Lessons of History: circa Dr Martin Luther King and Enoch Powell

20 Apr

One of the reasons why we teach young people history in our schools and academies is so that they can learn from the past – good behaviours and bad, triumphs and disasters.   If we don’t learn from the successes, we will be hard pushed to replicate them in the future and if we fail to learn from the failures, we will be bound to repeat them.

In April 2018 we marked the Golden Jubilee of two events – one tragic and the other – well, what I shall I say – diabolical?

I        Dr Martin Luther King

On 4 April 1968, James Earl Ray saw the civil rights leader, Dr Martin Luther King, prominent Civil Rights Leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner, standing on the balcony of the old Lorraine Motel.  Ray shot Dr King. King was rushed to St Joseph’s Hospital where his wounds proved fatal.   He was only 39 years old.

James Earl Ray was arrested on 8 June 1968 at Heathrow Airport, extradited to the USA and charged with Dr King’s assassination.   He pleaded guilty on 10 March 1069 and was sentenced to 99 years imprisonment.  He died in prison 30 years later, on 23 April 1998.

Nearly six years earlier, on 28 August 1963, Dr King, the son of a respected Baptist preacher and civil rights activist, faced a vast crowd in Washington, where, under the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial, he delivered his famous “mountain-top” speech.  Dr King reminded his 200,000 attendees of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, “which became a beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice…….”  Dr King said:  “One hundred years later, the Negro still is not free…..the life of the Negros is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation, the chains of discrimination.”

Dr King ended his prepared speech and was about to sit down when the soul singer, Mahalia Jackson, yelled out to him from the crowd: “Tell them about your dream, Martin!”  Hearing her, Dr King extemporised and uttered words that resonate forever.

“Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you, my friends,” he said. “Even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.  It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’  I have a dream that one day on the red hill of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.  I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.  I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character…..

“I have a dream….one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers…..

“With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discord of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.  With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to stand up for freedom together, know that we will be free one day.”

Alas, Dr King’s own life-promise was cut short a little under six years later.  Tragically, he was unable to celebrate the election of America’s first black President Obama nearly four decades later in 2008 because his voice had been silenced by Ray.  What Ray could not do, however, is bury his legacy.

II       Enoch Powell

Over two weeks after Dr King’s assassination, this country was subjected to a negative, apoplectic speech (on 20 April 1968), from Enoch Powell, Conservative member for Wolverhampton South West. In an address to the Political Centre in Birmingham, he made a two-pronged attack on immigration from the Commonwealth countries.

The first prong was his proposal to curb immigration, albeit he stressed that members of the Commonwealth should continue to be permitted to enter Britain for the purposes of study, improving qualifications and fill in professional vacancies, to enable “our hospital service to be expanded faster than would have been possible”.  His second prong was that that the government should encourage “re-emigration”, i.e.  a voluntary form of repatriation “with generous assistance”, if necessary, especially if these immigrants “choose either to return to their countries of origin or to go to other countries anxious to receive the manpower and the skills they represent.

He castigated those who compared the Commonwealth immigrants in Britain with “the American Negros”.  He said: “The Negro population of the United States, which was already in existence before the United States became a nation, started literally as slaves and were later given the franchise and other rights of citizenship, to the exercise of which they have only gradually and still incompletely come.”  There was no adverse criticism of the white population’s continuing racism against the “Negros” (as he called African Americans) by stonewalling full integration or that it was white people from Europe, especially Great Britain, that started a slave trade which caused the problem in the first place.

Comparing the plight of the “Negro” to that of the “Indian Asian immigrant” was disingenuous, to say the least.  The ancestors of African Americans were shanghaied into an existence of slavery and transported from one continent (Africa) to another (America). Later, thanks to Abraham Lincoln, they were freed – though, as we see from Dr King’s experience – it was a hard-won freedom that took time to attain.  The Commonwealth immigrant, on the other hand, arrived on the UK shores as full citizens (with British passports). They came to a country which knew no discrimination and had the right to vote and receive free treatment from the NHS.

Enoch Powell stirred up base, primal instincts of hate in similar measure that King’s speech stirred up hope.   Ted Heath, the opposition leader, was so incensed that he sacked Powell from the shadow cabinet.  The sacking marked the end for Powell as a front-rank Conservative politician.

