Czechs and the American Civil Rights Movement

Czech interest in African American culture goes back to the 19th century. When Antonín Dvořák spent three years in the United States in the 1890s he explored African American and Native American musical traditions, seeing parallels with the Czech experience of living under Austrian domination. In the Czechoslovakia of the 1920s and 30s, interest in American jazz spread rapidly and Native American culture was romanticised in the so-called “tramping” movement. After the war communist Czechoslovakia was quick to point to discrimination and segregation in the United States and encouraged civil rights activists to visit the country. The voices of some of these visitors are preserved in the Czech Radio archives. And two decades after the fall of communism the first African American US President visited Prague. This long and fascinating connection is the subject of the ninth programme in our series looking at aspects of Czech and Czechoslovak history through the sound archives.

Jaroslav Ježek,  photo: Public Domain

Dvořák’s 9th Symphony, From the New World has often been said to show the influence of African American music, and in the other direction, the largo from the symphony provides the tune to the much-loved spiritual “Going Home”.

In the 1930s there was a lot of interest in Czechoslovakia in American jazz. You may remember that in an earlier programme in this series I featured the Czech composer Jaroslav Ježek talking about jazz in 1934. He spoke with humour what at the time went for jazz in Europe:

“Jazz has its roots in black American culture and it has been absorbed successfully into the Anglo-Saxon tradition, but anyone who has tried to establish their own alternative kind of jazz has ended up succumbing to second-rate imitation, or copying old forms of dance, putting on a jazz veneer. This is the case with Czech jazz, which is based on the Polka, and of German jazz which has been adapted for the local dancehalls and is banal and unbearably sentimental. Jazz is a new form of art. It demands a real composer and a proper orchestra made up of virtuosi. That’s not the case with most so-called jazz orchestras, which are nothing more than coffee-house dance-bands.”

In Czechoslovakia between the wars there was a fascination with all things American, and when scouting became popular here, it was strongly influenced by Ernest Thompson Seton, who himself took inspiration from symbols and myths associated with Native American culture. Thompson Seton visited Prague in 1936, and he talked about “the great Red Men of America”:

“Fifty-odd years ago I went West to live on the plains of America in contact with the North American Indians. I was attracted by the glamor that Fenimore Cooper and other romanticists had shared about the red man. And yet I was warned and distrustful, because of countless alleged histories of Indians’ cruelty, Indian massacres, Indian cold-blooded atrocities. I had to live with them many years and accumulate a library of thousands of records, talk with hundreds of old-timers, who knew the truth, before I learned that all these stories of wickedness and cruelty were pure fabrications, wicked slanders, invented by the white men to justify the invaders in seizing the Indian lands and dispossessing him of all his property, his gain, his horses, his liberty, as well as his home and children…

“We that are troubled over these great issues believe that we can most quickly get light and practical guidance by studying these methods and results of the great red men of the past. It is with this as my compelling thought and motive that I am going about from land to land proclaiming the methods and delivering the gospel message of the great red men of America.”

Ernest Thompson Seton,  photo: Public Domain

Just two years after Thompson Seton’s visit to Prague, Czechoslovakia was carved up by Nazi Germany, with a murderous message that could not have been further removed from his ideals.

The post-war communist regime in Czechoslovakia declared its opposition to all forms of racism, although this did not prevent the ruthless persecution of people in the party leadership who were of Jewish origin, amid spurious claims of international conspiracies. Turning to the west, the communists pointed to the legacy of colonialism and to continuing racial discrimination and segregation in the United States.

In 1949, a year after the communists had come to power, Paul Robeson came to Prague to sing in the Prague Spring classical music festival. His wife Eslanda remembered the visit fifteen years later in an interview for Radio Prague:

“One of the things Paul has always been very grateful for was the fact that your government asked our government for Paul to come to sing at the Czechoslovak musical festival. This was a very marvellous thing, because it was an official governmental request at a time when our government was keeping Paul from travelling anywhere for any reason.”

Paul Robeson had made his sympathies with the Soviet Union quite clear, and this led to his passport being withdrawn in 1950, only to be restored eight years later. He was back in Czechoslovakia, again on the invitation of the Czechoslovak government, a year later, in June 1959. Although he stayed for less than two days, he was a star guest at the International Congress of Socialist Culture in Prague, along with the Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich, and was given a rapturous welcome by the two thousand delegates at Prague’s Industrial Exhibitional Hall. He began his address with the words “Jak se máte” – How are you? – in Czech.

