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Black History Month: Paul Robeson Was America's Quintessential Renaissance Man


This February, Sports Illustrated is celebrating Black History Month by spotlighting a different iconic athlete every day. Today, SI looks back on the legacy of Paul Robeson.

Paul Robeson was a true renaissance man. He was an effective political activist. He was a world-renowned singer and actor. He was an All-America football player who also played in the precursor to the NFL. He won a dozen varsity letters at Rutgers and was the school's valedictorian. He was a trained lawyer who graduated from Columbia. "Beginning with his football days at Rutgers," SI's Jerry Kirshenbaum wrote in 1972, "Paul Robeson established himself as one of the most variously gifted men of his time."

The son of a minister who escaped slavery in North Carolina as a teenager, Robeson built an extraordinary life despite the prejudiced sociopolitical infrastructure around him. His exploits on the football field—while incredible—paled in comparison with his impact in politics. He raised money for beleaguered Welsh miners, advocated for Western decolonization and lobbied the federal government to integrate MLB and pass broad-sweeping antilynching legislation.

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He remained steadfast in his ideals, never wavering even under heavy scrutiny. Under the intense investigations of McCarthy-era hysteria, Robeson held firm and stood by his unrelenting political activism. His criticisms of the American government and their discriminatory practices were unchanging.

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Robeson was railroaded in the process. In 1947, he made $100,000 as a performer. By 1952, he was making $6,000. His passport was revoked from 1950-58. He faded into relative obscurity.

Even so, he kept going. The socialist leanings and criticisms of America's political structure that left him in McCarthy's ire never faded. He was a prominent figure during the ensuing civil rights movement, even though his perceived "anti-American" perspectives meant organizations like the NAACP kept him at arm's length. 

All-American, 12-time varsity letterman, professional football player, valedictorian, lawyer, civil rights activist, singer, actor, role model and trail blazer—the man did it all. 

From the SI Vault:

"Paul Robeson: Remaking a Fallen Hero," by Jerry Kirshenbaum (March 27, 1972)

More Black History Month Pioneers:
* Florence Griffith Joyner Smashed Records and Stereotypes
Remembering Satchel Paige, Maybe The Best Pitcher To Ever Live