Social activists, labour and the left in British Columbia didn't have much reason to celebrate this week. It was a year ago on Thursday that Gordon Campbell led his Liberal party to a massive victory and proceeded to radically restructure the way the province is governed. Along the way, this ultraconservative regime has sparked unheralded waves of protest and antagonized almost every sector of the province -- including public servants, seniors, doctors, nurses, teachers, students, aboriginal leaders and judges.
But this afternoon at the Peace Arch border crossing, one hour south of Vancouver, peace activists, union members, elders and children will come together to remember a legendary figure who boosted the left's shattered morale at a time that seemed equally dire.
On May 18, 1952, Paul Robeson -- who will be remembered as one of the greatest singers of the 1940s, the first black superstar in the United States, a civil-rights hero and a tragic figure destroyed by McCarthyism -- stood on the back of a flat-bed truck parked at the edge of the Canadian border and sang songs of solidarity to a crowd of 40,000.
Fifty years later, that legendary concert will be recreated at the very same park. Organized by a cross-border committee of social activists, arts groups and trade unions, Here We Stand! The Paul Robeson Memorial Concert, will feature actor Danny Glover, performing a dramatization of Robeson's speech, and Ronnie Gilbert, a member of the legendary folk group the Weavers (also blacklisted during the McCarthy era). The Vancouver punk rock group DOA and the Total Experience Gospel Choir from Seattle, among others, will perform pieces from Robeson's repertoire. The keynote speech will be delivered by Canadian labour hero Madeleine Parent.
There may be many who do not remember Robeson's monumental Canadian connection. It was but one of many milestones in his remarkable life.
Against all odds, this son of an escaped slave became a college football champion, a scholar and one of the first black lawyers to study at Columbia University. In an era that didn't exactly promote the advancement of black professionals, Robeson began a new career in theatre and film, earning international acclaim for his definitive portrayal of Othello and eventually becoming the most popular folksinger in the 1940s.
Robeson, however, was a celebrity with several social-activist causes and an outspoken sympathy for communism. Shortly after Robeson gave an inflammatory speech at the 1948 World Peace Conference in Paris which questioned why African-Americans should fight in the army of a government that tolerated racism, he was accused by the House Un-American Activities Committee of being a Communist. His concerts were cancelled, he was blacklisted at major venues (and even small churches), his recordings were pulled from store shelves and his passport was revoked.
In 1952, Harvey Murphy, regional director of the Western District of the Mine, Mill and Smelters Workers' Union of British Columbia, invited Robeson to attend its annual convention. Denied permission to leave the United States, Robeson addressed the convention anyway, directly over the loudspeakers, with the help of a bootleg telephone hookup, illegally wired by members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
Determined to put pressure on the U.S. State Department and to protest Robeson's vilification, the convention delegates invited the singer back for a concert at the Peace Arch Bridge border crossing, one hour south of Vancouver, on May 18, 1952.
Return he did, accompanied by Lawrence Brown, who played an upright piano on the back of a flat-bed truck parked at the edge of the border. With one foot on Canadian soil, Robeson defiantly poured his powerful baritone voice into songs of solidarity before the assembled crowd of nearly 40,000, mostly Canadians, who had tied up the highway with parked cars for five miles.
"I can't tell you how moved I am today to see that nothing can keep me from my beloved friends in Canada," Robeson told the cheering throng.
Just how legendary was this concert? It was the "Woodstock" of the civil-rights movement, says Gary Christall, a Canadian folk-music historian who is helping to organize the event.
"It pops up over and over again in the folklore of the labour movement and the Left and beyond. Think about it. It was 1952 -- at the height of McCarthyism, in the middle of the Korean War, and the Cold War was raging. Here was a guy with a strong antiwar stand who had been branded as one of the most dangerous men in the world singing about peace and they had more than 30,000 people out there. That's a lot of folks. At the time, I don't think anybody could have outdrawn him. Maybe Sinatra. It was an enormous accomplishment for the labour movement, one of the big success stories -- and a testament to Robeson's popularity."
Elspeth Gardner remembers the day well. Now 80 years old and living in Burnaby, B.C., Gardner was then a partner in the law firm that represented the Mine Mill Workers and several other unions.
"It was held on a very lovely day in a very good location for a picnic. We were sitting under the trees, not far from the stage. The crowd exceeded all expectations. It was such an exciting day. I had already heard [Robeson] in Vancouver when he performed Othello. He had a most wonderful voice, rich and powerful. Chills went down my spine when he spoke. He was a big man in every way -- big in stature and outlook. And when he sang, it felt he was singing to you directly."
The impact, says Gardner, was hugely significant for the peace activists and labour unionists in British Columbia, who were beginning to feel the impact of the Cold War policies.
"I was involved in peace activities at the time and I had to defend many people who were charged with interfering with police officers. I was very much aware of what was going on. There had been one applicant to enter the law society who was refused permission because of his views. And there were others who had conditions restricting their practice. The atmosphere was a poor one.
And although the full impact wasn't felt until a bit later, this concert was quite important for bolstering people. It was a real boost of morale that gave people the courage to carry on with the ideas they believed in, as Robeson had done at great cost to himself."
Robeson inspired many, including Ronnie Gilbert, who didn't hesitate for a second when the organizers asked her to come sing at the concert. "I grew up with Paul Robeson as my hero," says Gilbert, a founding member of the Weavers, which also featured Pete Seeger, Lee Hays and Fred Hellerman. Although she never performed with Robeson, she recalls hearing him sing when she was a child at a strike rally for the garment workers union, to which her mother belonged.
"He was a great man, a wonderful artist and the measure, for me, of what a person in the arts can be. He put his life out there where people could reach it and used his artistry and stature to do some good in the world. That's been my goal as a human being. I can't meet his stature, but I can try."
As with Robeson, who saw his income plummet from $100,000 in 1947 to approximately $6,000 by 1952, Gilbert and the Weavers suffered enormously from the effect of their blacklisting.
"I remember it very well. We were singing in a fancy nightclub in Illinois for a two-week engagement. When [we]got back to the hotel one night, there were huge headlines in the newspapers: 'The Weavers called Reds.' That was the beginning of the end as far as our commercial work was concerned.
"It was witch-hunting time. And to suggest that maybe we should sit down and talk about things instead of going to war was tantamount to being called a traitor today in the war on terrorism. I'm glad to say I'm a traitor. I'm 76 years old. After witnessing year after year of conflagration, it's very clear that you get nowhere with violence and retribution. You would think the human race would have gotten past that by this point." Free buses to the border-crossing concert will run from Vancouver's King George Skytrain station to Peach Arch Park every 15 minutes today from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. More information is available at