“I represent here the section of the American opinion that feels we can build a world in peace and that the next war would certainly mean the end of whatever we mean by civilisation.”
These were the words of actor, singer and human rights activist Paul Robeson when he arrived in Southampton in 1949. That was to be his last visit to the UK for nearly a decade. The following year his passport was withdrawn on the grounds that his right to travel was against American interests. Robeson would challenge this ban in the courts for eight years while a campaign on his behalf was spearheaded in Britain by trades unions and artists.
In 1955 the TUC cabled President Eisenhower with a request to “intervene to secure the issuance of a passport to Paul Robeson as the British workers and people are anxious to again hear this great son of America”.
Voice and valleys
Robeson had a particularly strong relationship with the miners of South Wales. The connection had been forged in 1929 in London when the sound of singing led him to a group of blacklisted Welsh miners who were marching in protest from the Rhondda Valley. He marched and sang with them, then gave them the money for their train fare home. He later played in the miners’ clubs of south Wales and said it was in Wales that he formed his political and philosophical views. During his travel ban he spoke via transatlantic link to Union leader Will Paynter and sang at the Miners’ Eisteddfod.
Will Paynter, president of the South Wales Miners Federation, November 1957:
“Hello Paul Robeson this is Will Paynter, president of the South Wales Miners speaking. On behalf of the South Wales Miners and all the people gathered at this Eisteddfod I extend to you warm greetings of friendship and respect. We are happy that it has been possible for us to arrange that you speak and sing to us today. We would be far happier if you are with us in person. Our people deplore the continued refusal of your Government to return your passport and to deny you the right to join with us in our festival of song. We shall continue to exert what influence we can to overcome this position. We look forward to the day when we shall again shake you by the hand and hear you sing with us in these valleys of music and song. As one of our Welsh songs puts it and we dedicate it to you ‘We’ll keep a welcome in the hillsides. We’ll keep a welcome in the vales. This land of ours will still be singing when you come back again to Wales’.” Listen here.
In June 1958 the American Supreme Court ruled that denying him a passport on political grounds was unconstitutional and the following month he travelled to the UK. When Paul arrived he added his voice of support to the Musicians’ Union who at the time were witholding the services of its members from The Scala Ballroom in Wolverhampton after the colour ban by its owners.
Harry Francis, assistant secretary, Musicians’ Union, December 1958
“When Paul Robeson returned to Britain, after an absence of around eight years, he found much to make him feel glad to be once again amongst his British friends. It can be said I think that only one aspect of the British scene seemed to really shake Robeson’s general feeling of wellbeing and this was to find that in the year 1958, in Britain, the management of a ballroom had banned the admittance of all people except those born with skins that were white or pink.
Like those of most trade unions, actions of the Musicians’ Union, taken in the best interests of its members, are not always well received by the press or public, but it can be claimed, without hesitation, that its action in withholding services from the Scala Ballroom in Wolverhampton, has been proven to be the most widely popular action the Union has taken in many years.”