2023 Paul Robeson Lecture and 8th Annual Alumni of Color Reception

Professor Kendall Thomas and Ford Foundation President Darren Walker discuss the future of the American idea.

Beneath the soaring dome of Low Memorial Library, Columbia Law School hosted alumni, faculty, students, and other guests on March 9 for two annual events: the Paul Robeson Lecture and Alumni of Color Reception. Part of a yearlong centennial celebration of Robeson’s graduation from the Law School, this year’s program featured a forthright and often emotional fireside chat on “The Future of the American Idea” between Kendall Thomas, Nash Professor of Law, and Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, one of the world’s largest philanthropic organizations. (Watch the full discussion above.)

In her opening remarks, Gillian Lester, Dean and Lucy G. Moses Professor of Law, offered a précis on Robeson’s “robust and complex” life as an advocate, athlete, performer, and cultural icon. “His life reminds us that advocacy for change requires operating from a place of both hope and grit, an abiding belief, as he had, that pushing our nation and its institutions to live up to their highest ideals is a cause, a hard cause, but a cause worthy of us all,” Dean Lester said.

The keynote speakers were introduced by their mutual friend, Sheena Wright CC ’90, LAW ’94, the first Black woman to serve as the first deputy mayor of New York City, who was previously president and CEO of the United Way of New York City from 2012 to 2022. (Wright followed in Walker’s footsteps at the Abyssinian Development Corporation, where he was the COO from 1993 to 2001, and she was president and CEO from 2002 to 2012.) In her remarks, Wright said that when she was a student at the Law School, Thomas was a mentor to her and her Black classmates. “We felt close to him. We connected to him,” she said. “As I was walking in today, someone said, ‘Do you know Darren? Do you know Kendall?’ I said, ‘Do I know them? These are my people.’” 

Woman in orange jacket at lectern
Sheena Wright CC ’90, LAW ’ 94 introduced the keynote speakers at the Paul Robeson Lecture.

Wright reflected on the American idea as set out 250 years ago in the Declaration of Independence (“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal . . .”) and how it did not apply to Black Americans whose “ancestors lived through the American reality of oppression, of choking off opportunity,” she said. At Columbia Law School, she continued, “Paul Robeson obviously paved the way for all of us.”

Power and Responsibility

Thomas opened his conversation with Walker by reading the Gwendolyn Brooks poem “Paul Robeson,” which concludes, “we are each other’s/business:/we are each other’s/magnitude and bond.” Describing Walker as one of the most important change-makers and thought leaders in the United States, Thomas said, “I can think of no better person to help us to celebrate this year of Paul Robeson.”

Like Robeson, Walker has not followed a traditional legal career path, but he has used his law school education as the foundation for a career in multiple arenas—Big Law, investment banking, community development, and philanthropy. “It wasn’t an education preparing me to be a public intellectual or a nonprofit executive or to be a banker, but it did give me a sense of how power is exerted by one single profession that is omnipotent in our society and economy,” Walker said. “I was interested in the question of how power works in American democracy. It was something Paul Robeson was interested in, and he mastered using his legal education [and] transcending it.” 

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Professor Kendall Thomas discusses the future of the American idea with Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation.

Thomas asked Walker what he’d like students to know about the role and obligations of African American lawyers, especially those who are the descendants of enslaved people. “This question of what are the special responsibilities of African American graduates is a complicated one in ways that it is not for their white peers,” Walker said. While it is necessary that African American lawyers pursue careers in public interest and public service, he said, it is just as essential that they take on leadership roles in the private sector.

“We need people in places of power,” said Walker. “Because the interaction between the deployment of capital and who gets justice is real.”

Walker emphasized that it’s as important to honor and support Black lawyers who are social justice leaders as those who take another path. “I also want to have it in our minds that we see that Black woman who is a partner at Cravath Swaine & Moore and that we support them, and we have a mindset that rewards and recognizes the choices that they have made, which are often in environments that are more hostile than working at the LDF or for a public interest law firm.”

Walker also shared his perspective on charitable giving and the role of nonprofits, which is the subject of his book From Generosity to Justice: A New Gospel of Wealth. “Philanthropy is commendable, but it should not allow the philanthropist to overlook the economic injustice which makes philanthropy necessary,” he said, paraphrasing Martin Luther King Jr. “What [King] laid out was an idea that I write about, which is about moving from this notion of philanthropy as charity, as generosity, to dignity and justice. . . . It requires the philanthropist to interrogate their culpability and complicity in the very problems they’re trying to solve.”

