DIARY 4 April 1968 Race awareness

MLK SQ

Martin Luther King (15 January 1929 to 4 April 1968)[1]

Race awareness

In April 1968 I was back at home in Birmingham for the Easter break; six months previously I had left home to study in London. I was politically naïve although I had attended my first large demonstration and had sold newspapers outside South Kensington tube station. This was International Times, an alternative rather than explicitly political newspaper although it presented itself as challenging authority and the establishment. I just hoped I might meet some friendly people.

There were two major events which changed my ideas about racism in that April fifty years ago; one in the USA and one in Britain. On 4 April 1968, Martin Luther King was murdered in Memphis Tennessee. On 20 April 1968, Enoch Powell made his ‘rivers of blood’ speech at the Midland Hotel in Birmingham, England. However, at the time I was more interested in planning a trip to Paris to meet up with my girlfriend who was on a school trip.

Martin Luther King Jr. was an American Baptist minister and activist who became a civil rights leader from 1954 to 1968. King led the 1955 Montogmery bus boycott and helped organise the nonviolent 1963 protests in Birmingham, Alabama. He also helped to organise the 1963 March on Washington, where he delivered his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.

On October 14, 1964, King won the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1965, he helped organize the Selma to Montgomery marches. FBI agents investigated him for possible communist ties. In 1968, King was planning a national occupation of Washington, D.C., to be called the Poor People’s Campaign, when he was assassinated by James Earl Ray on 4 April.

Hector_pieterson

Sharpeville 1960. The death of Hector Pietersen, one of 69 demonstrators shot by the police.

I had heard on the news how badly black people were treated in some countries. The Sharpeville massacre[2] in South Africa, eight years previously, had introduced me to a new word, ‘apartheid’. This was an alien word from an alien culture. I thought South Africa was part of the British Empire but while we were handing back some countries to their black populations[3] why were they being deprived here? Attempts by Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, to declare independence based on white minority rule, were not recognised so why should we allow South Africa to continue with apartheid?

We saw on the news how blacks were segregated in a similar way in the USA. Worse, they were treated as having no rights and genocidal murder was common. The news could in no way present the reality of life for black people, especially in the southern states. But we saw on our news the fightback by communities, the demonstrations and the responses both non-violent and rioting. There had been hope for improvement, especially when JFK was elected but his assassination ended those hopes. With Malcolm X also murdered and now Martin Luther King, there was despair that white power might prevail.

Birmingham, England was not Birmingham, Alabama. I knew there were a few black people in the north of the city, in Handsworth and Aston. But I never went there and I never saw anyone with a brown skin except a man in a turban who came door to door occasionally, selling brushes. The images on television or in the new colour supplements described a distant reality. There were plenty of jokes about other races, mostly of a patronising nature. But in Selly Oak in 1968, race did not appear to be an issue.

Enoch Powell SQ

Enoch Powell in 1968

At least, not until Enoch Powell made his speech on 20 April 1968 predicting a bloody race war if we continued to allow immigration. Powell was born in Birmingham and made his speech at the Midland Hotel near New Street Station, ensuring local interest although the speech made news across the country. Edward Heath sacked him from his position as Shadow Defence Secretary in the Conservative opposition. However, dockers and meat porters in London came out on strike in support of him. Right wing groups were able to grow in this environment; Powell’s political career was finished but the spectre he raised continues to have appeal for racists.

Perhaps Powell had been considering the riots which had taken place in America the previous year. Over 100 cities had been hit by serious rioting, vandalism, looting and building fires during 1967. Some 90 people had died, hundreds were injured and over 11,000 people were arrested. These events were apocalyptic at the time but the riots had happened almost a year earlier. It could not be imagined on Britain’s streets; instead he talked of an insidious takeover of Britain in racist terms.

The Exodus 1968

Kenyan Asians leave for Britain after expulsion 1968

Powell was not alone in panicking over mass immigration. Weeks before the speech, the Labour government had rushed through the Commonwealth Immigration Act which restricted immigration from Commonwealth countries to those with a direct connection with Britain, such as a grandparent. Previously, all were considered citizens of Great Britain and the Colonies, and so had a right to enter the UK. The prospect of up to 200,000 Asians who might be expelled from newly-independent Kenya coming to Britain led to the border gates being shut on anyone with a brown skin.

