, and the peoples’ democracies are the hope — can I repeat it? — the hope for the future.
JS: Part of history that I think is so vital that people understand but it’s almost never talked about, is the Spanish Civil War that preceded Hitler’s war of conquest and genocide throughout Europe and eventually extending elsewhere. But you had, from the United States just as an example, three thousand people who signed up under the auspices of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade — people who were communists or anarchists, socialists — that went to Spain to fight against the rise of fascism. And, in fact, the United States officially declared itself to be neutral. And as you write about, Paul Robeson himself goes to the frontlines in Spain to perform for the anti-fascist forces that really were at the vanguard of trying to prevent fascism from taking hold in Europe.
PR [Singing]: But your courageous children. But your courageous children.
JS: Talk about that episode and why Robeson decided to go to Spain to perform on the front lines for the anti-fascists.
GH: Robeson was not alone in terms of those sentiments in favor of the Republican regime in Spain that was being challenged by the ultimate victor, the proto-fascist Francisco Franco who, as you correctly suggest, was backed by the fascist powers. But not only backed by the fascist powers, Berlin not least, but also, you may recall, that Henry Ford, one of the top manufacturers, as they’re called in the United States — and his eponymous automobile company is still with us. And so on the other side of the ledger, not only had Robeson, who went to Spain to sing before the beleaguered forces and troops, but Langston Hughes, who was perhaps the leading Black writer of the 20th century was also a part of that crew that descended on Spain.
And, interestingly enough, a number of Black Americans whose names sadly have been lost to history, they were sufficiently motivated to go to Spain as well because, like Robeson, they felt that if fascism could be defeated on the Iberian peninsula that that would bode well for its close cousin, Jim Crow, being defeated on these shores. And likewise, if fascism were to emerge victorious on the Iberian peninsula, this would give a shot in the arm to its close cousin, speaking of Jim Crow, on these shores. And so that’s what motivated Robeson to go to Spain in the 1930s. Like his trip to fascist Germany, like his trip to the Soviet Union, this had a catalytic and a positive impact on his emerging anti-fascist consciousness and was one more factor that was pushing him steadily to the left.
JS: Yeah, I wanted to read a quote that you cite in your book from Robeson’s own description of why he travels to Spain to perform for the anti-fascist forces.
PR: I am deeply happy to contribute to this cause of Spanish culture and of the Basque children in particular. A cause which must concern everyone who stands for freedom, progressive democracy, and for humanity. Today, the artist cannot hold himself aloof.
JS: He said, “Every artist, every scientist must decide now where he stands. He has no alternative. There is no standing above the conflict on Olympian heights” since, “ the artist must take sides. He must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative.” When Robeson was asked why he said because, “The history of the capitalist era is characterized by the degradation of my people.” Put that in context.
GH: I still get chills when I hear that quote being rendered. Obviously he’s referring to the origins of capitalism itself, something I’ve dealt with in a number of books, including my most recent book, “The Dawning of the Apocalypse,” which deals with the 16th century. And as Karl Marx himself put it, capitalism comes upon the world stage dripping with blood — with the blood of Africans in particular because it was the African slave trade, one of the most profitable enterprises known to humankind. As you know, the African slave trade was the precursor for bringing millions of Africans to these shores, including my ancestors, I’m afraid to say. And after suffering through centuries of slavery, we were able to create conditions that led to a U.S. Civil War, culminating in 1865, and then we were then degraded by a century further of U.S. apartheid in this so-called land of liberty and land of freedom. So this is what Robeson was making reference to when he made those rather scalding comments about what was happening to Black people, what was happening to his people.
JS: Tell the story of how Robeson was impacted by the case of the Scottsboro Boys. This starts in 1931, where you have nine Black teenagers ranging in age from 13 to 19 years old who are falsely accused of raping two white women on a train.
Clarence Norris: The three of us were surrounded with a mob. They had shotguns, pistols, sticks, pieces of iron, everything. The crowd commenced to holler: Let’s take these Black sons of bitches up in here and put ’em to a tree. I did thought that I was going to die.