“It is a great privilege and pleasure to be again with you here in Prague, to greet my dear friends, the people of Czechoslovakia, and to greet you, many friends from many lands. My deepest thanks for your concern over many years, for your help and for your encouragement. And this is true not only of myself, but of many of us in America, who have consistently struggled for peace and friendship with you and with all the peoples of the lands of socialism.”

The speech went on to heap praise on the Soviet Union.

“On recent visits to the Soviet Union, it was wonderful to see the development, the new cultural growth of many peoples in the eastern sections, like Uzbekistan, who have leapt across the centuries into the present and into the future. How inspiring to see the wealth of talent among the youth and in the factories. How wonderful to hear today of the rich potential of the people of your great land, of the deep interest of the workers, in all phases of their complex life, of their demands for a rounded reflexion of this life in our creative, cultural activities.”

Paul Robeson,  in 1942,  leading California shipyward workers in singing The Star Spangled Banner  | Photo: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration,  public domain

But the speech was not just about the achievements of the Soviet Union. The theme of the international congress was culture, and Robeson put forward his ideas of the role of culture in socialism.

“Throughout the ages, the great roots of culture have come from the people, the great genius has come from them. I don’t need to apologise for my beard – I’m playing Othello over in Stratford in England, and thinking of the great Shakespeare. There, where he walked and lived, I hear the speech of the people of Warwickshire today. The great Shakespeare spoke their language. And the language that he used and uses in his great tragedies and comedies is the result of centuries of creative activity. The very language itself has come from and was created by the people, wherever they may be. Any language comes from them.”

Robeson also flattered his hosts, with references to Czech culture, above all, the music of Leoš Janáček:

“… a great musician, who understood so much of the richness of his people’s language that the very melody of his music is the melody of the speech of the peoples of Czechoslovakia.”

And of course, Robeson had words of praise for Dvořák:

“And your great Dvořák came to our land and heard the beautiful songs of my folk. And he pointed out to us in America that here was the basis of a great musical art, springing from a people who had been torn from Africa and brought in slavery to the lands of America.”

With his charisma and his resounding bass voice, Robeson must have made a huge impression on his audience, including the big delegation from the Soviet Union. He broke into song in Russian, before concluding…

“We want you to know that, in our part of the world, there are millions who want peace with the lands of socialism. And we will find peace. As one of the songs goes: Peace will conquer war – ‘Mir pobedit voynu’. Thank you – Děkuju!”

Josef Škvorecký | Photo: public domain

Robeson’s praise of Soviet-style socialism at the Prague congress came at a time when political dissent in Czechoslovakia could still mean imprisonment or worse. In the preface to his 1979 novella The Bass Saxophone, the novelist and great Czech jazz aficionado Josef Škvorecký, writing from exile in Canada, remembered Paul Robeson’s visits to Czechoslovakia with bitterness:

“… they pushed Paul Robeson at us. And how we hated that black apostle who sang of his own free will at open-air concerts in Prague at a time… when the great Czech poets… were pining away in jails. Well, maybe it was wrong to hold it against Paul Robeson. No doubt he was acting in good faith, convinced that he was fighting for a good cause. But they kept holding him up to us as an exemplary “progressive jazz man,” and we hated him.”

A year after Paul Robeson’s visit, in 1960, Czechoslovakia launched its English-language broadcasts to Africa. This was a time when many African countries were gaining independence, and there was a battle between the west and the communist bloc in winning hearts and minds in Africa as well as direct political influence. The broadcasts portrayed the communist bloc as being untainted by the legacy of slavery and colonialism:

“Unfortunately, there are just too many who would like to turn back the clock, so that they can continue to exploit the vast riches of the African continent and the talents of its peoples. Fortunately, however, there exists a powerful group of countries in the world today, the socialist nations, and with them a number of neutral countries too, who welcome the rise of African freedom with the greatest sincerity, satisfaction and joy.”

By the early 1960s the civil rights movement in the United States was gaining momentum. At the time Czechoslovak Radio’s correspondent in the United States was Karel Kyncl. Kyncl was far from being just a propagandist, and many of his reports from the time showed real insight.

1963 was the year of Martin Luther King’s famous “I have a dream” speech, delivered on August 28 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, and five months earlier Karel Kyncl interviewed Dr King. Here is a short extract, where Dr King is talking about progress made so far in ending segregation:

“I think we must recognize that two or three things are developing which can be dangerous if they are not dealt with. One is a trend toward token integration – that is having one or a few Negroes in a situation and calling it integrated, so that South Carolina pats itself on the back because it has one Negro at the University of South Carolina and no violence emerged when he entered. No southern community has really gone all out with a program of desegregation, and this it seems to me is the job ahead, to transform token integration into good faith compliance and integration.