Advancing the American Idea

The issue that is fundamental to realizing the American idea, Walker said, is voting rights; the ways that Black Americans have been prohibited, prevented, or discouraged from voting directly contradict that idea. “It’s important to remember that we were not a democracy in this country until the passage of the Voting Rights Act,” he said. “This idea of voting is so essential to your identity as a citizen of this country. What patriot would seek to undermine anyone seeking to advance that right to all Americans?” 

Thomas posed a final set of questions to Walker about how universities, law schools, and their students can advance the American idea. He quoted from Walker’s 2022 essay published in The New York Times, “The Founders Bequeathed Us Something Radical,” in which Walker proclaims his “unwavering” love for America and that the American idea is one worth improving but also expresses his fear that Americans “are mired in a culture of absolutism and tearing ourselves apart at the seams.”

Walker responded by beseeching law school students to engage in civic life and civil conversation: He called for “people of goodwill” to remain in the public square as an antidote to toxic discourse. He decried the “massive issue of ‘motive misattribution’ in the square, where if you say something to me as a Black queer man that I disagree with, or I don’t believe to be true, my response is, ‘You’re a homophobe, and you’re a racist,’” he said. Such presumptions, he continued, are counterproductive “if we want the square to be vibrant and to be what it needs to be in order for this democracy to work and for the American idea to be realized.”

Following the lecture, guests enjoyed the annual Alumni of Color reception in Low Library (photos included in the gallery below).

The 2023 Paul Robeson Lecture and Eighth Annual Alumni of Color Reception



Man in suit and tie with patterns wall hanging in background

“I want you to know that I am the same Paul, dedicated as ever to the worldwide cause of humanity for freedom, peace, and brotherhood.”



Paul Robeson is born on April 9 in Princeton, New Jersey, the youngest of five children. His father, William, pastor of Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church, escaped slavery in North Carolina as a teenager and earned theology degrees from Lincoln University, a historically Black college in Pennsylvania. His mother, Maria Louisa, a teacher, dies in a house fire when Paul is 5 years old. 



Educational and Athletic Success

Robeson wins a full scholarship to Rutgers University and is only the third Black student to enroll. He earns 15 varsity letters in football, baseball, basketball, and track and is twice named a football All-American—despite experiencing physical hostility from players on other teams and his own. He sings in the college glee club, but he is not permitted to travel to performances at other schools.

Elected to Phi Beta Kappa in his junior year, Robeson gives the graduation speech for the class of 1919. The future of Black people, he says, “lies chiefly in our own hands.” But he calls on white people—“you of the favored race”—to “catch a new vision . . . in which success and achievement are recognized, and those deserving receive the respect, honor, and dignity due them.”


Columbia Law School

Robeson moves to Harlem and enrolls at Columbia Law School during the deanship of Harlan Fiske Stone. His father, who died in 1918, had encouraged Robeson to become a minister. He works his way through law school by giving concerts, acting, and playing professional football; on weekends, he takes overnight trains to Ohio to play for the Akron Pros. In the fall of 1922, he takes a semester off to play for the Milwaukee Badgers in the nascent NFL.



Marries Eslanda Cardozo Goode TC 1920, a chemist working in the pathology lab at Presbyterian Hospital (now NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital). She encourages his singing and acting career and works as his manager. During their difficult but lasting marriage, the couple has a son, Paul Jr., and Eslanda earns degrees in anthropology and theology and writes several books.


A Truncated Law Career

After graduating from Columbia Law, Robeson works for Stotesbury and Miner, an estate law firm. He writes briefs, but a secretary refuses to take dictation from him, and the head of the firm tells Robeson he is unlikely ever to try a case in court because white clients will not work with a Black lawyer. Robeson resigns and pursues his stage career. “As an actor, I think I have less to buck against than as a lawyer,” he tells the New York Herald Tribune.  



Worldwide Acclaim

Begins his career as an actor and singer and finds international success, appearing on concert stages across Europe and the Soviet Union. He acts in plays by Eugene O’Neill including All God’s Chillun Got Wings (about a lawyer in an interracial marriage) and performs concert programs of spirituals. “These were not songs of defeat,” he says. Instead, he continues, they were the songs that helped Black people in their struggle.

Robeson’s activism grows—he supports the labor movement and ending colonial rule in Africa and India, and speaks out against rising fascism in Europe. He becomes friendly with anti-colonial activists Jomo Kenyatta and Jawaharlal Nehru. In 1934, he visits the Soviet Union and praises its commitment to racial equality. “In Soviet Russia, I breathe freely for the first time in my life,” he says.




Prelude to World War

Robeson sings “Ol’ Man River” in the film Show Boat, the song that becomes most associated with him. During the Spanish Civil War, he raises money for the Republican cause and performs for soldiers in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade fighting against Gen. Francisco Franco. “The artist must take sides. He must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice,” he says.