JS: Maybe set the Scottsboro Boys case and Robeson’s response to it in context.
GH: These nine Black youth are riding trains in the middle of a collapsing economy. It was quite common for folks to hop on trains to get from a city of unemployment to a city where they hoped there would be employment. These two women are riding the train too. There are controversies and confrontations between the nine Black youth, all from Dixie, and the two women. It leads to this allegation that turns out to not to be accurate that they had sexually molested these women. What happens is that the aforementioned William Patterson, who becomes a leader of the International Labor Defense, in many ways they take up the banner of the Scottsboro Nine. They use this case to illustrate the frailties, if you like, of Jim Crow, the noxious nature of white supremacy. Because the International Labor Defense has an international network, because the Communist Party and the Communist International, headquartered in the then Soviet Union, that is to say speaking of the latter, it’s part of an international organization. And so when this Communist International and International Labor Defense take up this case, they’re able to generate a worldwide movement against U.S. Jim Crow.
James W. Ford: It is only the Communist Party, which day in and day out, fights for every demand and need of the Negroes in the terror-and lynch-ridden South.
GH: Because of the disadvantageous conditions that Black Americans face in the United States of America, historically Black Americans have needed international solidarity and international support to make a step forward. And fortunately that was present in the 1930s. Now, it turns out that it takes quite a bit of activism to free the Scottsboro Nine. For most of the 1930s, despite this international protest, picketing at U.S. consulates and legations and embassies all over the world, boycotts of U.S. based corporations, etc., they still spend most of the 1930s in prison. But eventually, they are not executed — because they were definitely slated to be executed, which, I might say, was the fate of too many Black people, that is to say being accused falsely then either rushed to the electric chair of the gas chamber or dragged unceremoniously from the prison and lynched, that is to say murdered without due process of law. But fortunately that fate did not befall the Scottsboro Nine and it also, I should say, not only helped to give U.S. imperialism a black eye in the international community, it also helped to drive many Black people into the ranks of the U.S. Communist Party, including a number of its leaders. And certainly it was a factor in helping to bring Paul Robeson closer to the U.S. Communist Party. I should say at this point that in his testimony before the U.S. Congress in the 1950s, the interrogators said that he was a member of the U.S. Communist Party under a false flag, under a false name. He denied that. I guess because they were not expert interrogators, they did not ask him if he had been a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, and I suspect that he was. And in any case that remains an avenue of research that has not been fruitfully explored.
Unidentified Actor as Richard Arens: Are you now a member of the Communist Party?
James Earl Jones as Paul Robeson: Oh, please, please, please.
Unidentified Actor as Richard Arens: Please answer, will you, Mr. Robeson.
James Earl Jones as Paul Robeson: What is the Communist Party? What do you mean by that?
Unidentified Actor as Richard Arens: Are you now a member of the Communist Party?
James Earl Jones as Paul Robeson: Would you like to come to the ballot box when I vote and take out the ballot and see?
Unidentified Actor as Richard Arens: Mr. Chairman, I respectfully suggest that the witness be directed to answer the question.
Unidentified Actor as Chairman Francis E. Walter: You are directed to answer the question.
James Earl Jones as Paul Robeson: I invoke the Fifth Amendment and forget it.
Unidentified Actor as Richard Arens: I respectfully suggest the witness be directed to answer the question.
JS: Robeson is in Europe and he returns to the United States not just completely in the grips of the Jim Crow politics and reign of the leaders of the time, but also the FBI begins to investigate Paul Robeson as well. His activism is escalating during this time, and you had fears among powerful white interests in the United States that Robeson was going to become possibly a “Black Stalin.” Explain that.
GH: Historically, many Black people have fled the United States and have found homes in Western Europe in particular. But what happens is that with the rise of fascism and Hitler and Mussolini taking over most of Europe, they are not, shall we say, as friendly to these Black exiles as previous governments had been. And so many of them end up in concentration camps. Many of them perish. And this is what Robeson feared would befall him and so he decided the better part of wisdom was to get out of dodge, which actually made good sense.
