As we reach the end of another Black History Month I am finding myself reflecting on a project I was working on this time last year. Autumn 2017 saw Mile 91 knee deep in planning for TUC’s 150 stories for 150 years project which has been live throughout 2018. We were researching and producing stories about some of the most inspiring activists this country has ever seen, from the Tolpuddle Martyrs who in 1834 helped pave the way for birth of the union movement through to young activists like Shen who in 2017 was involved in the first ever strike by McDonalds workers.
One of the themes we explored in this project was the role black workers have played in championing worker rights over the last 150 years. From the Bristol Bus Boycott which in 1963 was one of the events that paved the way for the Race Relations Act through to Mohammad Taj who was the first Asian president of TUC. One of my personal favourites was the story of activist and musician, Paul Robeson. There were five of us working on these stories but I swiped this one quickly – Let Robeson Sing is one of my all time favourite Manic Street Preachers songs and I was fascinated to find out more about the man! My research did not disappoint and finding the recording below was a particularly spinetingling highlight. At the end of the year we will be sharing more of our highlights from this project – undoubtedly the biggest story gathering project we have ever led – but for now I leave you with Paul’s story.
Let Robeson Sing
“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 The following year his passport was withdrawn on the grounds that his right to travel was against American interests.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.”
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.
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 withholding the services of its members from The Scala Ballroom in Wolverhampton after the colour ban by its owners.
“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.”
Harry Francis. Assistant Secretary, Musicians’ Union, December 1958
This story first appeared as part of TUC’s 150 stories for 150 years celebration and is reproduced with permission.