Reportage

When Malcolm X Visited the West Midlands

Malcolm X and his visit to England…

malcolmIt is fifty years this past week since Malcolm X was assassinated in America. A legend in the fight for human rights and race equality, he came from the worst possible start in life to rise up and command a world stage, much to the hatred of those who would eventually kill him. His story is a remarkable one and fitting that media outlets around the world have marked this sad anniversary.

Born Malcolm Little, his father was killed when he was only six years old and by thirteen he had seen his mother sanctioned in a mental hospital. His teenage years were spent in and out of fostering homes before a jail sentence for larceny and burglary took his life down an altogether different road. Whilst in prison he joined the notorious Nation of Islam and immersed himself in their teachings and objective for black supremacy. The group was strong advocates of white and black separation, a standpoint completely at odds with the then civil rights movement in America and one which he spent twelve years fighting for.

But it wasn’t to last, increasingly disillusioned with both the group and its spiritual leader, Elijah Muhammad, he left to follow Sunni Islam, travelling to the Middle East and Africa to study its teachings. Along the way he visited France and England, and it was in England that he found fame for his speech at a debate for the Oxford Union Society. But it was his visit to a small town in England’s West Midlands which would surprise many. In 1964 the Conservative Party won the seat for Smethwick, just outside of Birmingham. Local Tory supporters had campaigned on the slogan “If you want a nigger for your neighbour, vote Labour” It seems very hard to believe now but Malcolm X would experience first-hand the racism which black people in England were facing every day.

Having heard of a petition by white locals and subsequent agreement by the council to buy up homes and ban Asians and Blacks from moving into them, Malcolm X decided to see the area for himself. Walking down the streets he ignored residents shouts of “What’s your business here?” and “We don’t want anymore blacks here” he found himself ejected from the smoking room of one local pub because of his skin colour. Still he didn’t complain and suggested they went into the public bar where they were allowed to drink out of separate glasses allocated for non-whites. Consider for a moment the scene as he stood there, a striking figure at 6″3 and a handsome, immaculately dressed and clever man comparing Birmingham, England to Birmingham, Alabama. What must he have thought?

Upon leaving the town, Malcolm X warned the community “I would not wait for the fascist elements in Smethwick to erect gas ovens”. They didn’t, and his visit helped pave the way for the introduction of the Race Relations Act a year later. It was a remarkable visit, few knew about it until he had left and his dignified manner left its mark and gave a renewed vigour to those campaigning for equal rights in the UK. For those of us living in England it is difficult to imagine and digest, there is a default presumption that this was almost unique to America’s Deep South but it wasn’t and isn’t.

Nine days later, upon his return to America he was shot dead by members of the Nation of Islam.

 

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