He was Michael Jordan before there was a Michael Jordan, Michael Jackson before Michael Jackson. He was also Muhammad Ali.
He was the most famous, the most talented, the most outspoken black person in the world, but today many don't really know him at all.
His name was Paul Robeson, and he'd be 100 years old if he were alive today. Which makes this as good a time as any to remind everybody who wants to celebrate Black History Month what he was all about.
Last week, PBS aired a captivating look at Robeson's life, "Paul Robeson: Where I Stand," and if you saw it, chances are you learned more in the two-hour broadcast than you'd ever heard previously.
Born in 1898 and dead in 1976, Robeson was a complicated historical figure who changed the way black people were viewed during his lifetime. He was a man who fought against racial stereotypes -- in fact, fought against any limits being placed on him at all.
The son of a former slave (his father escaped to freedom at the age of 15), Robeson excelled early in life.
As a college student at Rutgers, he was both an All-American jock and a scholar. He became a lawyer but soon tired of the regimentation and decided to try his hand in the theater.
Because of his striking physical presence (6 feet 2 inches), the stage became a natural way to display his artistic side, which included a booming bass voice.
In 1924, he appeared in a revival of playwright Eugene O'Neill's "The Emperor Jones" and stepped into his new role as one of America's most popular artists.
During the 1930s and '40s, Robeson became famous for his acting in Hollywood movies but also because of his singing at concert halls around the world. Perhaps you have heard his rendition of "Old Man River," which he turned into a powerful allegory for the civil rights struggle.
But the reason Robeson is a 20th-century icon is because of his unswerving dedication to human rights. He spoke up against injustice, loudly and often, and if he wasn't 100% on target all of the time, he never stopped searching for a perfect society, colorblind and equal for every human being.
And this is where it gets complicated, because while I wager many classrooms teach students about Robeson the singer or Robeson the actor, it is Robeson the activist whose image has been blurred and discarded over the passage of time.
He left America to live abroad -- in Europe and the Soviet Union -- several times, which was considered tantamount to treason for many Americans.
To make things worse, Robeson went abroad and talked about the vicious racism and discrimination that existed in America, and it made him a target of the anti-Communist movement in America.
His most famous statement was this one, attributed to him by The Associated Press in 1949: "It is unthinkable that American Negroes would go to war on behalf of those who have oppressed us for generations against a country (the Soviet Union) which in one generation has raised our people to the full dignity of mankind."
During the postwar years in America, the lynching of black men in the South increased even though blacks had faithfully served in the fight against fascism.
Robeson became a villain after that statement was publicized. Even prominent black leaders, the NAACP and baseball great Jackie Robinson turned against him, mainly out of a fear that if they didn't, they also would be painted as Communist sympathizers.
In re-examining his life, the PBS special made it clear Robeson's attraction to the Soviet Union and the principles of socialism (he never joined the Communist Party) was integrally tied to his lifelong desire to battle racism in America.
He saw the Soviet Union as being much more committed to equality among the races than the United States. Of course, during his many visits to that country, care was taken to keep him unaware of the human rights violations taking place, including mass killing of political opponents and artists.
In retribution for his alleged treason, America turned its back on Robeson. He couldn't work anymore as an entertainer in concert halls or movies. The State Department took away his passport -- illegally -- and for eight years he struggled to support himself and his family.
By the time Robeson was an old man, some segments of American society had softened their views about whether he was a traitor. By then, Robeson had begun to suffer from mental instability; many believe he had been manic-depressive for years.
He dropped out of sight until his death, largely ignored by a growing civil rights movement that consisted of young black men and women who were his ideological children in their attitudes toward social justice.
Robeson's legacy is that of a supremely talented black man who put his commitment to social justice above his personal situation.
He came before the age of today's millionaire black athlete and entertainer, and it's probably a good thing because I suspect he would be ashamed to see how many of his descendants have accepted their own responsibility.
Put it another way: Have you ever heard any of today's black superstars taking a stand against injustice?
That would be like Michael Jordan speaking out about the racist killing of a black man in Texas, or a movie star like Will Smith protesting attempts to eliminate affirmative action.
It seems unthinkable. Which is precisely why Robeson's life was so incredible.