collage of malcolm x, oswald mosley, and guru nanak gurdwara in smethwick

“A World Problem”: Smethwick, Malcolm X and the British Civil Rights Movement

TW: racism, racial slurs

Marshall Street was an unassuming, unexceptional street in Smethwick, West Midlands. Its terraced houses were not particularly striking or notable. The declining industrial town resembled many others across the country, facing a myriad of social and economic challenges. 

But Marshall Street was at the centre of a thick hostile local and national race row, which called into question the very nature of what it meant to be British. A visit by Civil Rights activist, Malcolm X, in February 1965, just before his death, ensured that the struggles centred around this street went global and Smethwick was thrust into the international spotlight.

“A toxic cocktail” of racism and hatred

Smethwick’s recent history was intimately associated with racism and white supremacy. As the constituency of former British Union of Fascists leader, Oswald Mosley, the shadow of his hateful politics hung over the town, even as it diversified in the years following the war. 70,000 of the 800,000 immigrants living in the UK in 1964 resided in Birmingham and 4,500 in Smethwick. 

Of the town’s migrant population, 54% had emigrated from India (mostly Punjabi Sikhs), 37% from the West Indies and 9% from Pakistan. In total, immigrants comprised only 6.7% of Smethwick’s total population, a small figure, but significantly higher than the national average of 1%. 

Smethwick was not alone in acting as home to an increasingly diverse and substantial immigrant population, but it has been noted by multiple scholars for the intensity and hatefulness with which many white residents responded to increasing racial diversity. Elizabeth Buettner writes that the town experienced “a toxic cocktail” of racism and anti-immigrant sentiment, to an extent “unparalleled elsewhere in Britain.” Relative to its size (its total population was only 70,000) the race row that erupted in Smethwick far outstripped its status and influence within Britain.  

The 1964 parliamentary election for the Smethwick constituency had seen many of these issues brought to the fore. The fiercely fought contest was embroiled in bitter racism, as incumbent Labour MP and Home Secretary Gordon Walker, faced opposition from Conservative councillor, Peter Griffiths. Griffiths ran on a platform that spoke to the racist concerns and preoccupations of significant swathes of the population. When disgruntled residents organised around the slogan, “if you want a n****r for your neighbour, vote Liberal or Labour”, Griffiths defended the phrase as a “manifestation of popular feeling”. During the election campaign, he made a series of further inflammatory comments, criticising the Labour policy of “build(ing) more houses” and letting “‘em-all-come.” Aligning himself with the outpouring of anger of many white residents, he asked, “would more houses end the nuisance and the filth?” Griffiths won the election by less than 2,000 votes.

Local papers similarly ran alarmist news stories, seemingly deliberately designed to inflame popular feeling towards immigration and racial diversity. The opening of a Sikh Gurdwara in 1961 was greeted with anger from The Smethwick Telephone, which described it as “Europe’s biggest Sikh temple”. A letter to the editor bemoaned Smethwick becoming the “Mecca of the Midlands”, claiming white British Christian culture was under attack. Similarly, stories about white women being sexually assaulted by Black and Asian men were widely reported, whilst moral panics about miscegenation and interracial relationships also made the headlines. One letter to the editor of a local paper claimed, “we are in danger of losing our English characteristics, perhaps our very heritage, eventually to become a nation of half-breeds”. Griffiths himself had stoked this panic around miscegenation and sexual violence, asking if new council houses “would…make the streets safe for young women and girls?” This rhetoric played into the notion that the white community and white Britishness itself was under siege. 

Other newspaper stories aimed to discredit Labour’s campaign to retain the parliamentary constituency, through associating Walker with the community of Colour. Rumours about Walker’s daughters marrying Black and Asian men, and Walker associating closely with people of Colour spread through sections of the community and local press. A narrative not too dissimilar to what we see in contemporary politics arose around Walker and the Labour Party more generally: they were pandering to immigrants and people of Colour, whilst ‘ordinary’ white voters were being betrayed and abandoned. Alarmism, hatred and bitterness characterised the political discourse around the 1964 election, which The Guardian has since described as “Britain’s most racist election”.

Griffiths’ ties to Marshall Street went deeper than the toxic racist election of 1964. As leader of the Conservative-run local council, he had been at the centre of plans to essentially implement segregation on the streets of Britain. A campaign by many of the white residents of Marshall Street pushed back against the street’s increasing racial diversification, arguing for the local government to buy up the remaining housing units and reserve them for white buyers. Griffiths, at the fore of the so-called ‘Marshall plan’, justified it as preventing the road from becoming a “coloured ghetto”. Whilst much of the segregation in 20th century and post-war Britain had been informal, the ‘Marshall Plan’ represented a government body endorsing and implementing a programme of segregation, not too dissimilar to the Jim Crow laws in the US, or apartheid South Africa. 

