Martin Luther King (15 January 1929 to 4 April 1968)
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.
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.
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 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 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 in the southern states of America. But we saw on our news the fightback by communities, the demonstrations and the responses both non-violent and riot. 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 Sunday paper colour supplements described an incomprehensible 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 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.
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 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.
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.