Thursday, February 21, 2013

Malcolm X travels to Britain, 1965

As a British person living in America I often find it hard to relate to many of the discussions in class. One that I felt particularly hard to engage with was a conversation regarding the significance of the local American area and how politics and individuals utilised this within the Civil Rights Movement.

Studying Malcolm X has changed this. In 1965 X travelled to the little known town in the West Midlands called Smethwick. His international responsibility to stop racism “by any means necessary” brought him to this unspectacular area to prevent the re-election of Conservative MP Peter Griffith. Just nine days before his assassination, it was one of X’s final acts. 

As a Labour supporter, I have always been fiercely critical of the Conservative Party in England. However they are not as bad as they once were. The 1960s had to content with politicians such as Enoch Powell who infamously stated in his 1968 Rivers of Blood speech:

“I seem to see 'the River Tiber foaming with much blood'. That tragic and intractable phenomenon which we watch with horror on the other side of the Atlantic but which there is interwoven with the history and existence of the States itself, is coming upon us here by our own volition and our own neglect.”  

These inherently racist views were apparent at the time of the 1964 general election in Smethwick, with Conservatives chanting “if you want a nigger for your neighbour, vote Liberal or Labour”. Although not segregated by law, X noted the comparisons between this area and not only the Southern US but also Nazi Germany. He claimed that he had “heard they are being treated as the Jews under Hitler”.

The footage recorded by the BBC was perhaps the last footage recorded of X.

                Malcolm X’s trip the UK makes me feel numerous things. It makes me feel ashamed that similar views were being politically justified in the country of my birth. However the fact that X viewed a small town in the West Midlands as significant enough to put on the map in the context of the struggle for worldwide black equality makes me feel proud. What also gives me hope, although X did not live to see it, is that in 1966 the racist Griffith lost the election and was replaced by a Labour candidate. 

                To mark the anniversary of his assassination, the BBC has posted an article about the visit and how its legacy is still remembered by residents to this day:

Also if anybody is interested here is the Rivers of Blood speech in full. I know it’s not American history but I think it gives an interesting international insight into how extremism affected British politics in the 1960s. The text is ironically printed by the UK’s most conservative paper, The Daily Telegraph.

To see further what X was up against, check out the video below. All visions of England being quaint and whimsical are pretty much crushed by this video, I'm afraid. It's definitely worth a watch.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Scarlet,

    Thank you for sharing this archival footage. It is amazing to think of Malcolm in this context, and really enriches our understanding of his work as an advocate for people facing discrimination around the world, as well as for his own belief in the power of unity. On a very basic level, it strikes me that we can examine Powell's speech as an example of the kind of conservative fear of immigration that we have heard espoused quite frequently in the U.S. during the 2000's.

    I wonder how it might change or affect our understanding of Malcolm to think of him as an international figure in the year prior to his death. He traveled to Egypt in 1959 as Elijah Muhammad's emissary to the Nasser administration. Nasser's government invited Muhammad to travel to Egypt and to make the hajj, but did not go because, according to Marable, "he encountered some difficulties from the U.S. government regarding overseas travel" (165). Thus, Malcolm was sent. In his application for a passport it is clear that he also intended to visit the UK on that trip as well as Germany, Italy, Greece, Lebanon, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan (166). Malcolm did ultimately make it to Saudi Arabia on this journey in 1959, and through this experience realized, again according to Marable, that the Black Freedom Movement must include an international perspective.

    As Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, and James Baldwin each experienced and wrote about following their travels to Paris, race and racism are often nationally contingent, bound by certain borders and histories. However, Malcolm realized that international solidarity could help promote awareness of and support for reform abroad as well as the promotion of the rejection of U.S. imperialism.


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