In February 1965 civil rights campaigner, Malcolm X was in Britain to speak at the London School of Economics. Avtar Singh Jouhl, general secretary of the Indian Workers Association, invited him to speak at Birmingham University and visit Smethwick, a small town in the West Midlands, UK.
Smethwick was a hotbed of racial tension. Just like other areas of Britain, immigration in the 1960s had been an issue as white British blamed the lack of housing and jobs on people of colour.
A group of white residents, led by Alice Groves, had successfully petitioned the Tory council to purchase houses compulsorily that came on the market in their neighbourhood and let them to white families only. When the Labour Government blocked the proposal, sporadic violence broke out.
At the 1964 election, Conservative MP Peter Griffiths infamously won the Smethwick seat after a campaign employing the slogan: “If you want a ni**er for a neighbour, vote Liberal or Labour”.
Colin Jordan, leader of the neo-Nazi British Movement, claimed that his members had produced the initial slogan and spread the poster and sticker campaign.
Griffiths denied the slogan was racist or that he used it himself, but failed to denounce those that did. In an interview he said:
“I should think that is a manifestation of the popular feeling. I would not condemn anyone who said that. I would say that is how people see the situation in Smethwick. I fully understand the feelings of the people who say it. I would say it is exasperation, not fascism.”
Following the election result, a British branch of the Ku Klux Klan formed, and Black and ethnic minority residents in the area had burning crosses put through their letterboxes. New Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson declared Peter Griffiths “a parliamentary leper”.
In a show of solidarity, Malcolm X accepted the invitation and visited Marshall Street in Smethwick, on 12 February 1965.
Malcolm told the press, “I have come because I am disturbed by reports that coloured people in Smethwick are being treated badly. I have heard that they are being treated as the Jews were under Hitler.”
The local paper called him “an unexpected and largely unwelcome guest”. The BBC sent a camera crew to follow him around, but they never broadcast the footage.
Avtar walked round Smethwick with Malcolm. When they came to Marshall Street Malcolm choose to walk alone, saying if there was any trouble, he would handle it.
As Malcolm X walked down Marshall Street, he was jeered by white residents who told him they didn’t want “any more black people” living there.
Afterwards, Malcolm spoke about how disgusted he was at what he had seen. He said it was “worse than some parts of the United States.”
After looking at Marshall Street, the IWA took Malcolm to see the colour bar in local pubs. Avtar said, “He told us he was shocked that an open colour bar existed in Britain. By that time, it was not legal in the US.”
Malcolm’s visit helped change the atmosphere for people resisting racism around Smethwick. It was people gaining the confidence to fight back that shifted things nationally. The Labour government passed the first Race Relations Act in 1965—which outlawed discrimination in public places such as pubs.
Nine days later on 21 February 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated in New York City.