The Civil Rights Movement in Smethwick and beyond

But Smethwick’s community of Colour and local activists organised against this racist agenda and the prevailing local hatred. The Indian Workers Association, IWA, formed in the late 1930s to represent and unite workers from the Indian Subcontinent, was a key group mobilising against Griffiths and his supporters. The international and intellectual climate in which this resistance took place is significant in understanding the full context for one of the US’ leading Civil Rights activists’ visit to a small, declining industrial town in the West Midlands. As noted, the similarities between the Marshall Plan and the wider racist culture in Smethwick, facilitated international comparisons. Activists likened Griffiths and his allies to the apartheid regime in South Africa, which in the early 1960s was ushering in a range of legislation clamping down on the rights of Black South Africans. Dr. Martin Luther King’s nonviolent struggle and Malcolm X’s more direct and militant battle for Black Civil Rights in the United States also inspired local activists and international influences percolated the anti-racist resistance in Smethwick.

In the years and months before his arrival in Smethwick, however, Malcolm X’s philosophies and approaches towards anti-racism were undergoing profound and significant change. In the US, he had risen to prominence as the leader of a Civil Rights movement that presented an alternative to Dr. King’s non-violent Gandhian struggle. Malcolm X, born Malcolm Little, had joined the Nation of Islam (NOI) whilst serving a prison sentence, and subscribed to an increasingly radical programme. Where Dr. King preached for the peaceful struggle for racial equality, Malcolm X (having adopted the ‘X’ after joining the NOI, reflecting his unknown African surname) argued for an active Black resistance and was critical of King and his movement. The two visions of Black civil and political rights King and Malcolm X stood for diverged on many points. Dr. King argued for an interracial, respectable and cooperative movement, whilst Malcolm X described white people as the “devil” and believed Black liberation could, in no circumstances, be achieved through interracial partnership and solidarity. 

Yet from 1964, Malcolm X’s ideology began to change, as he became increasingly disillusioned from the NOI, differing with the actions and philosophy of its leader, Elijah Muhammed. His departure from the Nation, formally announced in early 1964, was the culmination of Malcolm X’s increasing disillusionment with the movement, but also a key moment in changes to his ideology of racial liberation. Several historians have noted his travels through Africa and to Mecca as important moments contributing to these ideological changes. Once exclusively focused on the Black American experience, Joe Street writes, Malcolm X increasingly advocated for “the need for minorities to unite around their minority status, rather than their (specific) racial identity”. In other words, Malcolm X sought to tackle white supremacy more generally and saw the potential for interracial solidarity and cooperation amongst different communities of Colour against racism.

Noting these ideological changes provides important context for Malcolm X’s visit to Britain and to Smethwick. He had been invited to Smethwick initially by the Indian Workers Association, an organisation that did not focus on Black Civil Rights, but addressed racism through a South Asian lens. In extending an invitation to Malcolm X, the IWA were highlighting the similar challenges and obstacles faced by different communities of Colour subjected to white racism in Smethwick – whether that be the Indian, West Indian or Pakistani communities. 

The idea of ‘political Blackness’ is also interesting in understanding this interracial solidarity. Yasmin Ali, writing in the 1990s, claimed that the label “Black” was widely used in the second half of the 20th century in Britain, as a catch-all phrase for communities of Colour. She goes on to argue that the label ‘Black’, rather than denoting specific African ancestry or a specific racial identity, became “hegemonic” over other racial identities mostly in the 1970s and 1980s. ‘Black’, Ali writes, conveyed a sense of, “common interest and solidarity between communities from the old empire” amongst different racial and ethnic groups. Thus, other communities of Colour, including South Asians, were labelled as Black, due to racism and ignorance, but also aligned themselves with Blackness in a political sense.

Though Ali and other scholars have dated the idea of political ‘Blackness’ to the 1970s, it is useful in understanding the transnational, interracial character of the Smethwick anti-racism resistance in the mid-1960s. Though the Indian Workers Association had been founded for individuals with roots in the Indian Subcontinent, it spoke to and allied itself with Black and other communities, cooperating with them on the basis of common oppression, against white supremacy. Working for interracial solidarity in this way was in itself an act of resistance for the IWA in Smethwick, given that the press and political establishment had attempted to divide local and national communities of Colour. 