However, in the immediate aftermath, when Asian Indians with British passports were expelled from East Africa, mainly from Kenya and Uganda, where Idi Amin reigned supreme (from 1971 to 1979), Britain saw a substantial inflow of Indian Asians, running at 50,000 people a year.   Powell speech – coming on the heels of the seismic tremors in East Africa – unleashed considerable support for him.   London dockers marched to signal that support and opinion polls revealed that 70% of people sided with him.  Altogether, 110,000 fan letters landed on Powell’s doorstep in the fortnight following his speech.

The ethnic minorities felt terrorised by the rise in abuse to which they were subjected.  Paul Boateng, Britain’s first black cabinet minister, recalls being spat on as a boy and told to return home by a passing van driver, as he (Boateng) was walking home from school 24 hours after Powell made his speech.  Powell remained stuum and did not criticise such behaviours.

His speech spawned Powellism, created an uproar and polarised the communities.  I remember, as a student in Cambridge, I participated in a demonstration that opposed Powell being invited to the University to participate in a debate with one student shouting, “We want Enoch” and the rest chorusing, “deeeaaad!”

What stuck in the gullet was that his speech came a fortnight after Dr Martin Luther King was assassinated.   The country had adopted an open-door policy to Commonwealth citizens from 1948 to 1962 to continue with the “imperial family”.  About 0.5 million people had taken advantage of it.

While Powell’s speech was criticised by Labour, Jim Callaghan, the Home secretary, made it harder for Kenyan Asians to enter the UK following its (Kenya’s)  Africanisation policy.

Powell, a son of Birmingham teacher, was a brilliant student, who read classics at Cambridge.   At 25, he was appointed professor in Sydney.  During and immediately after World War II he was stationed in India (from 1943 to 1946). He learnt Urdu and Hindi, dreaming he would become Viceroy one day.   His dreams were spiked (much to Powell’s bitter disappointment) when India gained its independence in 1947 and split into India and Pakistan with Pakistan splitting again in 1971 into Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Powell found it difficult if not impossible to come to terms with the new world tides epitomised by the United Nation’s Declaration of Human Rights and the anti-discrimination legislation pioneered by Labour’s Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins in 1965, when the Race Relations Act came onto the statute books.

He was fiercely and narrowly nationalistic and opposed minority-rights legislation.  He found considerable support from people who felt their voices were being muzzled.  In his speech, he quoted Virgil’s Aeneid, imagining the “River Tiber foaming with much blood”.

While Powell always denied that he was racist, bizarrely claiming at time that it was human to be racist and denying any sense of superiority to other races, the reality was that he was not only racist but succeeded in stirring up considerable racism.

So blinded was Powell by his own sense of “righteousness” he failed to see that one country after another was moving towards embracing human equality after two devastating World Wars, the Holocaust and decolonisation.

Powell was right about the growth of ethnic minorities.   In 1968, there were only 1 million (2%) of ethnic minorities.  Today, there are more than 8 million (13%).   However, he was wrong about everything else.   White people have not been humbled by “the foreigners”.  Rather, like the Normans of old, the foreigners have, in the main, integrated exceptionally well and are contributing significantly not just to the economy but also to the United Kingdom’s all-round development.  While there have been two race riots – in 1981 and 2001, the rise of Islamic extremists and about 200 fatalities, the “Tiber has not foamed with blood”.

There has been progress, but there is still much work to be done in regard to integration (not assimilation).   Many South Asian communities remain insular with (mainly) women-folk resisting the efforts of others to teach them English and parents opposing moves of their children to “marry out”.   They buy houses and dwell in clusters with other South Asian families.

In the years (the 1980s and 1990s) that followed, Margaret Thatcher quietly curbed immigration.   Immigrants who had settled in Britain, were much more fairly treated than previously.  This thrust had cross party support.   When Labour was returned to power in 1997, the brakes on immigration were eased, and more so recently, following President Assad’s brutalisation of Syrians.

However, Powell’s speech has led to people being very tentative about being honest when discussing the pros and cons of opening the country’s borders.   We continue to be silent, for instance, about gang violence (mainly the black-on-black killings) and the Rochdale and Oxford grooming scandals involving men of Pakistani heritage.

But it is salutary to note that when the remains of Richard II passed through Leicester multi-ethnic streets, several British Asians threw white House of York roses at his coffin and the cortege!  This did not quite chime with the apocalyptic forecast of Powell.

Pupils should not be denied learning about these events.  Martin Luther King and Enoch Powell have provided rich, thoughtful pickings for exchanges in classrooms and created touchstones for teachers to develop our future citizens learning from historical events.

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