“Before King dreamed, before Thurgood Marshall petitioned and Sidney Poitier emoted, before the big breakthroughs in Hollywood and Washington, before the Jim Crow signs came down and before the Civil Rights banners went up, before Spike Lee, before Denzel, before Sam Jackson and Jesse Jackson, there was Paul Robeson.”
Lerone Bennett Jnr., 1998
Paul Robeson’s life is an inspiring chronicle of the cultural and social history of the twentieth century. His gifts were prodigious. Scholar, athlete, intellectual, linguist, singer, actor, orator and activist, he shaped his turbulent times like few others and left a memorable mark on all who met him, saw him perform or listened to his voice on record or radio.
His artistry, his humanity and his passion for equality, freedom and peace were loved throughout the world. Yet in America his unwavering challenge against racism and inequality often placed him in confrontation with the government. With the world at his feet, he stood up for the rights of the oppressed, sacrificed his performing career, and faced the erasure of his memory from history. Paul Robeson, the son of an escaped slave, said that his political education began in the UK through his contact with ordinary working people.
From the late 1920s, he forged an unbreakable bond with the miners of South Wales, and later sang in the valleys to raise funds for Republican Spain. Proud Valley, filmed in South Wales and exploring the harsh realities of mining life, was his favourite film and one of the first where a black man could be the hero. Robeson saw clear parallels between the miner’s life and that of the American slave. The transatlantic telephone link between Robeson in New York and the 1957 Miners’ Eisteddfod in Porthcawl – made necessary by the confiscation of his passport during the McCarthyite purges - was one of the most resonant moments in Welsh political and cultural history.
Robeson’s voice will never be forgotten in Wales, a nation nurtured on choral harmony and sharing his passion for the cultures of struggle and democracy.
“There is no place in the world I like more than Wales.”
Western Mail 24 February 1949