Local papers ran stories and letters to the editor, debating the various merits of different migrants, comparing and contrasting their relative virtues. One view, published in a 1961 edition of The Smethwick Telephone, argued that though they were “against all coloured immigrants”, they had a preference for “the people from the West Indies”. Ignoring the racism and oppression many Black immigrants faced, this letter to the editor praised West Indians as “nearly always clean and smart”, compared to “the Indians” who were “the most ill-mannered and slovenly”. The letter ended by asserting that “these people should be told of our ways and manners”. Though such letters and views seemingly express a rather sick ‘preference’ for Black West Indian immigrants, in reality Black migrants and Black Britons faced specific anti-Black racism and oppression. These views and attempts to pit one diaspora community against another seem little more than a cynical attempt to drive a wedge between the growing communities of Colour in Britain. 

Accepting the IWA’s invitation to visit Smethwick, Malcolm X immediately signalled his support for interracial cooperation and solidarity against white racism, standing against these divisive narratives. Collaborating with the IWA was also a clear signal that he had fundamentally moved away from the Nation’s Black-focused agenda. 

Malcolm X in England’s “most racist locality”

Arriving in Smethwick on 12 February 1965, Malcolm X’s trip to the West Midlands had been prefaced by a visit to Oxford, which included speaking at the Oxford Union, and a trip to London, where he had linked up with the capital’s prominent Black community. However, as Joe Street writes, in journeying to Smethwick, Malcolm X ventured into “the heart of England” and, arguably, to the country’s “most racist locality”. When asked why he had come to such an unsurprising location, Malcolm X replied, “I have heard that the Blacks…are being treated in the same way as the Negroes were treated in Alabama – like Hitler treated the Jews”. He also cautioned the Black and South Asian population in Smethwick not to wait for the “fascist element” in the town to erect “gas ovens” before it organised itself. 

Malcolm X in Smethwick, 1965. Express/Getty Images.

In making these comments, Malcolm X put the white racism in Smethwick in an international context, casting British racism in a stark and blunt manner. For many Smethwick residents who remembered the horrors of the Holocaust, this remark equated their actions and motives with those of Hitler and the Nazi regime, the wartime enemy many doubtless remembered battling against. As Joshua Cohen writes, the 1960s were a time “when references to the Holocaust increasingly…resonated in broader anti-racism”. For a nation that had ‘won’ the war and fought against the fascist regimes in Germany, Italy and elsewhere, such comparisons exposed the contradictions inherent in post-war Britain, as a nation that had supposedly fought for freedom, yet equally denied freedom to so many. Malcolm X’s allusion to the “Negroes…in Alabama” also shows that he was increasingly thinking of racism and anti-racism activism in an international context: the struggles of the Black and South Asian population in Smethwick were intertwined with those of the Black communities in Alabama. This more holistic internationalist approach to racial justice and oppression is again symptomatic of Malcolm X’s changing ideologies.

Marshall Street, the unassuming road caught at the centre of the race rows of the preceding years, constituted a central location of Malcolm X’s visit. Speaking to Al Jazeera, fifty years after the visit, Avtar Singh Johul, the then-chairman of the IWA, recalled that Malcolm X asked for time to visit the infamous street and walk down its unfeeling pavement. The terraced houses, emblazoned with racist and discriminatory signs, doubtless including the common refrain ‘No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs’ stood by as one of the most notable Civil Rights campaigners in the world walked by. 

“On the far end, a group of white women shouted abuse at Malcolm,” Singh Johul recalls, but “he did not respond” and continued his journey down the street. This seemingly simple act was loaded with intense symbolism and meaning. Malcolm X was defying the intentions of the ‘Marshall Plan’, rebuffing the vocal racism of the street’s residents. For Black and South Asian residents who had been barred from living on the road, harassed by its residents, and were doubtless afraid to go anywhere near Marshall Street, Malcolm X’s journey down the road amounted to an important act of solidarity.

Malcolm X’s visit to Smethwick and Marshall Street was brief. His journey down the street was followed by a trip to the Blue Gates Pub with the IWA, where they were perhaps unsurprisingly turned away on account of their race and skin colour. A few days later, Malcolm X was back in the US, his trip to Smethwick a distant memory as he toured university campuses, meetings and forums, speaking against segregation and for an end to Jim Crow. But for the Black and South Asian residents of Smethwick, his visit had turned the national and international spotlight onto Smethwick. Showing British racism for the contradictory, hateful regime it was, Malcolm X had stood defiantly against it, shoulder to shoulder with the town’s South Asian and Black communities. 

