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From The Socialist newspaper, 19 October 2016

Black History Month

The radical life of Paul Robeson

Fighting racism and capitalism with solidarity, socialism and song

Paul Robeson in the 1930s photo Wikimedia Commons

Paul Robeson in the 1930s photo Wikimedia Commons   (Click to enlarge)

Scott Jones

"The artist must take sides. He must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative," were the words of Paul Robeson 80 years ago, when speaking in solidarity with workers fighting fascism in Spain.

It was wondering who the "giant man with a heavenly voice" was in the Manic Street Preacher's song 'Let Robeson Sing', which led me to discover the life of Paul Robeson. And a giant he was.

An actor who starred on Broadway, a talented college American football player, a brilliant singer - and a socialist and civil rights campaigner at a time when Malcom X and Martin Luther King were just children.

It was as a lawyer that he first tried to make a career, until he encountered such extreme racism that he turned to acting. He soon landed a role in 'All God's Chillun Got Wings' by socialist playwright Eugene O'Neill. By the 1930s Robeson was at the height of his fame, regularly appearing on Broadway and touring Europe which included a short period living in London.

It was during his travels in Europe that Robeson became a socialist.

Welsh miners

In 1929, when walking in London, he heard the rich sound of a Welsh miners' choir. They were unemployed due to the Great Depression, and had walked to London to petition the government for help.

Robeson joined the miners, humming along with them. He later raised money to pay for their journey back to Wales and buy food and clothing for the miners of the Rhondda Valley and their families. That year he also contributed the proceeds of one of his concerts to the Miners' Relief Fund, and visited Wales in person to sing for and talk to the miners.

During this time he also visited the Soviet Union. On a stopover in Berlin on the way, he was appalled by the Nazis and their racism, which he later contrasted with the acceptance and irrelevance of his race he encountered in Moscow.

Touched by the solidarity and struggle of the South Wales working class, and in opposition to fascism, Robeson threw himself into the struggle against fascism during the Spanish Civil War.

He used his performances to advocate the cause of the Spanish Republic, and even travelled to Spain to visit the battlefront, all against the advice of his agent. Robeson decided events trumped commercialism.

The culmination of his solidarity with the workers of South Wales came in 1940 when he starred in 'The Proud Valley', a picture filmed in the heart of the Valleys. It told the story of David Goliath, played by Robeson, a black American miner and singer who gets a job in a Welsh pit and joins a male voice choir.

It documents the harsh realities of coal miners' lives, which Goliath shares. He becomes a hero as he helps to better their working conditions, and ultimately, during a mining accident, sacrifices himself to save fellow miners.

One of the most iconic parts of the film occurs when he encounters racism from a fellow miner who refuses to work alongside a black man. This is quickly challenged by a Welsh miner who leaps to David's defence with the fantastic line: "Damn it, well aren't we all black down the mine?"

Robeson would go on to perform and fight for socialism throughout his life. He championed the civil rights struggle in the 1950s and 1960s. During McCarthyism, like many other socialists and communists, he was blacklisted - and even had his passport taken from him.

Paul Robeson recognised the need to fight racism and fascism with solidarity and socialism. This giant man's lifelong struggle serves as an inspiration as we carry on the same fight today.

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In The Socialist 19 October 2016:

Socialist Party news and analysis

NHS at breaking Point

Teachers working 60 hours need strikes, not studies

Elderly care at crisis point

Health campaigns demonstrate together in 'one fight'

NHS cancer and dementia drugs 'unaffordable'

Them & Us

What we think

No backtracks, no compromises: we must fight for real democracy in the Labour Party

TUSC discusses new tasks after Corbyn victory

Workplace news and analysis

Sheffield bin striker slams privatised refuse bosses

Newsquest strike: Bosses realise 'contraints' of scab labour

London Underground cleaners protest pay cut

Support the 'Kinsley 3' cleaners in pay fight

International socialist news and analysis

Syria: horror deepens in Aleppo

Socialist history

Aberfan: a disaster that should never have happened

Suez 1956: the decline of British imperialism and rise of the colonial revolution

Black History Month

The radical life of Paul Robeson

Socialist Party reports and campaigns

Butterfields housing victory: "We showed that if you stick together and fight you can win"

Come to Socialism 2016

Can you donate to the Socialism 2016 appeal?

Cheshire and Merseyside: Huge NHS cuts and privatisation planned

Devon: Campaigning against community hospitals closures

Bristol: Millions of pounds of "horrifically unpalatable" cuts

Socialist readers' comments and reviews

Moving, funny and inspiring tribute to working class heroism

Film review: Deepwater Horizon

Review: BBC2's Poetry Night

The Socialist inbox


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