Re­mem­ber­ing Paul Robe­son

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MOUN­TAIN Ash is stag­ing a spe­cial cel­e­bra­tion to mark the 80th an­niver­sary of a his­toric con­cert fea­tur­ing African-Amer­i­can singer and civil rights ac­tivist Paul Robe­son, above.

A VAL­LEYS com­mu­nity is plan­ning a spe­cial cel­e­bra­tion to mark the 80th an­niver­sary of a his­toric con­cert fea­tur­ing African-Amer­i­can singer and civil rights ac­tivist Paul Robe­son.

Let Paul Robe­son Sing! will be on dis­play at the Moun­tain Ash Work­ing­men’s Club on Fri­day and Satur­day, De­cem­ber 7-8 to com­mem­o­rate the evening in 1938 when Robe­son per­formed at the Pav­il­ion in the town. The ex­hi­bi­tion will move on to Cynon Val­ley Mu­seum after this week­end’s event.

The con­cert paid tribute to 33 Welsh­men who had died after vol­un­teer­ing to fight with the In­ter­na­tional Brigade dur­ing the Span­ish Civil War.

Next month’s event, or­gan­ised by Dr Michael Ward and Eir­wen Hop­kins from Swansea Univer­sity, will see 30 pop-up ban­ners de­tail­ing Robe­son’s life and in­flu­ence go on dis­play.

Dr Ward, who was born in Moun­tain Ash, is pas­sion­ate about cel­e­brat­ing the con­cert and the com­mu­nity which hosted it.

He said: “Paul Robe­son was a uniquely gifted Amer­i­can singer with the most won­der­ful bari­tone voice. He was also a qual­i­fied lawyer, a scholar, ath­lete, ac­tor, in­tel­lec­tual, lin­guist and or­a­tor, loved and ad­mired wher­ever he went and fa­mous across the world.

“Per­se­cuted in Amer­ica for the colour of his skin and for his po­lit­i­cal be­liefs, Robe­son is a shin­ing ex­am­ple of courage and hu­man­ity, and it is right that Moun­tain Ash peo­ple feel pride in the re­la­tion­ship they built with the man and in the con­cert they hosted, which should be re­mem­bered as an ex­cep­tional night.”

The son of an es­caped slave, Paul Robe­son stood up against the racism and in­equal­ity that plagued black Amer­i­cans, and against in­jus­tice ev­ery­where.

Dr Ward said: “Be­fore Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King or Mal­colm X, there was Paul Robe­son – who used his fame and in­flu­ence to stand up for civil rights and fight for a fairer so­ci­ety.”

He added that Robe­son be­lieved that his po­lit­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion be­gan in Bri­tain, shaped by his con­tact with work­ing peo­ple, and he forged an un­break­able bond with the min­ers of South Wales.

He sang to raise money for the Min­ers’ Re­lief Fund, and also vis­ited Spain to sing for the In­ter­na­tional Brigade fight­ing against the fas­cists in the civil war.

Robe­son’s ap­pear­ance in 1940 film The Proud Val­ley, set in a South Wales min­ing com­mu­nity, is still re­mem­bered as a ground­break­ing por­trayal of a black man as a hero, at a time when prej­u­dice and ha­tred were caus­ing un­told suf­fer­ing to African-Amer­i­cans.

The 1938 con­cert in Moun­tain Ash was at­tended by a packed au­di­ence of 7,000 peo­ple.

Pre­sent­ing the evening, ac­claimed min­ers’ union leader Arthur Horner said: “In South Wales we have al­ways lived for free­dom and are de­ter­mined to fight for it.”

His­to­rian Pro­fes­sor Hy­wel Fran­cis de­scribed the con­cert as an emo­tion­ally charged evening sym­bol­is­ing the cause of in­ter­na­tion­al­ism which the Span­ish strug­gle rep­re­sented.

The Paul Robe­son Wales Trust was set up in 1999 to cre­ate the Let Paul Robe­son Sing! ex­hi­bi­tion and now con­tin­ues to pro­mote the mem­ory of him and his bond with Wales.

The ex­hi­bi­tion was of­fi­cially opened in 2000 at the Na­tional Mu­seum of Wales with back­ing from Paul Robe­son’s late son. De­signed by Phil Cope, it was made pos­si­ble with fi­nan­cial sup­port from the Welsh and UK gov­ern­ments.

Paul Robe­son Jr de­scribed the ex­hi­bi­tion as a “vi­brant, liv­ing tes­ti­mony to the con­nec­tion be­tween my fa­ther’s legacy and Welsh life to­day and in the fu­ture”.

Mike and Eir­wen now plan to build on en­thu­si­asm for this project by putting to­gether the Proud Val­ley Group to or­gan­ise a larger cel­e­bra­tion of Paul Robe­son in Moun­tain Ash early next year.

Paul Robe­son in 1958

Paul Robe­son, left, in The Proud Val­ley

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