Growing up in the UK, we all heard about Malcolm X and the civil rights movement. However, you probably don’t know about the fight for worker’s rights in the 1960s and 1970s. Those of us who have parents and grandparents who worked during that time in factories across the country have probably heard about the racism they faced, and their fight for rights. It was only this year that I learned little known facts about how the two worlds of Black and Asian rights intersected.
Just 9 days before his assassination in New York, Malcolm X was in Smethwick, in the West Midlands. He had been invited by a member of the Indian Workers Association (IWA), Avtar Singh Johal. When interviewed in 2011, Johal recalls how Asian children were put in separate classes in school; pellets were thrown at Black and Asian people in the street, and campaigns had been started to not sell houses to Black or Asians in specific areas of the town. These racist attitudes were also exacerbated by the fact that in 1964, the Labour Party had lost their seat in Smethwick to Conservative MP Peter Griffiths. Griffiths entire platform was focused on segregation, with his tagline being, “If you want a ni**er for a neighbour vote Labour”. Despite this language being so openly racist and shocking, even for the time, the people of Smethwick still responded and voted for him to represent them. As a result, even the Labour Party seemed unwilling to challenge these attitudes for fear of losing more support.
It is also important to note that the experiences of Black and Asian people were classified collectively. We view race differently now, and we acknowledge that there are certainly nuances and different lived experiences between Black and Asian people. Back in 1965 however, these nuances weren’t acknowledged and often the segregation and discrimination directed to both sets of people, was the same. Therefore, the aim of Malcolm X’s visit for Johal was to show solidarity and support within the civil rights movement and across both the Asian and Black community.
Malcolm X told the newspapers that he was visiting Smethwick as he had been “disturbed by reports that coloured people in Smethwick are being treated badly”. He visited a local school and pub and witnessed first-hand the segregation and treatment of people of colour in the area. Johal himself recalls people yelling obscenities to him as he walked down the street but mentions that he remained calm and poised.
Perhaps, it’s not surprising that little is known of this visit, as footage of it was only aired in 2005. It seems remarkable that he was invited to this country to witness the injustice and segregation here, and yet few remember or even knew it was happening. Malcolm X’s visit to Smethwick was fleeting and we may never know what he felt or thought, or if he planned to return. However, having been contacted by people who were desperate for solidarity, he answered them and came to see what life for people of colour was like in 1965 industrial Britain.
It must not be forgotten that the civil rights movement wasn’t just happening in America. It happened in Britain too, and the contributions of the workers and leaders like Avatar Singh Johal should not be forgotten. The collective nature of both Black and Asians standing together to fight injustice is incredibly powerful and has lead to legislation for equal pay and fighting discrimination in work and schools, such as the 1976 Race Relations Act. This made discrimination unlawful in areas such as employment, housing and education. An important landmark given the housing discrimination platform that won people like Griffiths support in 1964.
We might be truly equal as a society but it is a reminder of the power of solidarity. A reminder which I think is best personified with a Black civil rights leader and the head of the IWA having a pint in a pub.