But as already noted, he comes back to the United States and the United States is in the process of shifting to antifascism, shifts out of antifascism almost simultaneously with the signing of the treaty of surrender on the battleship Missouri in September 1945, as Japan surrenders. And then what happens is that this is taking place at a time when the United States is still officially a Jim Crow country. It’s still an apartheid country. The United States is a rigorously segregated society. But the flipside of that is that in some ways this hands the Black community on a silver platter to those who profess antiracism, which was quite unusual at the time. And so what happens is that Robeson has a certain modicum of popularity in the Black community. And this is at a time, too, when the left had not been purged from leadership of unions. Robeson in many ways was the titular leader, not only of the Black radical, or even Black progressive movement, but in some ways, a leader of the U.S. progressive movement as well. And it was felt by those who majored in hysteria that somehow this would catapult him into a leadership role in Washington where he would become the so-called Black Stalin that is ruling the United States, subjecting his political antagonists to labor camps and even worse. And this was part of the hysteria that gripped the United States at that moment. What unfolds is this rather adroit maneuver by U.S. ruling circles whereby those with foresight and vision, such as Robeson, Du Bois, et. al., are marginalized and, to a degree, are isolated. And at the same time you have this attempt to erode Jim Crow, per the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision of 1954 saying that U.S. apartheid now is unconstitutional. And so you have this anomaly where Black people somehow, at least on a formal level, procedural level, get the right to eat in restaurants that they had been barred from, but because of the weakening of progressive unions — and most Black people are working class and survive and are able to thrive because of being part of unions — but because of the weakening of unions, they don’t have the money to pay the bill at the restaurant.
JS: We are speaking to Dr. Gerald Horne of the University of Houston. In a moment, we’re going to continue this conversation by taking a look at the U.S. government’s investigation of Paul Robeson during the Red Scare period as the Cold War was intensifying. Stay with us.
[Paul Robeson performing his version of “Old Man River”]
You and me, we sweat and strain
Body all achin’ and racked with pain
Tote that barge and lift that bale
You show a little grit and you lands in jail
But I keep laughin’ instead of cryin’
I must keep fightin’ until I’m dyin’
And Old Man River he just keep rollin’ along
JS: That is the voice of the late Paul Robeson. As we continue this special look at his life with Dr. Gerald Horne of the University of Houston.
PR: And we must have the courage to shout at the top of our voices about our injustices and we must lay the blame where it belongs and where it has belonged for over 300 years of slavery and continuous misery, right here on our own doorstep.
JS: In June of 1956, Paul Robeson appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee, which was leading a witch hunt against people suspected of being communists. Artists, singers, screenwriters, athletes, and others were dragged before the Committee for interrogation about their political views and activities.
PR: The Communist Party is a legal party. I have as much right to be a member of the Community Party as I have to be of the Republican or the Democratic Party. But in protecting the civil rights of all Americans, it’s none of your business.
JS: Robeson’s appearance came after he had refused to sign a sworn affidavit affirming that he was not a member of the Communist Party. While the Committee sought to destroy Robeson, he sought to put the history of slavery and Jim Crow on trial.
Unidentified Actor as Richard Arens: Did you make that statement?
James Earl Jones as Paul Robeson: When I first went to Russia in 1934.
Unidentified Actor as Richard Arens: Did you make that statement?
James Earl Jones as Paul Robeson: When I first went to Russia in 1934.
Unidentified Actor as Richard Arens: Did you make that statement?
James Earl Jones as Paul 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. When I did not feel the pressure of color as I feel it in this Committee today.
Unidentified Actor as Gordon Scherer: Why do you not stay in Russia?
James Earl Jones as Paul Robeson: Because my father was a slave. And my people died to build this country. And I’m 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?
Unidentified Actor as Gordon Scherer: You are here because you are promoting the communist cause.
James Earl Jones as Paul Robeson: I am here because I am opposing the neo-fascist cause, which I see arising in these committees. Jefferson could be sitting here and Frederick Douglass could be sitting here. Eugene Debs could be sitting here.
Unidentified Actor as Richard Arens: I would invite your attention to the Daily Worker of June 29, 1949 with reference to a get-together with you and Ben Davis, formerly Communist councilman in New York. Do you know Ben Davis?