“Marshall Street – West Smethwick – blue plaque – Malcolm X” by ell brown is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Graham Abernathy writes, “as a kind of revolutionary shorthand, the name, words and image of Malcolm X lent legitimacy” to the anti-racism campaigns across Britain, including the Black Power movements of the later 1960s and 1970s. Malcolm X visiting Smethwick and Marshall Street had highlighted the severity of the town’s hatred, particularly through his international and transnational comparisons, spotlighting the equally poisonous nature of British racism. His visit also warranted a backlash from the town’s racist elements, particularly those who insisted the ‘race problems’ in England, America and elsewhere were fundamentally different. Griffiths retorted that, “Smethwick rejects the idea of being a multi-racial society”. He went on to pedal segregationist policies, including advocating for children of Indian descent to be taught separately from white British children and housing segregation, until he lost his seat to the Labour candidate in the 1966 election.

In a speech entitled ‘Not Just an American Problem, but a World Problem’, made on 16th February, just a few days after his trip to Smethwick, Malcolm X had said of racism: “our problem was no longer a Negro problem or an American problem but a human problem. A problem for humanity. And a problem which should be attacked by all elements of humanity”. Just another few days after this speech, he was shot dead in the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem, New York. Smethwick was one of the last places he would see. His assassin was associated with NOI, acting to avenge Malcolm X’s criticism of, and departure from, the organisation the year before. The international Civil Rights campaigner was murdered on the basis of the ideological changes articulated in the speech and put into action throughout his visit to Britain and to Smethwick.  

Malcolm X’s perception that racism was “a problem for humanity”, linking communities of Colour around the world, meant that in the final few weeks of his life, his activities spanned continents, linking up Smethwick with the likes of Harlem and Alabama in a global struggle against racism. Malcolm X’s changing ideologies, which facilitated his cooperation with the IWA and the interracial collaboration he highlighted in Smethwick, cost him his life. But, his visit to Smethwick highlighted the importance of solidarity and cooperation, representing a bold and formidable challenge to British racism. 


Sources

Primary Sources

L. Maitland, ‘Malcolm X’s Slayer Calls Two Innocent Though Convicted’, New York Times, (7th December, 1977) https://www.nytimes.com/1977/12/07/archives/malcolm-xs-slayer-calls-two-innocent-though-convicted.html

D. Pitts, ‘Malcolm’s Journey to England to organise Blacks there’, New York Amsterdam News, Vol.84, No.2, p.32, (9 Jan, 1993).

Malcolm X, ‘Not Just an American problem but a world problem’, in B. Perry (ed.), Malcolm X: The Last Speeches, pp.151-181, (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1989).

Secondary Sources

G. Abernathy, ‘“Not Just an American Problem”: Malcolm X in Britain’, Atlantic Studies, Vol.7, No.3, pp.285-307, (3 September 2010)

Y. Ali, ‘Echoes of Empire: Towards A Politics of Representation’, in J. Cromer, S. Harvey (eds.), Enterprise and Heritage: Cross Currents of National Culture, (London: Routledge, 1991)

T. Ali, ‘Political Blackness and British Asians’, Sociology, Vol.28, No.4, pp.859-876, (November 1994).

E. Buettner, ‘“This is Staffordshire not Alabama”: racial geographies of commonwealth immigration in early 1960s Britain’, The journal of imperial and Commonwealth history, vol.42, no.4, pp.710-740, (2014).

J. Cohen, “‘Somehow getting their own back on Hitler’: British Antifacism and the Holocaust, 1960-1967’, Journal of Comparative Fascist Studies, Vol.9, pp.121-145, (2020).

C. Goodwin, ‘If you want a n****r for your neighbour, vote Liberal or Labour’, New African, pp.40-42, (Oct., 2004).

S. Jeffries, ‘Britain’s most racist election: the story of Smethwick, 50 years on’, The Guardian, (15th October, 2014).

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/oct/15/britains-most-racist-election-smethwick-50-years-on

A. Khan, ‘When Malcolm X visited Smethwick after racist election’, Al Jazeera, (21st February, 2018).

https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2018/2/21/when-malcolm-x-visited-smethwick-after-racist-election

J. Street, ‘Malcolm X, Smethwick and the Influence of the African American Freedom Struggle on British Race Relations in the 1960s’, Journal of Black Studies, Vol.38, No.6, pp.932-950, (Jul., 2008).