Martin Luther King,  photo: Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-3.0,  Minnesota Historical Society

“The other fact is that we still haven’t touched one of the basic problems in our society – and that it that the Negro is still at the bottom of the economic ladder. He is still in a situation where the Negro family earns 50% less than the average white family. Now, as long as there’s economic insecurity there will be many social problems developing, and it seems to me that this is one of the great changes that must take place if we are to have genuine progress.”

In that same year, Karel Kyncl travelled to Jackson Mississippi, to interview James Meredith, who had recently become the first African American student at “Ole Miss”, the University of Mississippi.

Kyncl: “I have to say, Mr Meredith, how happy I am that I have the opportunity to speak with you. Every child in Czechoslovakia knows a lot about you. It’s Sunday now and you’ve joined your family here in Jackson, Mississippi. How old are you, Mr Meredith?”

Meredith: “Well, I’m an old man. I’m 29 years old now, I’ll be 30 at my next birthday.”

Kyncl: “When did you begin to think about the University of Mississippi?

Meredith: “I’ve been thinking about it ever since I’ve known there was such an institution, since I was ten, eleven or twelve years old.”

Kyncl: “I think it would be much easier for you to enter one of the universities in the north of the United States. Why did you decide to go to ‘Ole Miss’?”

Meredith: “I think that the time has come in the world today when all men, human beings of all descriptions, should have the opportunities of human equality, or the opportunity of at least trying for whatever there is to be gained in the world of men. I don’t think that Mississippi, the South, Asia, Africa, Europe or any other place should be any exception.”

Kyncl: The next question I would like to give to Mrs Meredith. I understand that there were attempts to intimidate not only your husband, but you and his parents as well. What was, and what is, your attitude and that perhaps of Mr Meredith’s parents to what he has been going through?

Mary Meredith: “Well, he’s doing something now that he’s always wanted to do. So I’m glad that he’s there.”

Karel Kyncl,  photo: Czech Television

Kyncl: “And the last question, Mr Meredith. What are you planning to do after completing your studies?

Meredith: “I want to do all I can to reach some of these humanitarian goals that I speak of. Whatever seems to me to be the appropriate thing to do to further this cause – if you want to call it that. That’s what I intend to do.”

Kyncl: “Thank you, Mr Meredith, and in the name of all listeners of Czechoslovak Radio in Prague, I wish good luck to you.”

James Meredith went on to have a career as a Republican politician and political advisor. He is still going strong at 86.

The radio reporter Karel Kyncl was later to face huge difficulties back home in Czechoslovakia, after he condemned the Soviet-led invasion of 1968. He was banned from working in the media, until he went into exile in Britain in 1983. He was only able to return to Czechoslovak Radio after the fall of communism in 1989.

In March 1965, Louis Armstrong came to Prague. This was a time of reform in Czechoslovakia, especially in the field of culture. Many people felt that the country was at last coming in from the cold, and the concert at Prague’s Lucerna Ballroom was a cultural milestone. It ended with Satchmo thanking his audience, commenting that the Czech passion for jazz had come as quite a surprise to him:

“On behalf of the All Stars and myself, we want you to know that we had a very pleasant week here in Prague. To be playing to such a wonderful audience and meet so many fine people and to know that there are so many jazz clubs in Prague, we were very happy about that. And we want you to know that we’re leaving tomorrow, and as long as we live there’ll always be not only a memory, but it will be right here in our hearts.”

Unlike the earlier visits by Paul Robeson, Louis Armstrong’s stay was not highly politicised, and it remains one of the defining moments of Prague in the 60s.

After the reforms of the Prague Spring were crushed by Soviet tanks in August 1968, the relaxed atmosphere of Satchmo’s stay in Prague became a thing of the past. But at first something of the 60s spirit did survive. In August 1970 Radio Prague’s Olga Szántová went to Bratislava to report on the city’s annual international popular music festival.

The star guest was Josephine Baker, who had overcome poverty and discrimination in the American South to become one of the great performers of the 20th century. By 1970, she was in her mid-60s, bringing up her "Rainbow Tribe" of twelve children of different races and nationalities, who she had adopted over the previous eighteen years. Here is an extract from Olga’s report.

Josephine Baker,  photo: Carl Van Vechten,  Public Domain

Olga: “After the press conference was over, I took my tape recorder and literally pushed my way through the autograph seekers crowding around Miss Baker…. Miss Baker, you’ve been speaking French, now a few words in English. May I?

