Black British history: Remembering Malcolm’s visit to Smethwick

February 10, 2005 — Comment

Written by Arun Kundnani

Forty years ago this week, Malcolm X visited Britain, just a short while before his untimely death. IRR News looks back.

By February 1965, Malcolm had broken with his former idol Elijah Muhammad of the Nation of Islam and, having completed his tour of Africa and visit to Mecca, carried with him a spirit of global rebellion. It was in Britain that he gave the fullest outlines of his new internationalist vision, at talks given to the London School of Economics during his February 1965 visit and to the Oxford Union three months before. ‘The same heart, the same pulse that beats in the Black man on the African continent today is beating in the heart of the Black man in North America, Central America, South America and the Caribbean. Many of them don’t know it but it’s true,’ he said. He now saw the revolt of African-Americans as part of a ‘global rebellion… of the exploited against the exploiter’.

Smethwick

But it was Malcolm’s visit to Smethwick, in the West Midlands, on 12 February 1965, that had the greatest impact on Britain. Smethwick was a town which had come to symbolise English racism. During the general election a few months earlier, the successful Tory candidate Peter Griffiths told voters: ‘if you want a nig**r for a neighbour, vote Labour’. The slogan led to the defeat of Labour candidate Patrick Gordon Walker, who had been expected to win easily and become Foreign Secretary in the new administration. The message of the campaign – that Labour could lose votes unless it, too, played the race card – would echo through the coming decades, right down to this week’s attempts by the government to out-tough Michael Howard on immigration policy.

On Smethwick’s Marshall Street, White residents had gained council support to bar Blacks from moving to the street. The Tory-run local council had agreed to buy any houses which came up for sale and sell them only to White families. It was Marshall Street that Malcolm X chose to visit with television cameras and reporters in tow. He told reporters: ‘I have come here because I am disturbed by reports that coloured people in Smethwick are being badly treated. I have heard they are being treated as the Jews under Hitler. I would not wait for the fascist element in Smethwick to erect gas ovens.’

The statement threw Malcolm into the centre of the debate on British race relations and he was roundly condemned for his pronouncements. But to Black people, Malcolm’s message was the need for self-organisation. And it was a message that immediately energised Black Britain, throwing up a myriad of new organisations, such as the Racial Action Adjustment Society (RAAS), which by May was lending its support to the first important strike of Black workers, at Courtauld’s Red Scar Mill in Preston. It was the beginning of an era of Black British militancy which Malcolm had helped instigate.

Danger

Malcolm was acutely aware of the dangers he faced during his visit to Britain. Jan Carew, a Caribbean radical who accompanied him during his time in London, noted Malcolm’s permanent state of alertness, born of his fear of surveillance and assassination. There was, he wrote later, an undercurrent of sadness and loneliness to Malcolm’s character but also a mind that was at its most open to new ideas.

It was just a few days later, after his return from London, that Malcolm was shot at a public meeting in Harlem, New York.

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Jan Carew's book Ghosts in our Blood, an account of his time with Malcolm X, is published by Lawrence Hill Books, Chicago.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

Comments

May 20, 2005
Tanveer Khaja:

I find reading this artical very intriguing as it has captured the earlier issues which caused race hate and the way of Malcolm ‘X’ dealt with them. but also the concern of how long he lasted when he created awareness. But onlu if people realised how much race hate there is if not so obviously.

May 20, 2005
Tanveer Khaja:

I find reading this artical very intriguing as it has captured the earlier issues which caused race hate and the way of Malcolm ‘X’ dealt with them. but also the concern of how long he lasted when he created awareness. But only if people realised how much race hate there is if not so obviously.

September 27, 2012
Martin Foster:

I was 7 years old and lived in Marshall Street at this time, it was not the white people who lived there causing the racial tension, it was politicians, television media, and newspapers that caused this. i remember Tom Coyne from Midlands today outside the church hall broadcasting live from there.

October 26, 2014
hen glo:

Malcolm Explained it best.after 400 years of slavery,being stripped of r tru language,and religion,ant sisters raped,family’s split up.its funny how America is all of a sudden a country with the moral high ground.oooo I jest rememberd jest forgot about the millions of boomings in the name of peace.what about the Indians,and 400years of forced slavery.and the racism that continues to this day and the continuous lies to the people.one day like Germany the will eventually tern it’s back on the us

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