In 1968 I was 19 and I had not yet realised that any control of immigration is essentially racist. Neither had I worked out that welcoming fit, young, educated people[4] who were willing to work would make this country better off. I could not yet dream of the cultural benefits which would enhance the lives of the British including myself; from chicken tikka masala, ska and reggae, khatak dance, fabulous fabrics, Bollywood, Chinatown, et al.[5]

I had picked up some Malthusian ideas from my teenage reading that talked of limited resources being shared out amongst a population and how a sudden increase (by migration) would impoverish everyone. However, while there might be a short-term cost, instead of just mouths to feed a country would gain with more hands to work and more brainpower to think. I am proud of my later anti-racist activity but regret this early misconception.[6]

[1] Most of this section is from Wikipedia, with acknowledgements and no apologies; I have edited it to suit my purposes. I am a supporter of Wikipedia and make a monthly donation.
[2] On 21 March 1960, up to 7,000 protestors went to the police station in Sharpeville, Transvaal to demonstrate against the pass laws. The police opened fire, killing 69 people, some in the back as they ran away,
[3] Ghana in 1956 was the first black nation to be granted independence by Britain.
[4] Who also looked after their children and old people.
[5] I speak from personal experience; I met and married someone from another culture. I have enjoyed and benefited from wider cultural horizons. 
[6] Please see my forthcoming article in this blog about race and race awareness in Birmingham in the 1960s.

DIARY 18 March 1968 Taking to the streets

Taking to the streets

At the time I moved to London, my awareness of politics was very low. Unable to vote, I had never been asked to make any political choices. But in this momentous year, 1968, history was on the move.

Traf Sq 1968

Trafalgar Square 17 March 1968

On Sunday 17 March I took the Piccadilly Line and made my way to Trafalgar Square. I was attending my first demonstration, against the war in Vietnam. I had never been in such a large crowd before; even going to see the Blues at St Andrew’s could not match this crowd. Reports said there were over 80,000 people.

Most of those on the demonstration appeared to be in their twenties or younger; students, hippies, many too young to vote. Much like myself[1]. There were a few older people who were identifiable as pacifists, including the occasional priest, nun or Buddhist. CND members were prominent, identified by their duffle coats.

Hue MArch 1968

The destructive liberation of Hue by South Vietnamese and US troops 1968

The war in Vietnam had lasted for years. The USA decided it had to ‘stop the spread of communism’ by sending hundreds of thousands of troops and billions of dollars’ worth of equipment. 1968 was to be the crucial watershed year of the war. The North Vietnamese Army launched its Tet Offensive in January 1968, their attempt to end the war. In response, the US poured in more and more men and equipment. By the end of 1968 there were 820,000 troops in the South Vietnamese Army and 536,000 US troops.

 My-Lai-massacre-vietnam-war-usa-military-pentagon  My_Lai_massacre

My Lai 16 March 1968

The people on the demonstration, including myself, had seen all this in colour on television and in magazines We had witnessed forests sprayed with defoliants, napalm fire bombs ripping across the treeline, terrified Vietnamese farmers and their children, angry and desperate American troops slogging through jungles. The demonstrators would have been even angrier if they knew what had happened at My Lai[2] on the previous day.

 Ali Redgrave HAwking

Tariq Ali, Vanessa Redgrave and Stephen Hawking (left) on the demonstration

Two of the leaders of the demonstration, Tariq Ali and Vanessa Redgrave[3], made their way to the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square to present a letter of protest. They were allowed through a cordon while the rest of the protesters were held at bay by hundreds of policemen.


Protests of 1968  Girl on the floor

Grosvenor Square 17 March 1968

Ordered to leave, many protesters refused and tried to break though the cordon. In response, the Police broke up the demonstration using horses; over 200 demonstrators were reported injured. This was before the Police had special riot units and protective gear[4]; nevertheless, these ‘bobbies’ with their pointed helmets and big boots demonstrated what they could do.

