When Malcolm X visited Smethwick after racist election
Fifty-three years after his assassination, Briton who welcomed Malcolm X remembers iconic figure’s final foreign trip.
On February 12, 1965, Malcolm X, with his brow-line glasses perched high above his nose, walked along the terraced houses of Marshall Street in Smethwick, a small and bleak UK town in the West Midlands.
Nine days later, on February 21, 1965, he would be assassinated having returned to New York City.
His final foreign trip saw him travel to the relatively unknown English town, near the city of Birmingham, and home to a large Asian and West Indian immigrant population.
In the year before his arrival, Smethwick hosted Britain’s most racist election.
In 1964, 800,000 immigrants lived in the UK, 70,000 of whom resided in Birmingham, dubbed “the British Harlem” by the press.
White, working-class communities ignited racial tension as they transferred their economic frustrations onto immigrants.
In Smethwick, the immigrant population was 6.7 percent, far higher than the national one percent.
The local Conservative-led council purchased houses on Marshall Street in a bid to prevent immigrants from moving into the area.
Over the years, the town was drip-fed racist rhetoric – first by Oswald Mosely, leader of the British Union of Fascists who was elected as MP of the constituency in 1926, followed by Conservative candidate Peter Griffiths, who was elected in 1964, having campaigned on a hostile anti-immigration platform.
As his supporters chanted: “If you want a n****r for a neighbour, vote Labour,” Griffins backed banning immigration minimum of five years and supported the council’s efforts to segregate housing, which he said prevented a “coloured ‘ghetto'”.
Griffins refused to condemn the vile election slogan, justifying it as a “manifestation of popular feeling”.
“Racial prejudice, though, was a constant blight,” said Avtar Singh Jouhl, who was chairman of the Indian Worker’s Association (IWA), the socialist organisation which invited Malcolm X.
“IWA devoted its energies to demonstrating that racism is a product of capitalism, and that the workers, no matter where they came from, shared common interests.”
Jouhl told Al Jazeera immigrants had flocked to Smethwick for employment opportunities.
With his large coat and black, woollen hat, Malcolm X asked Jouhl for time alone on Marshall Street to meet the locals and inspect the sale signs, which permitted white-only buyers.
“On the far end, a group of white women shouted abuse at Malcolm. He did not respond to the abuse and calmly walked back to the point where we were standing.”
At the time, it was common for pubs, landlords and workplaces to refuse entry to or segregate black people and ethnic minorities.
The monarch did not approve the Race Relations Act – the UK’s first legislation to address racial discrimination – until the end of 1965.
When Malcolm X and Jouhl entered the smoke room of the Blue Gates pub with IWA members, they were told that they had to buy their drinks elsewhere because they were black.
Malcolm shook the hand of every person of colour who was there. He kept his calm, but he was disgusted with what he saw at Marshall Street and the Blue Gate Pub.
“As we approached the bar counter, a barmaid came face to face with us and told me, ‘I know you don’t get served in here. If you want to have a drink, go around to the public bar room.’ We walked around to the public bar room where several IWA members and fellow Afro-Caribbeans were present,” Jouhl said.
“Malcolm shook the hand of every person of colour who was there. He kept his calm, but he was disgusted with what he saw at Marshall Street and the Blue Gate Pub.”
A day before visiting a predominantly Asian immigrant community, Malcolm X had been deported from Paris on the grounds he was an “undesirable person”.
He had been broadening his vision away from the racial exclusivity of the Nation of Islam following a Hajj pilgrimage, in which he witnessed solidarity among minority communities.
For Shirin Hirsch, an academic at the University of Wolverhampton, the historical anti-racist struggles between the US and UK often goes forgotten.
“In Britain, we are much more familiar with an American history of race and racism represented much more widely in our popular culture,” Hirsch told Al Jazeera.
“When we think of colour bars, for example, we often associate this history with America, although they existed in Britain, too,” she said, referring to the social and legal system which ensured racial segregation and discrimination.
His presence was opposed by both liberals and conservatives within Britain, representing the dangerous possibility of black resistance spreading from America to the West Midlands.
“The politics of racism and anti-racism that was born out of American struggles strongly influenced the ways in which race was conceived of in Britain. The ripples of the civil rights movement were felt across the Atlantic in 1960s Britain, where images of the civil rights movement in the South and urban revolts in the North were circulated widely by the media.
“This was brought into sharp focus by Malcolm X’s visit to the Black Country town of Smethwick. His presence was opposed by both liberals and conservatives within Britain, representing the dangerous possibility of black resistance spreading from America to the West Midlands. This anxiety was powerfully expressed by Enoch Powell in his Rivers of Blood speech three years later.”
In an interview with a local BBC journalist, when asked why he decided to visit Smethwick, Malcolm X drew parallels with Nazi Germany.
“I have heard that the blacks … are being treated in the same way as the Negroes were treated in Alabama- like Hitler treated the Jews.”
For Jouhl, inviting Malcolm X to Smethwick was an expression of solidarity.
“We didn’t hope to take anything from it other than strengthening the bonds between us. It was an act of proletarian internationalism,” he said.
“We hoped to show solidarity with the struggle of the African Americans who, at that time, were involved in a bitter struggle with US imperialism.”
Fifty-three years on since Malcolm X’s assassination, the dynamic between the American and British anti-racist struggle remains, said Hirsch.
“The language of anti-racism in Britain continues to be shaped by America, with ‘privilege’, ‘whiteness’ and ‘intersectionality’ all travelling from American to British university campuses,” she said.
“There are problems, as well as opportunities, with these imported words and sometimes they do not capture the realities of racial inequalities in Britain today. Yet this relationship has also spurred on action.
“Britain has witnessed some of the largest protests in recent years, opposing Donald Trump’s inauguration and the Muslim travel ban.”