James Earl Jones as Paul Robeson: One of my dearest friends, he is as patriotic an American as can be and you, gentlemen, are the non-patriots.
Unidentified Actor as Francis E.Walter: Just a minute!
James Earl Jones as Paul Robeson: You are the un-Americans!
Unidentified Actor as Francis E.Walter:The hearing is now adjourned!
James Earl Jones as Paul Robeson: I think it should be.
Unidentified Actor as Francis E.Walter: I’ve endured all of this that I can.
James Earl Jones as Paul Robeson: Can I read my statement?
Unidentified Actor as Francis E.Walter: No, the meeting is adjourned!
James Earl Jones as Paul Robeson: It should be.
JS: Robeson had been summoned multiple times to testify before the U.S. Congress about his ties to subversive groups, questions about his membership in the Communist Party.
Newsreel: The growing menace of communism arouses the House of Representatives Un-American Activities Committee. Among the well-informed witnesses testifying is J. Edgar Hoover, head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Mr. Hoover speaks with authority on the subject.
Edgard Hoover: The Communist Party of the United States is a fifth column if there ever was one. It is far better organized than were the Nazis in occupied countries prior to their capitulation. They are seeking to weaken America just as they did in their era of obstruction when they were aligned with the Nazis. Their goal is the overthrow of our government.
JS: And then you also see negative stories, some of them salacious, but negative stories about him being planted in the press and among them NAACP’s magazine The Crisis and the famed baseball player, Jackie Robinson, testifies against Paul Robeson.
Newsreel: Baseball’s top hitter and star second baseman of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Jackie Robinson, comes to bat for Uncle Sam to refute Paul Robeson’s remark that U.S. Negroes would not fight in a war against Russia.
Jackie Robinson: I’m on my way to Washington to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. That’s all I can say at this time. I’ll make further…
JS: Talk about this character assasination, but also the way that the NAACP and Jackie Robinson played a role seemingly on behalf of the racist American state at the time to try to destroy Paul Robeson.
GH: Well, this was not the finest hour, shall we say, euphemistically, for the NAACP. They defamed Paul Robeson. In fact, I’ve suggested, and so far it’s fallen on deaf ears, that the NAACP, which meets every July to have its national convention, should issue a formal apology to Paul Robeson, that they should invite his surviving granddaughter, Susan, to receive that apology, because I don’t see how the NAACP can go forward with this stain on their escutcheon. That is to say, how dare they attack Paul Robeson and act as a kind of ventriloquist dummy for the FBI? And I’m afraid to say that even though Jackie Robinson later apologized for his attack on Paul Robeson, he too did not bathe himself in glory when he went to Washington to attack Paul Robeson. But once again, the organization, nor Robinson, were alone.
Newsreel: Robinson is the last witness to testify concerning the loyalty of the members of his race. And before the Committee he reads his own prepared statement.
Jackie Robinson: I’ve been asked to express my views on Paul Robeson’s statements in Paris to the effect that American Negroes would refuse to fight in any war against Russia because we love Russia so much. I haven’t any comment to make except that, on that statement, except that if Mr. Robeson actually made it, it sounds very silly to me. And most Negroes and Italians and Irish and Jews and Swedes and Slavs and other Americans would act just as all these groups did in the last war. They’d do their best to keep their country 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.
JS: What exactly was Robeson doing that the state was so afraid of in the United States?
GH: He was very close to the U.S. Communist Party. He was very close to Ben Davis, Jr. who was a top Black leader and a top leader of the U.S. Communist Party elected to New York City Council, replacing Adam Clayton Powell, who moves on to Congress in 1943 but unceremoniously, perhaps illegally, ousted in 1949 and then jailed for violating anti-communist regulations by 1950-1951. 1950-1951 is also the time when Robeson files the genocide petition charging the United States with genocide against Black people. The “We Charge Genocide” booklet, which is a rather startling compedium of crimes committed against Black people over the decades, became a best-selling book internationally.
JS: Sorry to interrupt, but among the charges in that “We Charge Genocide” document was that the policeman’s bullet is taking over from the hangman’s noose.
