It Was an Historic Day. It Gave People Courage to Stand Up against Racism ; MARKING 50TH ANNIVERSARY OF MALCOLM X VISIT TO SMETHWICK

By Connor, Laura | Birmingham Evening Mail (England), February 17, 2015 | Go to article overview

It Was an Historic Day. It Gave People Courage to Stand Up against Racism ; MARKING 50TH ANNIVERSARY OF MALCOLM X VISIT TO SMETHWICK


Connor, Laura, Birmingham Evening Mail (England)


HE is the man who brought one of America's greatest civil rights activists to the Midlands to fight racism on his doorstep.

Now, half a century later, Avtar Singh Johl, former general secretary of the Indian Workers' Association, has relived his memories of hosting Malcolm X's visit to Smethwick.

The man who became so incensed with racism in his own country he famously said it must be defeated "by any means necessary" - including violence - came to the Black Country town after hearing of plans to stop black and Asian residents buying houses.

And, despite years spent battling the worst examples of racism in the US, Smethwick proved an eyeopener for Malcolm X. MP Tory 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.' .

And 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.

Now 77, Avtar was then one of the West Midlands' strongest voices over antiracism. He said: "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 said the abuse of the civil rights activist throughout his visit was relentless.

We went to the Blue Gate Pub," said 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.

But he believed the racism was as bad here 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". …

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