Breaking Barriers Again

In 1943, Robeson becomes the first Black actor to play Othello in a major production in America. It runs for 296 performances, the longest run of a Shakespeare play on Broadway. That same year, he joins a delegation to meet with baseball-team owners and Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis to press for inclusion of Black players on major league teams. “Because baseball is a national game, it is up to baseball to see that discrimination does not become the American pattern,” he says. It was not until 1947 that the first Black player, Jackie Robinson, took the field for a major league team. 



Honored by the NAACP

The NAACP awards Robeson its highest honor, the Spingarn Medal, for his achievements in theater and music, and “for his active concern for the rights of the common man of every race, color, religion and nationality.”


Postwar Frustration

After a surge of violence against Black people, including veterans returning from World War II, Robeson meets with President Harry S. Truman to press for a federal anti-lynching bill—but Truman rebuffs him. In the 1948 election, Robeson campaigns for Progressive Party candidate Henry Wallace, whose platform includes desegregation and universal health insurance.


Cold War Controversy

At a peace conference in Paris, Robeson is reported by The Associated Press to have said that Black Americans would not fight a war against the Soviet Union, a nation more dedicated to racial equality than the United States. Though Robeson was likely misquoted (newspaper accounts vary), backlash in the U.S. leads to public condemnation. A concert in Peekskill, New York, ends in violence despite a massive police presence when veterans groups outside the venue, calling Robeson a Communist, attack audience members as they are leaving.




The State Department cancels Robeson’s passport for refusing to sign a declaration that he is not a Communist. He is blacklisted and surveilled by the FBI. His performing and recording career is destroyed. In 1952, Robeson is awarded the Stalin Peace Prize by the Soviet Union, which he receives from W.E.B. Du Bois at a ceremony in September 1953 at the Hotel Theresa in Harlem. He does not change his position of support for the Soviet Union despite revelations of Joseph Stalin’s purges and postwar domination of Eastern Europe. When Stalin dies in 1952, Robeson eulogizes his “deep humanity” and “wise understanding.”


House Un-American Activities Committee

Summoned before the House Un-American Activities Committee, Robeson is asked if he is a member of the Communist Party. “Would you like to come to the ballot box when I vote and take out the ballot and see?” he replies. “I am not being tried [before the committee] for whether I am a Communist. I am being tried for fighting for the rights of my people, who are still second-class citizens in this United States of America.”


Freedom Restored

The Supreme Court rules that passports may not be revoked because of a citizen’s beliefs and associations. A sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall in honor of Robeson’s 60th birthday marks the end of his ostracism. He returns to recording and touring internationally. He publishes his autobiography, Here I Stand, but few general-audience newspapers mention it.


Ill Health and Retirement

Eslanda Robeson dies of cancer. Due to a heart condition and depression, Paul Robeson largely retires from public life.


Late-Life Honors

A Carnegie Hall concert celebrates Robeson’s 75th birthday. Unable to attend because of his health, Robeson says in a message, “I want you to know that I am the same Paul, dedicated as ever to the worldwide cause of humanity for freedom, peace, and brotherhood.” Rutgers University awards him an honorary doctorate—his fourth from a university.


A Quiet Death

Robeson lives his final years in Philadelphia, at the home of his sister. He dies on January 23, 1976.


Honored by Columbia Law School

Columbia Law School inaugurates the Paul Robeson Scholarship with a black-tie fundraising dinner in Low Library, hosted by the Black Law Students Association (BLSA); Roy M. Cohn ’47, former counsel to Sen. Joseph McCarthy during congressional investigations of suspected Communists, calls the honor “an absolute outrage.” In 1995, BLSA inaugurates the annual Paul Robeson Conference and Gala.


Celebrating Robeson’s 100th Birthday

To mark the centennial of Robeson's birth and the 75th anniversary of his graduation from Columbia Law, BLSA holds a Paul Robeson Symposium. Among the guests is Constance Baker Motley ’46, the first Black woman appointed to the federal judiciary and the first woman to serve as chief judge for the Southern District of New York. The following year, Cornel West, then a professor of religion and African American studies at Harvard University, gives the first Paul Robeson Lecture. 



Columbia Law Centennial

Columbia Law School celebrates the centennial of Robeson’s graduation with an exhibit about Robeson and a talk, held in conjunction with the annual Alumni of Color reception, by Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, in conversation with Kendall Thomas, Nash Professor of Law, and introduced by Sheena Wright, CC ’90, LAW ’94.


Further Reading and Sources