“I have heard that they are being treated as the Jews were under Hitler.”
The words of Malcolm X upon his arrival in Smethwick, a small industrial town just west of Birmingham, burning so savagely with racial hatred that the so-called ‘most dangerous man in America’ was compelled to visit.
Malcolm X came to the Midlands on 12 February 1965, just nine days before his murder. To have a greater understanding of the visit's context it’s important to go back to where many stories of the time start – the post-war years of Windrush and Commonwealth migration.
By the mid-sixties, around 75000 immigrants every year arrived in the UK from the ex-British empire colonies. Although arriving as British citizens to the ‘Mother Country’, they were greeted with outright racism, discrimination and hostility. This hostility was multifaceted, carried out both by individuals and the state, and included verbal abuse, beatings from National Front fists, racist graffiti sprayed on houses, firebombed windows, racist policing, and restricted access to housing and employment.
Birmingham and the West Midlands became a popular landing spot for the Commonwealth diaspora, with the majority being Indian Sikhs but there was also a substantial number of people from Pakistani and Caribbean communities. The locals were overwhelmingly against their arrival, and tensions in the area were high, exacerbated by factory closings and housing shortages after Birmingham lost around 100000 homes during the Second World War.
This story is not an unfamiliar one, it could just as easily be told about Liverpool or London. What makes Smethwick unique however, is the 1964 General Election, which raised the profile of the area, at that time a hotbed of racial tension, to a particular notoriety. This, in turn, led to Malcolm X’s concerned arrival.
During the election, the ruling Conservative party exploited the undeniably racist attitudes of the English – a study done by Birmingham City University at the time suggested up to 80% of people in the region would refuse to rent a room to an immigrant – to hold onto the power they had possessed ever since Winston Churchill defeated Clement Attlee in the 1951 election. Racial tensions were also capitalised on to swell up resentment against the Labour party, who opposed the Commonwealth Immigrations Act in 1962, a law that sought to restrict levels of immigration to Britain.
In Smethwick, these ‘divide and rule’ tactics were employed most apparently. The Tory selection to battle for the seat was a locally born man named Peter Griffiths, who used the slogan ‘if you want a n****r for a neighbour vote Labour’ in his campaign to defeat the Labour incumbent, Patrick Gordon Walker. This racist slogan was plastered all over posters in view of the general public and there were reports of it being chanted by groups of young children. Griffiths was a segregationist in the American Jim Crow sense, he opposed the integration of different ethnicities and prayed on the brutal fact that white English people in Smethwick did not want to live with Black and Brown people.. In an area where it was common for non-white people to be refused haircuts and entry into pubs and restaurants, Griffith’s campaign turned out to be a depressingly huge success.
Whereas Labour narrowly won the national election and Harold Wilson became the party’s third Prime Minister, Smethwick was seized by the Tories with Griffiths becoming the new MP. At the announcement of the result, the defeated Walker was hectored out of the town hall by cries of “Take your n*****s away” and “Where are your n*****s now?” by supporters of the Conservative Party celebrating their victory in the once thought secure Labour seat.
It was a nadir for Smethwick. A still shameful, little talked about history, that has, in that typically English way, been banished by our selective memory. Nationwide, the 1964 election was a poor showing for the Tories, leading to the embracement of Griffiths and his rhetoric – because in a racist country, it wins.
It’s a tactic that has been deployed over and over again in the years since. Thatcher stoked nationalist sentiment all the way through her three election wins, the Brexit campaign similarly used Griffiths’ methods but stopped barely short of using racial epithets, even Ed Miliband tried and failed to bring back some Tory voters to Labour by standing in front of a rock emblazoned with the words ‘controls on immigration’.
Griffiths’ election win led Smethwick council, in association with a group of white residents resistant to integration, to plan the compulsory purchase of every house on Marshall Street to prevent West Indian and South Asian immigrants moving in. Marshall Street was exclusively white and the council had no plans on changing that.
Enter Malcolm X.
For suffering Black and Asian communities in the Midlands, the sixties were bleak. Because of the attitudes of the local authority and private landlords, immigrant families were often forced into awful slum-like conditions in overcrowded housing lacking in basic necessities. And with the Smethwick Labour Club enforcing a colour bar, attitudes towards immigrants were not split along party lines, so Black and Asian communities were forced to look overseas for solidarity.
The UK based the Indian Workers’ Association reached out to Malcolm detailing the issues immigrant communities in Smethwick faced. Disturbed by the reports of racism, segregation, and barriers to housing, Malcolm, after being refused entry in France, came to the UK. Despite a busy schedule of speaking engagements at Birmingham University and London School of Economics, he managed to fit into his diary a visit to the small but notorious Smethwick.
Followed by a small number of journalists and a BBC camera crew that didn’t air the footage until decades later, Malcolm was given a guided tour of Smethwick – it’s terraced streets, it’s pubs with ‘no blacks’ signs decorating the windows, and it’s churches that turned immigrants away on a Sunday morning. The Indian Workers’ Association took him to a pub popular amongst the Asian communities in the area and treated him to a beer whilst he received rapturous support from the locals he met. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Malcolm X coming to this small Midlands town is that barely anybody knows it happened. Then or now.
