Remarks at Celebration of Paul Robeson Commemorative U.S. Postal Stamp

Richard L. McCormick, President
February 27, 2004

Good afternoon and welcome. We are glad you are here to join in honoring the life of Paul Robeson, Rutgers’ most distinguished graduate. We are pleased to welcome the U.S. Postal Service to Rutgers to help us mark this historic moment.

Today we will hear many tributes to this great American and to his sheer talent, enduring grace, passionate dedication, and deep moral conscience. He deserves all this praise and much more.

Paul Robeson – multiple-letter winner at Rutgers and phenomenal football star – could have limited himself to the sports arena and would command respect for his accomplishments there.

Paul Robeson – brilliant actor and captivating singer – could have spent his life on Broadway, the silver screen, or the concert hall and won admiration and accolades that would easily satisfy most of us.

Paul Robeson – class valedictorian and Phi Beta Kappa at Rutgers – could have used his Columbia law degree to find great success in that field of endeavor.

But the Paul Robeson we honor was ruled not by his agile feet, nor his rich voice, nor his fertile mind, but by his enormous heart.

Whenever and wherever he encountered injustice, he could not and would not remain silent. Witnessing racism, he worked hard for change, as he did in advocating for laws against lynching. Seeing the evils of fascism, he helped Jewish refugees escape Nazi persecution. Experiencing discrimination, he fought for equal rights for African Americans, saying, “I stand here struggling for the rights of my people to be full citizens in this country.”

Taking radical positions came at a heavy price, as Robeson faced severe criticism and government persecution. Declaring him a communist, the American government stripped him of his passport and derailed his performing career.

This renaissance man by rights should have been hailed in his lifetime as one of the greatest talents of the 20th century. Instead, by the time of his death in 1976, he was nearly forgotten.

This commemorative postage stamp was a long time in coming, and we know it didn’t happen without a struggle. How fitting that it should honor a man who knew struggles all his life.

We at Rutgers take pride that he achieved so much in our classrooms and on our athletic fields, but we must also acknowledge that he suffered here as well.

The story is told of Robeson’s first days of football practice at Rutgers, when he was targeted, battered, and stomped on – by his own teammates. As a member of the glee club, he was not allowed to attend social functions or perform with the club on the road. Despite injustices like these, he became class valedictorian and our university’s most accomplished graduate.

Earlier this week we commemorated an event that took place more than a half-century after Paul Robeson attended Rutgers: the 1969 student takeover of Conklin Hall on our Newark campus. All those years after Robeson, it took radical action by students to make our university truly embrace diversity and honor our responsibility to African Americans.

And as was noted at Tuesday’s event, one legacy of the Conklin Hall takeover was the commitment of black students to encourage Rutgers to finally acknowledge Paul Robeson’s greatness.

Despite many changes and much good will over the years, and buildings on each campus that bear his name, Rutgers in 2004 is still not the university that Paul Robeson’s memory deserves.

To truly celebrate his legacy, we must confront our daunting problems in recruiting African American males to the university. To recognize his perseverance, we must improve our retention and graduation rates. To honor his value as a role model, we must increase the number of minority faculty at Rutgers. And in memory of his own experience on the banks, we must make our university climate more welcoming and supportive for people of every culture and background.

The Rutgers that would make Paul Robeson proudest is a Rutgers where diversity is sought and nurtured, where equal opportunity is celebrated and cherished, and where the battle against injustice anywhere and everywhere carries on.

A Paul Robeson stamp costs 37 cents. A university that lives up to the ideals of Paul Robeson is priceless.