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SONG OF FREEDOM; REMEMBERED OL' MAN RIVER STAR SINGS ON MAY DAY MARCH TO THANK SCOTS FOR SUPPORT; Biography of Paul Robeson tells how pal from Glasgow helped beat witch-hunters.

Byline: Annie Brown

On May Day 1960, a crowd of 10,000 filled a Glasgow park to hear the legendary activist and singer Paul Robeson perform.

He told them: "It is as if I have come home.

Thank you."

His appearance was a show of gratitude to the people of Scotland who helped Robeson win his battle for freedom against the US government.

As punishment for his left-wing campaigning, the American authorities had rescinded Robeson's passport in 1952, hoping to gag one of the most famous humanitarians and performers in the world.

A new Robeson biography has now revealed that a key instigator in the campaign which had the singer's passport restored was a Glaswegian called John Williamson.

He emigrated to America, where he became a leader in the US Communist party and was ultimately jailed as an "undesirable alien".

In the anti-Communist paranoia of 50s America, thousands of men and women - from cleaners to celebrities - were blacklisted, jailed and deported for the slightest hint of left-wing leanings. Thousands more were falsely accused. Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy led a witch-hunt, dragging suspects before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) for interrogation.

Williamson was just 10 when he moved to the States in 1913 after his father was killed at sea.

After a fellow Scot introduced him to politics, he became a high-profile member of the trade union movement.

In his book A Watched Man, Jordan Goodman revisits how Robeson had spoken out in defence of Williamson and 10 other Communist leaders who were accused of conspiring to overthrow the government.

Their trial, one of the longest in American history, was held at the Foley Square Courthouse in New York and the men became known as the Foley Eleven.

At the time, Robeson was an international recording star, touring the world and appearing in the film Showboat.

The son of a slave, he used his fame to help raise the global profile of the struggle of the oppressed, despite the damage that it would do to his career.

Goodman said: "Robeson shook Williamson's hand and vowed to fight with them. Williamson never forgot that moment."

Throughout their trial, Robeson stood shoulder to shoulder with the Foley Eleven.

On stages across the world, he raised their plight and held a fundraising concert for their defence fund.

When Robeson was in Glasgow in 1949, he told the audience that he was cutting his UK tour short to return to the US where the Foley Eleven needed him.

He flew out but it was fruitless and Williamson was sentenced to five years in prison and immediately deported back to the UK on his release in 1955.

He settled in London and became active in the Communist Party of Great Britain.

In 1950, Robeson's passport was taken from him, in an attempt to erode his public profile by making it almost impossible for him to perform outside the US. He was hauled before the HUAC, where he refused to deny his politics and defiantly told the committee: "You are the un-Americans and you ought to be ashamed of yourselves."

Goodman said: "Williamson and Robeson were affected by the same insane politics of the 50s. The aim was to shut anyone up who was a critic of the United States.

"With Williamson, they slammed him in jail and threw him out of the country because he was foreign-born.

"They couldn't throw Robeson because he was born in America, so they took his passport away and kept him in."

Williamson was incensed by Robeson's plight.

Goodman said: "He remembered that when he was up against the wall, Robeson had put his career on the line to support him. So Williamson felt that the least he could do was start a British campaign for Robeson

to have his passport returned."

Williamson wrote to a conference of Scottish trade unionists who were meeting in Glasgow in October 1955, on the theme of Democratic Rights in America, to put Robeson's case on the agenda. He told the delegates: "Robeson's outstanding popularity as a singer, his self-sacrificing qualities as a fighter for civil liberties and negro rights, all demand that we should help in the restoration of his freedom."

The conference of 200 delegates passed a resolution to support Robeson and launched a nationwide petition to President Eisenhower, which was delivered to the American ambassador in London.

The delegates then returned to their local organisations and continued to campaign on Robeson's behalf.

In a thank you letter to the delegates, Robeson referred to himself as a "prisoner within the confines of my native land" but vowed to once more be free to "sing for and talk with you".

He wrote: "May success crown every phase of your splendid work ."

Word of the action spread throughout the trades union movement and sparked the wider campaign, Let Robeson Sing. In 1958, the singer's passport was returned after a Supreme Court ruling.

Two years later, Robeson led the May Day parade through the streets of Glasgow to Queen's Park, where he sang Ol' Man River to rapturous applause.

In an act of unity with the working people who idolised him, he said: "You will need all the strength you have to see that you who create the wealth of the country have a chance to enjoy it."

In July 1974, Williamson died in London from a heart attack. He was 71.

Goodman believes that Robeson's popularity came from his ability to touch the soul of the common man.

He said: "When you listen to him, he is singing for you.

"He believed that common humanity was expressed through music.

"He has projected a voice that came from oppression and a voice that wanted something better."

FBI purge to find the Reds under their bed

The Foley Eleven were part of the Smith Act trials - a series of federal prosecutions of Communist Party leaders between 1949 and 1958.

The Smith Act, also known as the Alien Registration Act, required non-US citizens to register with the government and refused entry to anyone who was associated with the Communist Party abroad.

The subsection used against the Foley Eleven gave powers to arrest anyone who publicly suggested the violent overthrow of the government.

The act was exploited to try to decapitate the Communist Party.

The trials came in the midst of a shameful period of US history and an anti-Communist hysteria in which thousands of Americans were singled out for their "subversion", which basically meant being left wing.

The victims were often not even political but they were persecuted through arrest, blacklisting and jail, regardless of evidence.

In July 1945, FBI director J Edgar Hoover instructed his agents to begin gathering information on Communist Party leaders.

But the Foley Eleven argued that they had only ever advocated a peaceful transition to socialism and that to persecute them for their political beliefs was against the First Amendment - a right to freedom of speech.

After a 10-month trial, the jury found all of the Foley Eleven guilty and they were sentenced to up to five years in federal prison.

All five defence attorneys were imprisoned for contempt of court and two were subsequently disbarred.

After the first trial, a further 100 further Communist Party officers were prosecuted for violating the Smith Act.

In 1957, eight years after the first trial, the US Supreme Court ruled that defendants could be prosecuted only for their actions, not for their beliefs.

and People in the US can now only be taken to court for their actions.. not their beliefs


FEARED FBI chief Hoover vowed to stamp out subversion in the US

COMRADES Williamson's FBI mugshot and a letter to Robeson

star quality A poster for Robeson's hit musical Showboat and, bottom, the singer sets off from George Square to walk to Queen's Park on May Day 1960

GRATEFUL Robeson sings to a packed audience in Glasgow's Queen's Park in May 1960
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Publication:Sunday Mail (Glasgow, Scotland)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Oct 20, 2013
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