The visit was not without incident either. Malcolm was taken to Marshall Street on that cold February day and heckled by the white residents living there who were proud of the fact they did not want to live alongside immigrants.. They bluntly informed him that they did not want any more Black people living in Smethwick. According to eyewitnesses, as the white people barracked Malcolm with abuse he was loudly supported by the relatively few Black and Asian people in the area. Malcolm X did not respond to the aggression he faced, he quietly walked down the street in observation. Later that day, after having a taste of English ale, he was removed from the Blue Gate pub for not being white.
First hand, he saw how racism in the UK was not all that different to its operation in the US. Brits are often keen to point out that racism in the UK is not institutionalised in the way it is in the US, but here, right in the middle of the country, is an example of how the local authorities at the behest of the white working classes, with the backing of central government, enacted a policy of segregation in Smethwick.
Malcolm X did not live to see the colour bar lifted in Smethwick. He died, under a fury of sixteen bullets nine days later, making his visit to the UK one of his very last public appearances. His solidarity made a strong impression on local activists, who credit him with helping give them the strength to carry on fighting the war against racism and discrimination.
Griffiths’ apartheid utopia was prevented by the national Labour government which refused to allow Smethwick council the funds to buy up Marshall Street and he lost his seat in the 1966 General Election. A decade later however, the Conservatives parachuted Griffith’s into a less ethnically diverse constituency in Portsmouth, which he held until the Tony Blair landslide of 1997. His legacy lives on in the likes of Boris Johnson, Nick Griffin and Nigel Farage who have risen to national prominence over the last two decades. Men unafraid to hide their racism, who dine out on it and become Prime Minister on the back of it because their views are still held by large swathes of the country.
The racists persevered in the West Midlands long after Peter Griffiths was voted out. They found a kindred soul in an MP just down the road in Wolverhampton, Enoch Powell. Whose hateful diatribe, the “rivers of blood” speech, propelled him to national infamy in 1968. Powell found much support amongst his constituents, and indeed across the country, much like Griffiths did earlier in the decade.
It was the same country that had mythologised its own past and was unable to accept the present. It was a country of people who thought Black and Asian people ate dog food and were riddled with disease. These uneducated beliefs fed into the paranoia that there would be some kind of reckoning for Britain’s colonial sins. These fears are projected through Powell’s speech where he refers to one of his constituents telling him that “in 15 or 20 years’ time the Black man will have the whip hand over the white man”.
In response to Powell’s speech, local paper the Express & Star reported correspondence that was “95 per cent” in support of the MP. National polls also showed overwhelming support for Powell’s views with 75% of people wanting all non-white immigration halted. Much like in the aftermath of the ‘64 election there was also a rise in violent attacks on ethnic minorities after the speech in Wolverhampton. But in contrast to the support Griffiths received from his party, the Tories were less embracing of Powell’s rhetoric with party leader Edward Heath sacking him. The majority of MP’s across both benches were largely critical of him, though Thatcher, then in the Shadow Cabinet, was largely supportive.
Even though the majority of people in the UK were in favour of ‘keeping Britain white’ as the National Front slogan goes, the Race Relations Act passed in 1968 made racial discrimination illegal. It was later superseded and strengthened by the 1976 Race Relations Act, but the Midlands would stay in the headlines throughout the eighties. The Handsworth riots—a result of both oppressive policing and poverty stricken communities struggling to survive in Thatcher’s Britain—showed that the law can only do so much if the attitude of individuals refuses to change.
Yet, change has occurred. It has been slow and gone nowhere near far enough but in Smethwick and the Midlands there has been improvements.. Thankfully, Peter Griffiths would look at Smethwick today and be horrified. Pubs have been converted into curry houses, Polish supermarkets, Turkish barbers and Indian sari shops have popped up all over town, Black, Brown and white live together side by side in relative harmony. The largest Sikh temple in all of Europe stands proudly in Smethwick, a lush middle finger to the apocalyptic hatred of Griffiths, Powell and other racist demagogues.
Malcolm X’s visit that February, just before his life was prematurely ended, remains largely forgotten, even amongst locals. It’s a blindspot of history alongside the shameful days of Marshall Street. In an area that is becoming increasingly conservative and voted overwhelmingly for Brexit, this history needs to be taught and learned from. Hate crime is on the rise – a Halal butchers in nearby Walsall was firebombed in the aftermath of the 2016 referendum. The sixties was a time of shame for the region: we can’t become that place again.
In honour of Malcolm’s act of solidarity, a blue plaque commemorating the visit was put up in 2012 at the behest of the Nubian Jak Community Trust, Sandwell MBC, African Caribbean Self Help Organisation and the same Indian Workers’ Association that helped facilitate the visit over fifty years ago.
Sam Moore is a freelance writer and editor. You can contact him on: firstname.lastname@example.org