Paul Robeson Human Rights Activist Sang In Auckland New Zealand 51 Years Ago
All Black Rugby Controversy 1960 Marred Visit of Bass-Baritone Paul Robeson
Last year, on the 31st October, the 50th anniversary of the visit which musician and anti apartheid activist Paul Robeson made to New Zealand in 1960, was celebrated at the Unitarian Church, Ponsonby Road, Auckland, New Zealand. It was exactly 50 years to the day, the 31st October, that Paul Robeson sang in the Auckland Town Hall. Sunday the 31st October 2010 marked 50 years to the day. On October 31st this year 2011, it will be 51 years since Paul Robeson made his historic visit to New Zealand.
I attended the special service in honour of Paul Robeson, which was given in the Unitarian Church on Ponsonby Road, Auckland, New Zealand. An informative talk was given by Barabara Holt, who has resourced much information about Paul Robeson, his life, and his visit to New Zealand. Barbara also knew some of the Unitarians who attended the famous little impromptu concert which was given to the Unitarians 50 years ago, so she was able to give an ‘off the cuff’ story of Paul’s visit.
We heard some recordings of Paul’s wonderful spiritual songs and were shown photos and clips of Paul’s time in New Zealand. Of course, we heard ” ‘Ol Man Ribber”, from ‘Show-Boat’, which was the song, and the show, which made Paul Robeson famous world-wide.
One newspaper photo was shown on screen of Sir Dove-Myer Robinson, who was mayor at the time, and Paul Robeson. The great songster sang the song “My Curly Headed Baby’ to the new-born infant of Sir Dove-Myer and his fourth wife. This song has significance, because Sir Dove-Myer was of Jewish decent, and the song implies that the ‘curly-headed baby’ is from a minority group, and not of white European descent: Paul Robeson had first hand experience of racism in America, and fostered an all-inclusive approach to culture and race. His repertoire encompassed the music from many parts of the world.
Paul was here in 1960 for two weeks and four days. During this time he sang to a small audience at the Unitarian Church in Auckland. On the 31st October 1960, Paul Robeson sang to a bigger audience at a scheduled concert at the Auckland Town Hall. To the shame of the two Auckland newspapers, and the Wellington papers, no review was ever published in a New Zealand daily paper on this concert in Auckland. Here he was in little New Zealand, the best and most famous Bass-Baritone the world had ever seen, his concert being ignored by the media. Their declination to publish any news about Paul Robeson’s visit, except for the one photo with Sir Dove-Myer Robinson, is typical of how the media worked, and still work: Generally speaking, they are usually very slow in coming forward to support anybody who has controversial views, especially in matters where politics, race, and economics are concerned.
On the whole, New Zealanders welcomed Paul Robeson warmly, despite the freezing response from the newspapers about his concerts here, and his other activities. The Unitarians had supported him back home in America, when he had been forbidden to earn money from singing anywhere. This attempt in America to quieten the voice of Paul Robeson led him to move to London, which he loved. He said of London that ‘it was the first place where I was treated as a man.’ The Unitarian Church, who helped organize his trip here, totally supported him and his causes, both in America, and here in New Zealand.
Many people warmed to Paul Robeson because he was an advocate for the common people. He was vocal in more ways than one, and earnest and dedicated in his efforts to bring down apartheid. He had been branded as a ‘Communist’, because of his fight for equal rights for ‘coloured’ people, but also because of his activism over equal pay for the working classes, and this caused the conservative National politicians here to regard him as a danger. He was a danger to New Zealand politicians, because several big strikes were going on at the time, and Paul Robeson, of course, was on the side of the Wellington Watersiders, and the other strikers.
He was a danger, too, because the conservative government here in New Zealand were trying to pull off the obviously evil stint of excluding Maori from the All Black team going to Africa. Racial tension here was ‘hot’. Many people had the view that ‘rugby should have nothing to do with race’, and thought that this meant that they should ignore the ruling of the rugby board, supported by the government, to ban Maori people from the rugby team. In their ignorance, they could not see that by ignoring the issue, and letting the rugby union have their way in banning Maori people from the All Blacks, they were actually supporting racism and apartheid, both in South Africa, and right here in New Zealand. At this time in our history, race had everything to do with rugby, whether you liked it or not.
Many people in New Zealand opposed the decision to make the All Black rugby team ‘all white’, as the demonstrations proved. Eventually, the side of good won out, and the idea of a rugby team based on colour was thrown out of our culture for ever. We saw photos of the demonstrators against the racist selection of the rugby team, walking down Queen Street in Auckland, 1960, shortly before Paul’s arrival here. The proposed ‘All White’ Rugby team was entirely a political issue, and is a good example of the very wrong thinking, behaviour, and actions which politicians can get up to, in their efforts to win favour with the more powerful and influential nations of the world.
Paul Robeson kept to his honour and, despite the dominating prohibitive forces against him, went off to give talks and songs to the striking watersiders in Wellington, and other working men’s action groups in the South Island. He was passionate about the issue of fair pay: His mother had died in a house fire when he was only six years old, and so he knew ‘dire poverty’, to use his own terminology. His father had the difficult task of bringing the family of seven children up. The combination of racial discrimination, and having only one parent meant that life was hard. Racial discrimination meant that jobs for ‘coloured’ people were scarce, and very low paid if they were to be found at all. ‘Sometimes I Feel like a Motherless Child’ was one spiritual song which had great meaning for Paul Robeson. This song was often included in his concerts.
Paul was a great fighter for equality: His relentless driving spirit for equal rights, and his singing about the cause, had a huge effect in helping to bring about social change on the apartheid situation in America. Whilst his 1960 visit here was marred by the All Black controversy to some extent, his input here surely had some impact on the relevant social issues of race and fair pay, which would have helped weight the scales down on the side of change.