50 Years On, Martin Luther King's U.K. Visit Offers Inspiration for Today

Dr. Martin Luther King at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, November 1967.
Dr. Martin Luther King at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, November 1967.

On the day of President Trump’s inauguration in January this year, a group of anti-racist protesters gathered in the English city of Newcastle upon Tyne in front of a memorial to eminent Nineteenth Century anti-slavery campaigner Earl Grey. There was also a smaller group of pro-Trump demonstrators associated with extreme right elements in the United Kingdom, some of whom held Confederate flags.

That the fight for civil rights in the United States was being played out in part in Newcastle is not so odd. That struggle has always been international, and Newcastle has a special place in its history. Fifty years ago, on 13 November 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King received his only U.K. honorary degree, from the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. The stirring speech he gave that day on receiving the doctorate in civil law was believed lost, only recently discovered in a university archive. King reminded his Newcastle audience that poverty, racism and war were shared problems, that there is “an inescapable network of mutuality,” and warned Britain that “all out troubles could soon be yours.”

The challenges King identified 50 years ago in Newcastle are wearyingly familiar: the “three urgent and indeed great problems that we face not only in the United States of America but all over the world today…the problem of racism, the problem of poverty and the problem of war,” he said.

U.S. leadership on civil rights mattered then, and it matters now. Brian Ward’s superb new book Martin Luther King in Newcastle Upon Tyne traces the history of the long-lost speech and King’s visit to Newcastle. King’s trip reconnected a thread established by Frederick Douglass’s time in the city in the 1840s and continued by Muhammed Ali during a visit in 1977.

The book impressively analyzes the centuries-old relationship between the English city and the American civil rights movement, from Newcastle abolitionists to the petition signed by 40,000 locals the year to oppose a Trump state visit to the U.K.

A few months after King’s assassination in 1968, as the U.K. parliament was grappling with a new Race Relations Act, Home Secretary Roy Jenkins declared that “American experience…shows clearly that this is not a problem which solves itself without positive action.”

Ward presents, in often extraordinarily compelling detail, how Britain has looked to American leadership on civil rights for many years, unearthing a 1965 letter from a 15 year-old schoolgirl from near Newcastle to King, saying she believed “what your movement is doing is right,” and hoping to “help in some small way.”

In reaching back across the centuries to trace the U.S.-U.K. rights relationship the new book also provides a wonderful reminder that standard tools and tactics used by many international human rights groups today were pioneered by the Nineteenth Century antislavery movements in the U.S and U.K. There were consumer boycotts (“of sugar, cotton, rum and other items that bore the star of slave labor,”) pamphlets, posters, petitions, mass marches, documentation of abuses, extra parliamentary advocacy and insider political lobbying.

This new study expertly shows how all history is simultaneously local and international, how what happens in a city in north eastern England is influenced by - and sometimes influences - the grand sweeps of global social movements.

King spoke in Newcastle of the urgent need “to get rid of racial injustice whether it exists in the Unites States of America, whether it exists in England, or whether it exists in South Africa - wherever it is alive it must be defeated.”

The rise of Trumpism and its apologia for white supremacy, the Brexit referendum and the emergence of illiberal democracies across Europe all enable racism, from Virginia to Vienna, from New York to Newcastle.

King’s leadership and message in Newcastle 50 years ago is as relevant now as it was in 1967: “...racism is a reality in many sections of our world today... and the world will never rise to its full moral or political or even social maturity until racism is totally eradicated.”

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