GH: That’s really something you can still make a claim, a credible claim for today. Unlike the U.S. economy, where especially since Reagan, 1980, you’ve had a retreat of the public sector and a valorizing the private sector. With regard to lynching you’ve had a reversal. The private sector lynchers, that is to say the posses who come together on an ad hoc basis oftentimes, to be sure, accompanied and sponsored by the police, are then replaced by the public sector, with the police as it happened in Minnesota. Officers of the state who engage in these lynchings. So that “We Charge Genocide” petition did not win Robeson many friends. In any case Robeson also started a newspaper, Freedom newspaper in Harlem, which was an anti-racist, anti-Jim Crow, anticolonial, anti-imperialist newspaper. That did not win him many friends in the FBI as well. Nor did his confrontational appearances before Congress. And so it became almost inevitable that the FBI and the arm of the state would try to cut him down to size, would try to strike him down — try to weaken him. And I’m afraid to say they were not altogether unsuccessful.
PR: Not only was I not allowed to go out, but I was also prevented from actually appearing in my own land. Concert halls were denied to me for many years. I was refused theaters. I have never been on American television, for example, that is I have been blacklisted as have many of my colleagues in America. No, I do not regret, in any sense, what I have done. I had… Some of my friends feel I could have done things in other ways. One has to do them as one sees life. I regret… I can’t even use the term regret. I’m very proud, in one sense, of any contribution I’ve been able to make to the struggles of my people. If you want freedom you have to suffer sometimes.
JS: He also had his passport revoked and that happened a year after Robeson was scheduled to take part in a concert organized by the Civil Rights Congress in Peekskill, New York. And then you have this riot that ensues and Pete Seeger and others have talked about this episode, but just briefly describe that scene for people and then take us through Robeson losing his passport, or having his passport cancelled and taken away.
GH: So the Civil Rights Congress, Peekskill, New York, 1949, August 1949, they try to have a concert on behalf of Robeson performing for the Civil Rights Congress, led by his friend William Patterson, already noted. The Civil Rights Congress not only fought cases involving anticommunism. They fought cases involving racist repression. But in any case what happens is that Robeson is attracting, shall we say, a lot of negative attention by 1949 and this is particularly after he was cited for the proposition at a peace conference in Paris that Black Americans would be reluctant to fight for the United States against the Soviet Union.
JS: You’re talking about Robeson in 1949 speaking at the Paris peace congress and he says, “We in America do not forget that it was on the backs of the white workers from Europe and on the backs of millions of Blacks that the wealth of America was built. And we are resolved to share it equally. We reject any hysterical raving that urges us to make war on anyone. Our will to fight for peace is strong. We shall not make war on anyone. We shall not make war on the Soviet Union. We opposed those who wish to build up imperialist Germany and to establish fascism in Greece. We wish peace with Franco’s Spain, despite her fascism. We shall support peace and friendship among all nations, with Soviet Russia and the peoples’ republics.
GH: I think it’s fair to say that those particular words did not go down very well in certain segments of the U.S. population and it led to what could fairly be called a riot.
Unidentified person: A group of young boys here yelling at the people in their cars.
Crowd [shouting]: Go back to Russia! Go back to Russia!
GH: Robeson barely escaped intact. It was a riot that in some ways, once again, involved agents of the state in so far as the state police, local police were hesitant, shall we say, to restrain the rioters. And so the Civil Rights Congress, after this fracas in August 1949, decide that it was a bad signal to send that their concert could be disrupted. So the Civil Rights Congress decides to return to Peekskill a few weeks after this August 1949 debacle and it’s a worse debacle, with bottles being thrown, cars being attacked.
In any case, these Peekskill riots send a very ominous and dangerous signal. It’s the escalation of this Red Scare and the Red Scare hysteria. And ironically, what happens simultaneously is that, as the United States advances with regard to the Red Scare, it’s decided that the better part of wisdom is to have a gradual retreat and erosion of Jim Crow, which has the advantage, from their point of view, of helping to entice figures like Jackie Robinson and Sugar Ray Robinson and the NAACP leadership to undermine and attack Robeson, which then in turn confuses and perplexes the Black community, which erodes the major bulwark of support for Paul Robeson.
