CND rally: ‘Paul Robeson sang and the busses stopped’

paul robeson.jpg

How’s this for a blinder of a memory for CND at 60? Paul Robeson, pictured here in June 1959, at a CND rally in Trafalgar Square. In a recent letter to the New York Review of Books an American recalled attending a meeting at the School of Oriental and African Studies to mark the 30th anniversary of Robeson’s death in 2006: ‘Most memorably, a speaker from the audience described a Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament rally in Trafalgar Square in 1959… As London traffic rumbled around the square, the speaker recalled, a succession of notables addressed the crowd from the steps of Nelson’s Column. Then, he concluded, Paul Robeson sang – and the buses stopped.

Robeson was internationally acclaimed as an actor and civil rights campaigner. He admonished President Truman, telling him that ‘Negroes will defend themselves’ if he didn’t enact anti-lynching legislation.  And in 1951 Robeson presented an anti-lynching petition to the UN, which asserted that the US was guilty of genocide by its failure to act against lynching.

He was also a socialist and an advocate of trade union rights during the McCarthy era. Robeson was denounced as a communist sympathiser and blacklisted by J Edgar Hoover’s House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951, after a speech at the 1949 Paris Peace Congress, in which Robeson said: ‘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.’

  • Visit 60 Faces of CND, the Campaign’s online exhibition here

  • Read the New York Review of Books correspondence here