Josephine Baker: “Of course…”

Olga: “I wanted to ask you, what is the secret of keeping as young as you have?”

Josephine Baker: “I don’t know. Many people have said it’s having so many children and young people around me that has made me, maybe, more energetic – not young because life goes on and so do the years. But maybe I’m a little less sluggish by having to run after my children. You know, when you have twelve children you can’t stay in one place for a long time.”

Olga: “How old are your children now?”

Josephine Baker: “From six to eighteen.”

Olga: “Do you think that a mother bringing up a big family like yours and a career woman, do the two go together?”

Josephine Baker: “You can make it go together. You have to sometimes. There are more and more career women nowadays and they’re not worse off because of that. On the contrary. Coming into contact with people who have to think about tomorrow is not a bad idea.”

Olga: “What about the children? Do you think they are more neglected this way?

Josephine Baker: “Of course not. I child is not necessarily neglected because a mother works.”

Olga Szántová, who recorded that interview, was sacked from Czechoslovak Radio just three months later, as part of the same process that had cost Karel Kyncl his job. Olga was only able to return to the radio after the fall of communism, and once again became a much-loved voice at Radio Prague, working tirelessly until just a few days before her death in 2003. Josephine Baker would have approved.

In the 1970s and 80s, when Czechoslovak Radio was once again under tight political control, the civil rights movement remained a theme in its broadcasts, as we hear in this 1974 extract from an interview with a visitor from Canada. The archive recording only gives her first name, Angie:

Olga Szántová,  photo: archive of Czech Radio

“I’m an Indian schoolteacher from Vancouver. I’m one of very, very few Indian people that have gone to university. The education system in Canada is not fulfilling the needs of the Indian people. We have a really high failure rate. Canada is not a liberal country. The Indian peoples have not been treated fairly. Until recently we have not even really been recognised by the government.”

She goes on to talk about her impressions of Prague, which she seems to place in the Soviet Union:

“It’s just tremendous. I can’t begin to tell you how I feel, the people that I’ve met. You know, I’m really surprised at the Soviet system. We get a lot of poor impressions of the Soviet Union in Canada. I’ll tell you some of them which are really funny. First of all: the city is very drab is one misconception. Another one is that no one is happy. Everybody walks around like they’re really, really suppressed. A third one is that the clothing here is very poor and drab. The fourth one is that such western things like miniskirts and long hair are out of the question. Well, all these are just misconceptions. I, because I’m a socialist, have always viewed the Soviet Union in a friendly way.”

In the 1980s, Czechoslovakia’s broadcasts to Africa and Asia continued to expand. We are in 1985, with no sign of an end to the Cold War, with a programme on the devastating famine in Ethiopia:

“The assistance provided by the socialist countries was not limited to a mere one of granting of aid. We prefer long-term assistance and removing the causes of the problem and thus preventing its repetition. Moreover, our assistance has no strings attached to it, while American Vice President Bush, for instance, let it out openly that America conditioned its help. In addition, there is the point, where did the Western assistance go to? In the case of Ethiopia, the Vice President only chose to spit out a piece of advice, namely that the social order should be changed. The country’s socialist orientation, Bush claimed, caused the drought and famine.”

The presenter is referring to George Bush Sr., then Vice President in the Reagan administration.

Four years later, in 1989, communist rule in Czechoslovakia came to an end.

I’ll end with another US President and a reminder of just how much the world changed in the two decades that followed the fall of communism. On 5 April 2009 tens of thousands of people filled the square in front of Prague Castle to hear the United State’s first African American President Barack Obama address the people of the Czech Republic. By then the Czech Republic was a member of both NATO and the European Union.

“… the people of Prague have insisted on pursuing their own path, and defining their own destiny. And this city –- this Golden City which is both ancient and youthful -– stands as a living monument to your unconquerable spirit.

Barack Obama in Prague in 2009,  photo: Štěpánka Budková

“When I was born, the world was divided, and our nations were faced with very different circumstances. Few people would have predicted that someone like me would one day become the President of the United States. Few people would have predicted that an American President would one day be permitted to speak to an audience like this in Prague. Few would have imagined that the Czech Republic would become a free nation, a member of NATO, a leader of a united Europe. Those ideas would have been dismissed as dreams. We are here today because enough people ignored the voices who told them that the world could not change.

“We're here today because of the courage of those who stood up and took risks to say that freedom is a right for all people, no matter what side of a wall they live on, and no matter what they look like.”