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’.
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.
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.