THE CROWD cheered for nearly 20 minutes when Paul Robeson, filled with regret and faced with a ruined reputation, plunged a sword into his body on Oct. 19, 1943.
When the curtain dropped on Robeson's Broadway debut as Othello that night, he was arguably the world's best-known African-American.
But, like Shakespeare's ill-fated protagonist, Robeson later became an outcast whose reputation as accomplished scholar, artist, All-American athlete and civil-rights pioneer was replaced with one word - communist.
Unlike Othello, the New Jersey native and Rutgers University graduate refused to fall on his sword, even as the FBI and CIA files on him bulged and his career came to a halt.
"His legacy was pretty much erased during the Cold War," said Lindsey Swindall, author of the forthcoming book "The Politics of Paul Robeson's Othello."
Time has faded the red stain on Robeson's life. Today, buildings across the country are named after him, including the library at Rutgers University-Camden, where Erik Opczynski is a 21-year-old undergraduate finance major and president of the Rutgers-Camden College Republicans. Last month, he published a letter in the school's newspaper asking Rutgers to rename the library because of Robeson's "radical socialism."
"Although he was a very intelligent and gifted man, Paul Robeson made a very unfortunate choice. He was a personal admirer of Josef Stalin," Opczynski, of Palmyra, told the Daily News. "My problem is Rutgers placing this man, Mr. Robeson, on a pedestal considering his unsavory, almost disgraceful past."
Supporters of Robeson, including former students who championed naming the library for him in 1991 and a large contingent of history professors at the school, quickly fired back, claiming it's better to ask why Robeson felt alienated by his own country and turned to socialism, than to condemn his decades-old decisions.
"I thought the Cold War was over, so why people are trying to resurrect ghosts from the Cold War is a mystery to me," said Wayne Glasker, associate professor of history and director of African-American studies at Rutgers-Camden. "I would think people would be a little more concerned about terrorism or the economy, not whether Paul Robeson was a communist or not."
Robeson graduated from the Rutgers main campus in New Brunswick with honors, but according to the Paul Robeson Foundation, the school played a part in minimizing his accomplishments during the Cold War. He's since been inducted into their Hall of Distinguished Alumni. Buildings on all three campuses now bear his name.
"There are no plans for Rutgers-Camden to rename the Paul Robeson Library," spokesman Mike Sepanic said.
Paul Robeson Jr., who lives in New York, thinks it's no coincidence that his father's past would resurface in today's political environment, where he said the "right-wing fringe" uses words like "socialist" and "communist" as weapons.
"It's a sign of the times, of the conservative trend," Robeson Jr. said. "His main idea was freedom for black people, freedom for the colored people of the word. The communists were allies of that struggle, so he supported them and he paid the price for it."
Opczynski started a Facebook group for his cause, which 16 members "liked." The Rutgers-Camden College Republicans has approximately 30 members, according on its Facebook page, and several of them referred all comments to Opczynski, who claims his cause has support from Democrats at the school too.
'They're saying, 'We may be liberal, but we're still Americans. People like to call Barack Obama a communist, but he's certainly not and he's certainly not a guy who would purge 40 million people," he said.
Michael Foresta, another officer of the College Republicans, said he believes the student body as a whole will support their cause once they distribute a "fact sheet" with more information about Robeson's communist sympathies.
"He was pretty much really into Stalin," Foresta, a finance major, said. "He was a dictator who killed millions. I think Stalin was worse than Hitler."
The most damning evidence against Robeson, according to Opczynski, was the Stalin Peace Prize awarded to Robeson in 1952, his condemnation by both the NAACP and Jackie Robinson - who broke baseball's color barrier - and the "eulogy" Robeson wrote for Stalin's funeral in 1953. Robeson did not attend the funeral in Moscow because the U.S. State Department revoked his passport from 1950 to 1958.
Andrew Shankman, an associate professor of history at Rutgers-Camden, drafted the rebuttal signed by nearly a dozen faculty members. He said Robeson was ahead of his time, a pioneer for equality long before the civil rights movement. Mainstream culture, Shankman said, had no problem accepting Robeson as an entertainer, but shunned him when his socialist politics took on new meaning to the U.S government in the 1940s and '50s.
"He suffered greatly for his beliefs," Shankman said. "He could have behaved differently, but he didn't."
Opczynski said he was shocked that Rutgers professors would gloss over such a big part of Robeson's "radical" past. He doesn't want the university to sever ties with Robeson's legacy, but he feels putting his name on a library, when he supported a dictator who banned books, is hypocritical.