The Day I Called in Malcolm X to Fight the Colour Bar. Right Here in the UK; 50 YEARS SINCE A ACTIVIST HELPED FIGHT RACISM IN UK; EXCLUSIVE

Sunday Mirror (London, England), February 15, 2015 | Go to article overview

The Day I Called in Malcolm X to Fight the Colour Bar. Right Here in the UK; 50 YEARS SINCE A ACTIVIST HELPED FIGHT RACISM IN UK; EXCLUSIVE


Byline: LAURA CONNOR

HE was one of the most influential and powerful civil rights activists in African American history.

A hard man so incensed by racism in his own country he famously said it must be defeated "by any means necessary" - including violence.

But when Malcolm X experienced the racism pulsing through a small British town 50 years ago, even he was shocked to the core.

He came to Smethwick in the West Midlands after hearing of plans to stop black and Asian residents buying houses. Malcolm X had spent years battling the worst examples of racism in the US. But Smethwick proved an eye-opener.

Its Tory MP Peter Griffiths, now dead, had won his seat a year earlier with the appalling campaign slogan: "If you want a n***** for a neighbour, vote Labour".

There were colour bars in clubs. Locals had successfully petitioned the council to buy up empty homes in a street and ban non-white families from moving in.

As Malcolm X walked down that very road, Marshall Street, on February 12 in 1965 he was jeered by white residents who told him they didn't want 'any more black people' living there.

And in a pub down the road he was ejected from the smoking room because he was black.

Nine days after his trip to Smethwick, Malcolm X was assassinated in a hail of bullets in a New York ballroom aged just 39. And last week, the man who helped organise his visit to the UK relived his memories of the day he met Malcolm X on Marshall Street.

CALM

Avtar Singh Jouhl was general secretary of the Indian Workers' Association. Now 77, he was then one of the region's strongest voices on anti-racism. "As we walked down the street they were shouting, 'We don't want any more black people here' and 'What is your business here?'. But Malcolm didn't make any response to any racism. He kept his calm.

"There was no shouting match. He just calmly walked down the street."

As white residents jeered Malcolm X, Avtar remembers the few Asian people living in the area cheering him on. Speaking from his home in Birmingham, retired lecturer Avtar says the abuse of the civil rights activist never stopped throughout his visit.

"We went to the Blue Gate Pub," says the dad-of-two. "It was notorious in those days for racism. Black people were only served in the bar room and weren't allowed in the lounge or smoke room.

"Indian and Asian people were only served out of glasses with a handle. The plain glasses were for white people only. It was to create that distinction.

"We went into the smoke room. There was a white barmaid who knew me because I had been in there many times before and she said to me, 'You know we don't serve black people here'.

"I didn't make any response. I just wanted to show Malcolm what it was like. The landlady said, 'If you want a drink, go round the bar'. And Malcolm said, 'Let's go round the bar'. He didn't get upset but he was surprised. He had a brown ale and tasted it and said it was very nice." Outwardly Malcolm X maintained a calm demeanour, but inside he was disgusted.

This wasn't Birmingham, Alabama, the scene of a sickening race riot in 1963. This was a town next to Birmingham in Great Britain. But he believed the racism was as bad as the worst he had seen in America.

He even compared the plight of black and Asian people in Smethwick to victims of the Nazis, saying they were "being treated as Jews were under Hitler".

And he chillingly warned: "I would not wait for the fascist elements in Smethwick to erect gas ovens."

As far as Avtar is concerned, Malcolm X's fears weren't far off the mark.

He recalls: "I tried to have my hair cut once and the barber told me, 'No, no, no, no. I don't cut your people's hair. We don't cut coloured people's hair'. That was the sort of situation we were living in. It made me feel sick." For widower Avtar and hundreds of other immigrants who moved to the West Midlands in the 1950s and 60s, racism was the norm. …

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