 I left as the trouble flared up; being on my own I thought it wiser to go back to my digs in Acton. This was the first of many demonstrations that I would attend over the next few decades. I learned a lot from this one. Here was a place where I could express my opinions and be part of a group of like-minded people. I began to learn that there was a possibility that we might change the future. I could now identify at least some of the enemy. This was one spark of many that would turn 1968 into an inferno.

Copyright Derek Perry 2018.

For newsreels of the day:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hgbAsiW9Q3Y

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TLRL6qYSDuI

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YXFII8x2BXs

[1] In 1968, the voting age was 21. Already seen as anachronistic, the voting age in the UK would be reduced to 18 in 1969, just in time for my 21st birthday when I would have got the vote anyway.
[2] The My Lai Massacre was the mass murder of unarmed Vietnamese civilians by US troops in South Vietnam on 16 March 1968. Between 347 and 504 unarmed people were massacred by the US Army soldiers from Company C, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade, 23rd Infantry Division. Victims included men, women, children, and infants. Some of the women were gang-raped and their bodies mutilated. It would take a year and eight months for details to emerge.
[3] Tariq Ali has long been associated with the New Left Review. Ali was involved with The Black Dwarf newspaper and joined the International Marxist Group (IMG) in 1968. He continues to be a writer and political activist. In 1961, Vanessa Redgrave was an active member of the Committee of 100. Redgrave and her brother Corin joined the Workers Revolutionary Party in the 1970s. Since then she has maintained an acclaimed acting career and remains a political activist.
[4] Riot shields and helmets were developed in the early 1970s. The Special Patrol Group (SPG) was set up to control public order in the 1960s but was unarmed and had no special equipment. One of the SPG’s most controversial incidents came in 1979, while officers were policing a protest by the Anti-Nazi League in Southall. During a running battle, demonstrator Blair Peach was struck on the head and died as a result of his injuries; a report later stated that it was an action of the SPG. In the inquiries which followed, a variety of unauthorised weapons were found in the possession of SPG officers, including baseball bats, crowbars and sledgehammers .

DIARY 12 March 1968 French connection

French connection

I have no idea where my interest in France came from as a teenager. I was good at French, passing my ‘O’ level with a grade three; not bad for someone whose main subjects were scientific. French was not considered a suitable subject for a boy; including and especially by my fellow pupils. I recall my class destroying a new French assistant within three weeks with a concerted barracking. He soon left dejectedly but we were not punished for our bullying.

PAris Match Algeria

Paris Match 1967

As a paper delivery boy at the local newsagent, it was my job to deal with the special orders for magazines. In Raddlebarn there was one person who read the Times Literary Supplement, one other who ordered the Scientific American, and one who read Vogue; all delivered to the posher houses on the way to the university. A couple of people would get magazines in Polish and someone else had an order for Paris Match.

 Caveau UF 2-magots UF Beatnick 4 UF 

How I imagined French intellectual life when I was a teenager

I ordered an extra copy for me. It probably helped my French but I never came to understood the complexities of French politics; at the time there was some impenetrable scandal over Algeria. I affected a ‘French’ look with a black polo neck sweater and Gauloises to give flavour; I even had a beret. Being the only ‘beatnik’ in Selly Oak meant that I had no-one to talk to so I became the proverbial outsider and thus an existentialist, as far as I understood what that might mean.

Poets

Poets: Verlaine, Rimbaud, Baudelaire

When I reached London, France would be part of my new intellectual world; I read Verlaine, Rimbaud and Baudelaire. I discovered Zola, Camus and Sartre; I went to the French Institute in Kensington to see plays by Jean Anouilh and films by Jean Cocteau. Jean-Luc Godard became a favourite film-maker.

My girlfriend was to join a school trip to Paris in spring 1968. Although there was little chance that we would be able to meet in Paris, I decided to follow her on my first trip outside England. I would spend £5 for the return trip from London to Paris on a student discount ticket.

Ends

Copyright Derek Perry 2018.