PR: The attempt of the enemy was to cut off the progressive people from the great masses of the American people. In my own case, it was to cut me off from the Negro people from whom I am born. Imagine, somehwere somebody says, “I, born a Negro, but because of my beliefs, my fight for peace, my fight for friendship between nations, my fight for the complete liberation of my people, but somewhere I’m not an American and that I should be cut off from the very people from whom I was born.”
JS: What was the justification for taking Robeson’s passport away from him and how long did it last?
GH: Well it’s a form of denationalization. That is to say it’s a form of a de facto stripping of an essential element of citizenship. It was an administrative procedure emerging out of the U.S. State Department. It was felt that Robeson was sullying the already sullied image of the United States of America by railing against the Jim Crow, by being opposed to the U.S. war of aggression on the Korean peninsula. And that as a result his passport should be taken for practical reasons because this would prevent him from earning a living abroad. It would prevent him from using his powerful voice as a megaphone to denounce Jim Crow, white supremacy, U.S. imperialism. And so therefore his passport was snatched away. And to a degree that snatching “worked” because it did help to hamper his mobility and it did, to a degree, hamper his effectiveness.
PR: Most importantly however were the questions raised by the State Department as to my political opinions. Here’s a question of whether one who wants to sing and act can have, as a citizen, political opinions. And in attacking me, they suggested that when I was abroad I spoke out against injustices to the Negro people in the United States. I certainly did. And the Supreme Court justice just ruled, Judge Warren, in the segregation cases that world opinion had a lot to do with that ruling. That our children, Negro children, can go to school like anybody else in the South. I’m very proud to have been a part of directing world opinion to precisely that condition.
The second, that I fight for the independence of the colonial peoples of Africa. At Bandung, the colored peoples of the world assembled and made it clear that nobody is going to tell them what to do. They’re going to have their independence. I’m proud of that.
The third, that I fight for peace and friendship with the Soviet Union. At Geneva, the President of the United States made it clear that nobody wants to go to war with the Soviet Union. No American wants to fight them. And I presume certainly the Negro people of the United States don’t want any war with them either. Nobody does. Because we want peace and friendship in the world. And rather absurd that the Soviet farmers can be here in the United States, that Baptist preachers can be in Moscow and farmers — that I’m not allowed to travel because of my friendship, open spoken friendship, that’s right, for the Soviet peoples and for the peoples of all the world.
JS: In March of ’61, Robeson’s son finds him in a Moscow hotel room after what appears to be a suicide attempt. And Paul Robeson, Jr. had said that he believes that his father had been the victim of a CIA operation carried out under the MK Ultra program. I’m wondering, though, Professor Horne, do you think that there’s veracity to that claim that this wasn’t in fact a suicide attempt and that the CIA may have drugged or otherwise influenced Paul Robeson in that Moscow hotel room?
GH: I do, and that’s why I have a long footnote in that book pointing future scholars to sources that they can utilize for those who are interested in trying to nail down the story. And so, yes, I do think that there is some credibility to the claim that there was an attempt to get rid of Paul Robeson by any means necessary, just as I talked about the attempt in Missouri a few years earlier to destabilize his car so it would go off the road and kill him that way.
JS: Finally, on Paul Robeson you write in this book, “Part of what made Robeson a revolutionary was his rejection of narrow nationalism and his uplifting of a radical, internationalism. And it was this, as much as anything else, that caused the tremendous persecution of him by the U.S. authorities since he was effectively eroding Washington’s sovereignty in pursuit of racial equality domestically, and the socialist commonwealth globally, that would guarantee it.” What should people be looking to in the legacy of Paul Robeson that would help people to understand the times in which we’re living now and what is called for, for people of justice?
GH: Well, I would like to think that Robeson’s legacy is reflected in the fact that just a few weeks ago, the African Union, headquartered in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, at the behest of Burkina Faso and central West Africa, filed a motion at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland calling for a commission of inquiry into “systemic racism” in the United States of America.
