Fifty years ago this week, Malcolm X visited Britain’s then most racist town, Smethwick. A few days later he would be murdered. Peter Frost tells the story.
Smethwick, an industrial town sandwiched between Birmingham and the Black Country, can be a cold and unwelcoming place in February.
That was particularly the case half a century ago. Post-war immigrants more used to the warm and sunny climates of their native Caribbean or Indian subcontinent homelands had arrived to work in Midlands hospitals, on public transport and in the dark and dirty foundries that had made Smethwick famous.
Smethwick has an interesting, if turbulent, political history. In 1918 Suffragette leader Christabel Pankhurst missed becoming Britain’s first woman MP after being narrowly defeated by Labour.
From 1926 the Labour MP was Sir Oswald Mosley, who would go on to found the British Union of Fascists. Mosley resigned the Labour whip in March 1931 but continued to represent the constituency until it was taken by the Conservatives at that year’s general election.
Labour won Smethwick in the general election on July 26 1945. However the victorious Labour MP Alfred Dobbs was killed in a car crash the very next day. He is still the shortest-serving MP in British history.
Labour’s Patrick Gordon Walker won the resulting by-election for Labour later in 1945. Walker held the seat until the 1964 general election. In that election Gordon Walker, by then shadow foreign secretary, was defeated in perhaps the most disgusting racist Tory election campaign ever.
Harold Wilson narrowly won the 1964 election with a 3 per cent swing to Labour. In Smethwick however the Tories, playing the race card, won with a 7 per cent swing.
Tory candidate Peter Griffiths (below) ran a hugely racist campaign attacking the government’s immigration policy. Posters and slogans appeared all over the town with the crude message “If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour.” This obscene approach would win Griffiths the seat.
It was in the aftermath of this October 1964 election that black activist Malcolm X visited Smethwick. He was perhaps more closely associated with “black power” than anyone else.
That contentious phrase was first coined, in 1850, by pioneering black activist and escaped slave Frederick Douglass — but it was Stokely Carmichael, a leader of the Student Nonviolent Co-ordinating Committee (SNCC), helped make the term popular.
In a 1966 speech in Mississippi, after the shooting of James Meredith, Carmichael said: “This is the 27th time I have been arrested and I ain’t going to jail no more! The only way we gonna stop them white men from whuppin’ us is to take over. What we gonna start sayin’ now is ‘black power’!”
Malcolm X knew all about racial intolerance. Even before he was born his pregnant mother was set upon by white racists.
He was born Malcolm Little in 1925. His father, Earl Little, was an outspoken Baptist minister and civil rights activist. This bought death threats from the white supremacists, forcing the family to move house twice before Malcolm’s fourth birthday.
In 1929 their Michigan home was burned to the ground. Two years later, Earl’s body was found lying across the town’s tram tracks. Police declared both incidents accidents. In fact it was racist arson and murder.
Malcolm’s mother Louise suffered a breakdown and was committed to a mental institution, and the children were split up among various foster homes and orphanages.
Malcolm ended up in Boston. In 1946, he was convicted of burglary and sentenced to 10 years in prison. While incarcerated he caught up with education as well as becoming a Muslim and a studying black activism.
He joined the Nation of Islam (NoI), perhaps the most militant and extreme arm of the civil rights movement.
By the time he was paroled in 1952, Malcolm was a devoted and influential NoI member with the new surname X. He knew that Little was a slave name whereas X signified his lost tribal name.
Intelligent and articulate, Malcolm was soon appointed as a minister and national spokesman for the NoI. He wrote newspaper columns and appeared on radio and television, His charisma, drive, and conviction attracted thousands of new members. Malcolm was largely credited with increasing membership of the NoI from 500 in 1952 to 30,000 by 1963.
His high public profile did not escape the notice of the FBI. Agents infiltrated the organisation, with one even acting as Malcolm’s bodyguard.
In 1963 Malcolm was devastated when he learned that his mentor and NoI leader, Elijah Muhammad, was secretly having sex, and indeed babies, with many young women within the NoI organisation. Disgusted, Malcolm left the NoI in March 1964. He founded his own religious and political organisation.
That same year, Malcolm went on a pilgrimage to Mecca that would change his life. “I met blonde-haired, blued-eyed men I could call my brothers,” he said on his return.
He returned to the United States with a new outlook on integration and a new hope for the future. Now when Malcolm spoke, he spoke to all anti-racists, whatever their colour.
Perhaps that was the reason he visited Smethwick. He had been on a world tour and when he was banned from visiting and speaking in Paris he came to Britain.
Once here the BBC asked him to visit Smethwick with a view to him having a filmed public debate with Peter Griffiths. Griffiths chickened out at short notice and so an interview with Malcolm X was recorded on Marshall Street, Smethwick — a street that Smethwick Council had declared whites only, just like the segregated US housing he had fought against.
This was to be Malcolm X’s last TV interview before his assassination nine days later. The BBC has never broadcast the interview, but we do know what Malcolm said.
“I have come here because I am disturbed by reports that coloured people in Smethwick are being treated badly. I have heard they are being treated as the Jews under Hitler. I would not wait for the fascist element in Smethwick to erect gas ovens.”
Back in the US the NoI had not forgiven what they saw as Malcolm’s betrayal. Members made repeated attempts on his life. The FBI also turned up the heat. He rarely travelled anywhere without bodyguards.
On February 14 1965, while he was in Smethwick, his New York home was firebombed. Wife Betty and their four daughters luckily escaped the flames.
One week later, just after arriving home from Britain and speaking to a rally in Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom on February 21, he was ambushed onstage by three gunmen. They pumped 15 bullets into him at close range. Malcolm X was dead. He was just 39.
Were the gunmen NoI members seeking revenge, or FBI agents acting under orders from J Edgar Hoover? They were probably both.
A far greater truth is that the memory of Malcolm X will live on in the US and in the English Midlands as the long battle for racial equality is slowly being won and the bloody history of that amazing struggle is finally written.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star 20 February 2015