Nine days before his assassination black leader Malcolm X made a solidarity visit to Smethwick in the West Midlands.
Smethwick had become notorious in 1964 for a vicious and racist general election campaign. Malcolm X represented a different sort of politics, demanding active resistance to racism.
In February 1965 he was in Britain to speak at the London School of Economics. The Indian Workers Association (IWA) decided to invite him to speak at Birmingham university and visit Smethwick.
He told the media, “I am disturbed by reports coloured people are being treated badly. I have heard they are being treated as Jews were under Hitler.”
The local paper called him “an unexpected and largely unwelcome guest”. The BBC sent a camera crew to follow him around but the footage was never broadcast. During the election campaign supporters of Tory candidate Peter Griffiths chanted, “If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour.” Griffiths refused to distance himself from the slogan.
Labour won the general election. But in Smethwick sitting Labour MP Patrick Gordon Walker lost, throwing the party into a panic over immigration. At the count Tory supporters jeered at the defeated Labour candidate, “Where are your niggers now?”
The racist onslaught continued as Marshall Street became the front line. The Tory council supported a demand from white racists to buy any house that was put up for sale to stop non-whites moving in. This continued until eventually the Ministry of Housing banned it long after Malcolm’s visit.
Malcolm’s visit was the only time he mixed with working class black people in Britain. He said, “I was in Birmingham, Alabama, the other day. This will give me a chance to see if Birmingham, England, is any different.”
Avtar Singh Jouhl, then secretary of the IWA, said, “Malcolm came on 12 February. His visit was a game changer.”
Rather than stand up to racism, Gordon Walker had put out a leaflet saying that most immigration had happened under the Tories. “The IWA wanted to confront Griffiths during the 1964 election,” Avtar said. “But Gordon Walker would not allow it.
“We campaigned for him but he insisted on sweeping the racism issue under the carpet. That resulted in his defeat.”
The issue of “colour bars” remained, where pubs, workplaces or landlords would exclude non-whites, or give them a worse service.
“There was even a colour bar in the Labour club,” Avtar said. “Gordon Walker had his office there when he was MP. We asked him to move it because of the bar but he wouldn’t—it was still there after the 1964 election.”
Avtar walked round Smethwick with Malcolm, “But Malcolm wanted to walk on Marshall Street alone. He told us he was disgusted by what he had seen. He said it was worse than some parts of the US.”
Avtar said that it was fascinating to talk to him after he had visited Africa.
“He had been with the Nation of Islam, but he was moving from that towards Marxist ideology. He said he was travelling to get more information and more education on the structure of how imperialism works. There was a big revolution going on inside himself.
“He was challenging all racism. He was not just interested in African Caribbean people. If that was true, he wouldn’t have come to Smethwick, where the focus was almost all on Asians.”
After looking at Marshall Street the IWA took Malcolm to see the colour bar in local pubs. Avtar said, “He told us he was shocked that an open colour bar existed in Britain. By that time it was not legal in the US.”
Avtar talked about the experience of living in such a divided society, “I had air rifle shots fired through my window at home.
“A white gang beat up my brother by the canal and threw him in. Only one barber in Smethwick would cut our hair. He was an Italian. It was packed with all the Indians, Pakistanis and West Indians on a Saturday morning.
“Most people worked in the foundry. The better paid jobs were whites only.
“The IWA was in the forefront of organising in the trade unions. Most of the factories weren’t unionised. I started work as a moulder’s mate. It was heavy, dirty work. I did 85 percent of the work, while the moulder did 15 percent. But he got paid twice as much.”
The IWA set out to unionise. “At first no whites would join. But the union became a force in factory after factory. We won benefits. Eventually people joined.”
Malcolm’s visit helped change the atmosphere for people resisting racism around Smethwick. It was people gaining the confidence to fight back that started to shift things nationally. The Labour government passed the first Race Relations Act in 1965—which outlawed discrimination in public places such as pubs.
“But a lot of the racism remained,” Avtar said. “So landlords wouldn’t openly refuse to serve you, but they’d say there was a private party on.
“We challenged it by going round with white students. They would go in and get served. Then we’d follow and be told there was a private party. We exposed what they were doing.”
By the 1966 election, anti-racist work on the ground affected the Labour Party. Labour candidate Andrew Faulds confronted Griffiths over racism and he won the seat back.
It was only nine days after Malcolm’s visit to Smethwick that they heard he had been assassinated in New York City.
“We were in shock. I still get emotional when I think about it,” Avtar said. Malcolm’s policy to confront racism remains an inspiration.
Avtar said, “He reminded us that without struggle change can’t come.”
Black Power leader came to see capitalism as the problem
Malcolm X is the leader most associated with the birth of the Black Power movement in the US.
He became famous for saying black people had to fight racism “by any means necessary” and criticising the passive moderation of the Civil Rights movement.
He was born as Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska. He grew up in a state where black people were supposedly equal before the law, but still faced massive discrimination.
Frustrated by the racist barriers in his way Malcolm drifted into petty crime and was imprisoned.
Here he joined the Nation of Islam, also known as the Black Muslims. This religious sect—unconnected with mainstream Islam—fostered a fierce black pride.
It also argued that whites were the problem and could not be part of a solution to racism.
Malcolm liked its confrontational style and the way it called on all black people to unite and take on racism. He changed his name to Malcolm X—the “x” representing his lost African name.
He soon became a national political figure. But it annoyed him that for all the Nation’s radical talk it rarely engaged in anti-racist struggle with the wider movement.
Malcolm broke with the Nation of Islam in March 1964 and was assassinated a year later on 21 February 1965.
His ideas developed drastically in the year between. In the US he attempted to build two new organisations, first the Muslim Mosque Incorporated then the non-religious Organisation of Afro-American Unity.
Half of the year was spent travelling. For him the most important trip was to Mecca where he converted to Sunni Islam.
He saw that Islam was not racially exclusive. He visited world leaders ranging from radicals like Julius Nyerere in newly independent Tanzania to Prince Faisal in Saudi Arabia.
He came to see capitalism and imperialism as the main problems in the world.
He added, “You can’t operate a capitalistic system unless you are vulturistic—you have to suck someone else’s blood to be a capitalist.”