This is obviously inspired by the protests in the aftermath of the lynching of George Floyd, and in some ways this kind of internationalism that you saw in Geneva, Switzerland — and by the way, in the wake of the killing of Black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri a few years ago you had a similar effort to take claims to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. Now, whether the claimants knew it or not, they were walking in the footsteps of Paul Robeson and his genocide petition filed at the United Nations filed circa 1950-1951.
I would like to think that the eruption of protests in the wake of the Floyd killing in New Zealand, Australia, London, Berlin; the apology issued from the monarchy in Belgium to the people of the Congo because of the depredations inflicted upon this African country when King Leopold, at the end of the 19th century, beginning of the 20th century, was presiding over this vast land as large as the United States east of the Mississippi River and leading to the deaths of an estimated 10 million people, not to mention the maiming and disfiguring, including cutting off hands and limbs, of those who would not participate in the forced labor regime. I would like to think that this apology was driven by the kind of Black internationalism that you see represented in the streets of the United States of America, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, as represented at these actions at the United Nations Human Rights Council.
All of this I see as the legacy of Robeson and certainly, it seems to me, that, given the strength of the right wing in the United States of America as evidenced by the fact, I’m afraid to say, that the President of the United States — the oaf in the Oval Office, Agent Orange himself — got 63 million votes in November 2016. It’s mathematically impossible for that 63 million to be part of the one percent in a nation of 330 million. As we speak, it’s not clear with 100 percent certainty that he’ll be defeated at the polls in November of 2020. So given these disadvantageous domestic conditions, it’s incumbent upon activists to take our claims to the international community. That’s how we countervail the strength of the right wing in the United States of America and that is a lesson that is evidenced by the storied legacy and career of one Paul Robeson.
JS: You personally have written several books about, or that deal with, movements on the left throughout U.S. history, important figures. Why do you think we haven’t seen a more robust and successful left emerge in the United States?
GH: Well, if you look at the books that I’ve written in recent decades, you’ll find that I’m steadily marching back in time to the point where my latest book, just released a few days ago, deals with what I call the long 16th century and the origins of settler colonialism. And one of the points that I zero in on that I think helps to explicate this nagging, troubling question — as to why there’s not a stronger left in the United States — I think in many ways it inheres in the nature of settler colonialism, which is the system under which we’re still laboring.
That is to say, settler colonialism, the invasion in 1607 of what the Londoners call Virginia after the so-called “virgin queen,” Queen Elizabeth, was a collaboration across class lines. It was class collaboration in its classic form. Poor Europeans and richer Europeans getting together and — I used to work for the trade union movement and the trade movement union would call it “pork chop unity.” That is to say, what you had in common with those you were uniting with was that you wanted to share the feast. And the feast in this case, speaking of what happened 400 years ago was the land of the Native Americans to be quickly followed by the fruits of enslaved African labor.
And as I say in my 17th century book, a turning point comes in 1676, with Bacon’s rebellion, where Nathaniel Bacon, a man of means in the land they called Virginia, leads an uprising of folks who are not men of means, who are much less wealthy, on the basis that London was not moving sufficiently, in a sufficiently rapid fashion to take the land from the Native Americans and redistribute it to them. But in any case, I think it’s this class collaboration that is part of the key to understanding the United States, which at once weakens the trade union movement, because it convinces many of the Euro-American working class and middle class that they have more in common with Mr. Trump than they do with those in the shop in which they are working. So it weakens unions. It causes Black people to lose confidence — to put it mildly — in their fellow workers, which then turns them in different directions. Certainly it oftentimes turns them away from class unity and class solidarity because, you know, they don’t see the point because those that find us white are not necessarily reciprocating.
And then of course it forces many on the left to then try to rationalize this class collaboration. I mean, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that Trump supporters are actually Bernie supporters who are disappointed that Bernie didn’t get the nomination, which begs the question of why Black supporters did not turn to the right. Somehow we’re left out of that particular conversation. And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this conversation about well, you know, sometimes they say the median, sometimes they say the average, figure for those who voted for Trump was $72,000. And that doesn’t sound like working class to me. It shows that people were out of touch. I mean, you have police officers on the West coast who make $100,000 a year. You have teachers who make $72,000 a year. You have coal miners who make $72,000 a year.
