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When Malcolm X Came to the West Midlands

Just days before his assassination, Malcolm X visited the small English town of Smethwick following a high-profile racist election – and saw that the colour bar stretched far beyond the Jim Crow South.

Muslim minister and civil rights activist Malcolm X (1925-1965) on Marshall Street in Smethwick, near Birmingham, 12 February 1965. (Daily Express / Archive Photos / Getty Images)

Remembered as one of the most prominent orators and revolutionaries of the twentieth century, images of the larger-than-life figure of Malcolm X walking the red-bricked terraces of the small Midlands town of Smethwick seem today almost fantastical. But far from fiction, the now-iconic photograph of Brother Malcolm standing tall on Marshall Street in 1965 is a real and potent reminder of the international dimensions of the Black freedom struggle, from Birmingham, Alabama to Birmingham, England.

Despite Britain’s colonial past, the historic racism faced by its domestic racialised population is often downplayed in official narratives in favour of exceptionalising the American experience: when you think of the word ‘segregation’, your mind is no doubt drawn to images of ‘Coloured’ and ‘White’ water fountain signs in the Deep South, the Ku Klux Klan, and college sit-ins. The truth, however, is that segregation existed here in Britain too, and bore a striking resemblance to the Jim Crow of the American South.

Following the mass-migration of Commonwealth subjects to Britain in the mid-twentieth century, the West Midlands became home to rapidly-growing South Asian and Caribbean communities. These new communities would soon face both harassment and surveillance at the hands of the state, as well as organised terror from racist organisations like the British National Party and the National Front.

Open discrimination was a fact of life for Commonwealth arrivals. Whether in housing, employment, or simple leisure time, the colour bar prevented Africans, Caribbeans, and Asians from mixing with whites. Like the water fountains of the Deep South, windows of British pubs and restaurants had their own signs: ‘No Blacks’. The racism in the West Midlands took on a character of its own in Smethwick, however, which entered the national spotlight as a result of the 1964 General Election.

A Battleground of Racial Hatred

In what would become one of the most infamous election campaigns in British history, the Conservative Party selected Peter Griffiths as their candidate, whose explicitly anti-immigration and segregationist platform was epitomised by his slogan, ‘If you want a n***** for your neighbour, vote Labour’. Marshall Street itself became a flashpoint when local white residents proposed that the council acquire every house on the road in order to enforce this segregation.

Racist attacks on the Afro-Caribbean and Asian residents of Smethwick were commonplace. From slurs and insults to bricks hurled through the windows of unwanted families, daily life in Smethwick was governed by racist intimidation and discrimination.

It was on this battleground of racial hatred that Malcolm X entered the scene. Smethwick was not on his original itinerary: Malcolm had planned to speak at universities in Britain, but on receiving an invitation from exiled Trinidadian communist Claudia Jones and the Indian Workers Association (IWA), decided he could not ignore the call from his brethren.

The general secretary of the IWA in Birmingham was Avtar Singh Jouhl, a Marxist and veteran of the militant struggle against racism. His family had been active participants in the Indian pre-independence movements and as a result, Johul was no stranger to state terror, racism, and violence. Malcolm too had been heavily influenced by his family. His father, Earl Little, was a proud man and strong proponent of Garveyism, and the Little family were forced to flee their homes several times after being subject to racist attacks. The men had not met before, but they understood one another.

The Colour Bar

In true British fashion, one of Malcolm’s first stops on his guided tour of Smethwick was the Blue Gates pub. Like many of Britain’s free houses, the Blue Gates operated a colour bar, an informal system of segregation that saw Black and Brown people refused entry or service.

It was here that Malcolm saw first-hand the insidious nature of segregation in Britain. Rather than the codified Jim Crow he knew and understood, the colour bar was a seemingly arcane system enforced by individual landlords, publicans, and employers.

Refused service in the Blue Gates, Malcolm and his IWA entourage proceeded to the public bar where Africans, Carribbeans, and South Asians drank together. It mattered not whether you were an Indian Sikh, a Pakistani Muslim, Jamaican or Ghanaian: all were rendered ‘Black’ once they disembarked onto British soil. This fact was not lost on a quietly observant Malcolm, who, although known for his passionate oration, was subdued as he was heckled through the streets of Smethwick.

A Global Struggle

Malcolm’s 1965 trip came, for him, at a time of spiritual and ideological re-awakening. Following his split with the Nation of Islam the previous year, he had embarked on his second visit to the Middle East to visit the Holy City of Mecca, and took the Hajj.

While Malcolm’s first visit to the Middle East in 1958 had challenged the separatist views he was taught by Elijah Muhammad, his pilgrimage to Mecca in 1964 would completely shake his worldview. In his own words:

‘The colorblindness of the Muslim world’s religious society and the colorblindness of the Muslim world’s human society: these two influences had each day been making a greater impact, and an increasing persuasion against my previous way of thinking.’

Spiritually renewed, Malcolm then ventured on to Africa where he spent time in the company of anti-colonial and anti-capitalist revolutionaries like Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere, and Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser. He learned more of Marxism, imperialism, and, importantly, the necessity of African unity in order to break free from the iron grip of colonialism.

Growing up in a Garveyite household, Malcolm had long understood the importance of African unity, but his visit helped him form a more concrete picture of the beast Africans had to unify to overcome: capitalism itself.

In this context, Malcolm’s journey to Smethwick a mere nine days before his assassination holds a deeper significance. In Mecca he discovered the unifying brotherhood of Islam. Across Africa he learned of Pan-African solidarity against colonial oppression. In Britain, the heart of empire, Malcolm stood shoulder to shoulder with former colonial subjects—Africans, Caribbeans, and South Asians—and experienced first-hand their domestic struggle against racism.

A Forgotten Legacy

The journey of Malcolm X to Smethwick is today a faint memory. A Blue Plaque was erected in 2012 to mark the occasion, but many remain unaware of its significance.

Griffiths, meanwhile, was unable to fulfil his dreams of a British apartheid, being unseated by Labour candidate Andrew Faulds in 1966. Despite that, he would no doubt look upon the modern Conservative Party and smile. Their racist, anti-immigration ‘hostile environment’ policies have vastly expanded the capacity of the state to carry out violence and intimidation against racialised minorities. Their Prime Minister is a boorish white supremacist like himself, content to exploit racial divisions to secure power.

And yet, there has been progress in Smethwick. As Sam Moore described in his commemoration of the visit for Verso last year:

‘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 would not get to complete his ideological and spiritual metamorphosis, his development cut short by Nation of Islam assassins just over a week after his trip to Britain. But his visit remains a crucial moment in his life, linking the local resistance of the Black population of Smethwick with the resistance of Black peoples the world over against racism and imperialism. And while a less-remembered episode in British history today, that visit also provides an important lesson about the power of international and local solidarity to challenge the racist structures which govern our everyday lives. Malcolm is long gone, but in our ongoing struggle for racial justice, his legacy lives on.