The new book The Color of Christ, by Edward Blum and Paul Harvey, is rightly drawing attention, and praise. To over-simplify a complex argument, it shows how changing racial conceptions and images of Christ have been used as political weapons, often in the cause of White supremacy.
A radical departure from this tradition is the image of a black African-American Christ found in a stained glass window in the Sixteenth Street Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama. It’s a wonderful portrait, based on the text of the sheep and the goats – what you do the least of these, you do to me. Today, it’s difficult to believe that the picture of a non-white Jesus was once desperately controversial. But although the image itself is very well known, the circumstances of it making are less so – including the indirect role played by singer Paul Robeson.
In September 1963, a terrorist bomb targeted the church, killing four young girls. The crime was uniquely horrifying, even in an age when casual racial murders were commonplace, and it became notorious worldwide. In Wales, it stirred the fury and grief of (white) artist John Petts, who desperately wanted to commemorate the act, and contribute somehow to the ongoing struggle for racial justice. As he explained, “Naturally, as a father, I was horrified by the death of the children. As a craftsman in a meticulous craft, I was horrified by the smashing of all those windows. And I thought to myself, my word, what can we do about this?”
Through the Cardiff-based paper The Western Mail, Petts launched a campaign for contributions to a memorial fund, specifying that they would accept no sum larger than half a crown – about 35 cents in the American money of the time. Petts wanted a people’s memorial, in which no tycoon philanthropist could steal the glory.
And the money poured in, from across the country, from children and the elderly alike. Ample was collected to allow Petts to create his window, which was donated to the Birmingham church in 1965 – to the delight and astonishment of local people who had never heard of Wales, and really found it hard to believe that other people from so far away actually cared about them. That is how the window was created, why it bears the inscription “Given by the people of Wales, UK,” and how it came to Birmingham.
So where does Paul Robeson come into the story? Although there is no direct connection, I think that his heroic stature in Wales particularly had made local people very sympathetic to the plight of black Americans, and that helps explain why the Welsh – rather than, say, English or Scots – were so keen to show solidarity.
Some thirty years before, Robeson, then a world-famous entertainer, had been dining at an elegant London restaurant when he heard the protests of hunger demonstrators, who were unemployed Welsh miners. Robeson, like the Birmingham churchgoers years later, had not the slightest idea what or where Wales was, but he was deeply moved by the suffering he heard about. Wales became his special cause, and he struggled to assist the impoverished areas of that country. He often sang there at benefit events. In 1939, he appeared in the film Proud Valley, about a black American who works in a Welsh coalmine.
He was a popular hero in Wales, among people who felt that the British government had abandoned them to destitution. When Robeson was blacklisted in the United States, his main international supporters included Welsh Socialist leader Aneurin Bevan. Robeson recorded radio broadcasts for his many Welsh friends and followers. Forbidden to leave the US, in 1957 he gave a concert to a Welsh audience several thousand strong, via a telephone link (This was pre-satellite). The following year, Bevan introduced him live at the Welsh national Eisteddfod, the nation’s great cultural gathering.
The Welsh loved Paul Robeson, whom they adopted as one of their own, and who was a familiar part of their cultural landscape. Not surprisingly, they also had extremely positive images of black Americans. Adding to this was the long-standing presence of many black Welsh people in Cardiff, historically one of Britain’s most ethnically diverse communities. Against this background, it is not hard to understand why the news of the Birmingham terrorist attack should have so appalled very ordinary and non-political Welsh people, who wanted to return payment for what they had received from Robeson in the ghastly years of the Depression.
Of course that’s not the whole story, but it does help explain why they gave their shillings and half-crowns. It was payback time.
And that, in short, is why one of the epochal images in the story of American Christianity and racial justice was created by a Welsh artist, and paid for largely by Welsh children.