So, and I think people in their heart of hearts they know this, but they feel they have to somehow rationalize what’s going on and put a positive progressive spin on it because otherwise I guess it does look rather forbidding. But as a Black person, I mean, hello! That’s nothing new living in a society that’s forbidding, a society that’s dangerous. Even before the pandemic, I felt like, living in Texas, I felt like I take my life in my hands everytime I step outside of my door. And in fact, given what happened to Breonna Taylor, I’m taking my life in my hands by being inside where I live! You know, recall that they broke down the door and burst into her apartment and shot her eight times. So I think in terms of trying to understand this rather difficult political situation, which we find ourselves in the United States in 2020, we’re going to have to have a deeper analysis of class collaboration, which is going to bring forward, I’m afraid to say, some difficult, troubling realities.
JS: Well, Professor Gerald Horne, we’re going to have to have you back and maybe we could just go century by century in reverse order the way that you’re doing right now to try to get to the root of this question of why we don’t have as vibrant of a left as we should in this country. But until that moment happens, I just want to thank you for sharing with us all of this scholarship on the life of Paul Robeson and some of your thoughts on this current moment that we’re in. We definitely will have you back on again to discuss some of your other work. So thank you very much for joining us.
GH: Thank you for inviting me.
JS: Dr. Gerald Horne is the John J. and Rebecca Moores Chair of History and African American Studies at the University of Houston. He is the author of “Paul Robeson: The Artist as Revolutionary.” Professor Horne is also the author of a series of books that deal with white supremacy and U.S. colonial history. Among those are: “The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism,” “The Counter-Revolution of 1776,” and his newest book, just published, is “The Dawning of the Apocalypse: The Roots of Slavery, White Supremacy, Settler Colonialism and Capitalism in the Long 16th Century.”
And that does it for this week’s show. You can follow us on Twitter @intercepted and on Instagram @InterceptedPodcast. A note to our listeners: I am going to be stepping back from hosting for a period. Next week, my colleague Murtaza Hussain will be hosting this program and Naomi Klein is also going to be sitting in for me in the very near future. We’re planning to resume regular programming in September, but I assure you that you do not want to miss the next two episodes of this program.
Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our lead producer is Jack D’Isidoro. Our producer is Laura Flynn. Elise Swain is our associate producer and graphic designer. Betsy Reed is editor in chief of The Intercept. Rick Kwan mixed the show. Transcription for this program is done by Lucie Kroening. Our music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky. Until next time, I’m Jeremy Scahill.
Correction: July 17, 2020
An earlier version of this episode incorrectly referred to Joseph McCarthy as the chair of the House Un-American Activities Committee. This reference has been removed.
Correction: July 17, 2020
In this episode, audio clips of Paul Robeson’s testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee were not identified as a dramatization. The transcript has been updated to identify actor James Earl Jones as Robeson. Jones portrayed Robeson in the stage play, “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been?”
Dr. Gerald Horne currently holds the John J. and Rebecca Moores Chair of History and African American Studies at the University of Houston. He is a prolific author and among his works is the recent book “Paul Robeson: The Artist as Revolutionary.” Dr. Horne’s newest book, just published, is “The Dawning of the Apocalypse: The Roots of Slavery, White Supremacy, Settler Colonialism, and Capitalism in the Long Sixteenth Century.”
Jeremy Scahill is one of the three founding editors of The Intercept. He is an investigative reporter, war correspondent, and author of the international best-selling books, “Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield” and “Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army.” He has reported from Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, Nigeria, the former Yugoslavia, and elsewhere across the globe. Scahill has served as the national security correspondent for The Nation and Democracy Now!.
Scahill’s work has sparked several congressional investigations and won some of journalism’s highest honors. He was twice awarded the prestigious George Polk Award, in 1998 for foreign reporting and in 2008 for “Blackwater.” Scahill is a producer and writer of the award-winning film “Dirty Wars,” which premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and was nominated for an Academy Award.
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