Malcolm X in the Midlands

On the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X, Zakir Gul examines a visit he made to a small town near Birmingham, and his enduring legacy.

The scene of Malcolm X's murder. Photo by Stanley Wolfson (Library of Congress)
The scene of Malcolm X’s murder. Photo by Stanley Wolfson (Library of Congress)

In marking the assassination of Malcolm X, or El-Hajj Malik El-Shabbaz, as he was known in later life, I would like to look at an event that occurred shortly before his death. In February 1965, Malcolm X visited the small industrial town of Smethwick, near Birmingham. Today, Smethwick boasts the biggest Gurdwara in Europe, some of the best curries and caribbean food in Britain and is a melting pot of culture and colour. Fifty years ago, however, it was a very different place. When Malcolm X arrived, he said, “I have come because I am disturbed by reports that coloured people in Smethwick are being treated badly.”

Industrial capitalism had begun to fail in the Black Country decades before its rebranding as financial capitalism in the 70s and 80s. By nature, capitalism is constantly changing, reforming and reshaping itself, slithering through time and adapting in order to maintain its system of exploitation. And so this was the case in Smethwick, where the traditional industry of steel production collapsed in the late 50s due to a boom in the more profitable car-manufacturing industry. And so capitalism moved on, but many of the steel workers of the Black Country, particularly in Smethwick, did not. Many were now unemployed, and those who were found that the wages in the steel industry could sustain neither themselves nor their families. In the midst of this crisis, politicians sought to divide workers along lines of colour and creed, and the region saw the rise of the likes of Enoch Powell and Peter Griffiths.

Enoch Powell, MP for Wolverhampton, who called for all immigrants to go home, and delivered the infamous ‘rivers of blood’ speech, was also the official who had previously been sent to the Caribbean to persuade Commonwealth subjects to come to Britain and work in the mills of the North, or the factories of the Black Country, such as those in Smethwick. The government, instead of providing for  workers whose jobs who were at risk, looked to Britain’s former colonies for cheap labour. Migrant workers soon arrived from the commonwealth, but while they were able to bring in profits for industry, their presence in areas like Smethwick led to housing shortages, due to inadequate provision by the government.

This is where Peter Griffiths comes into the picture. The Conservative MP for Smethwick, Griffiths ran an election campaign based entirely upon exploiting white working class fears of immigrants. He presented Labour as being ‘soft’ on immigration, using the slogan “if you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour”. His leading role in the 1962 Smethwick race riots, promise to prohibit integration and other opportunistic racist pledges secured him a 47% majority in the 1964 local elections.

And this was when Malcolm X came, a few weeks after Griffiths had been elected. There is a famous photograph of him, one of the last ever, standing outside Marshall Street in Smethwick. Why Marshall Street? At the time it could be argued that Marshall Street was the most notorious street in Birmingham, certainly so in the town. It was a street where the local council brought up the houses in order to prevent migrant families from purchasing them, and instead deliberately let them out to white families only. When interviewed in Smethwick, Malcolm said of the predicament of black and Asian people in Britain: “I have heard they are being treated as the Jews were under Hitler”.

Malcolm X was murdered just over a week later, so he never got to see what would later become of the street, nor of Smethwick itself. Thankfully Marshall Street did not evolve into a blueprint for British apartheid, and the Smethwick of today is a very different place to the Smethwick of the 60s. But the tensions still arise now and then, and fluctuate. Just as the great tensions of the sixties were the result of a crisis in the local industry, so too have the ethno-religious tensions of our times been exacerbated in the midst of the current, ongoing crisis.

Anxiety over the shortage of housing is being exploited by populists, with the blame directed at immigrants. Sikhs were blamed yesterday, Romanians today. It is inevitable that opportunists and racists will direct the blame at minority groups. Today, anti-immigrant rhetoric has found new legitimacy. When Peter Griffiths spewed his racist trash from his platform, the then Prime Minister Harold Wilson described him as a ‘parliamentary leper’. When Nigel Farage stands on a platform and spews his racist trash, all three major parties not only concede to his bigotry, but agree with him, instead of standing up to him.

UKIP and groups like the EDL are the rightful inheritors of the rhetoric of their bigoted predecessors. Reading the speeches of both Enoch Powell and Peter Griffiths, one is struck by constant references to the ‘ordinary working man’, that is to say, the ordinary white working man, a pawn repeatedly and cynically used by the right.

It often feels that in politics, there is a distinction between being religious and fighting for social justice. As a Muslim friend said to me, you are either a believer in God, or a godless Communist. You either believe in what was revealed, or in the fluctuating laws of the time. This is a false dichotomy between exercising social conscience and being religious, for social conscience is a religious obligation. I think it is the remnant of an unsolved problem of a being a religious minority in a secular state. Of being a minority whose religion is deemed very important, and a way of life. A minority who traditionally supported Labour, but are now in a situation in which all major parties, including Labour, are neglecting and oppressing Muslims, in their foreign policy and in their growing racist populism. How was this dealt with in the 60s? The BME minorities and their white counterparts of the time organised and mobilised. Who invited Malcolm X to Smethwick? None other than the Indian Workers Association.

My fellow Muslims must realise that engaging in politics is not only a legitimate expression of faith, but one that is commanded, and obligatory upon all able believers. Until we realise this, the vulnerable and impressionable will continue to be won over by extremist Islam. Over 500 politically alienated and frustrated British Muslims are thought to have travelled overseas to join ISIS. British foreign policy, the increasing stigmatisation and oppression of Muslims both home and abroad, and an apparent lack of legitimate or viable political options leave these young Muslims with seemingly little choice.

One of Malcolm X’s most moving speeches was made after returning from the Hajj in 1964. There is no contradiction between my Islam and my socialism, just as there was none between Malcolm X’s Islam and his civil rights activism. The Muslim struggle is a struggle against white supremacy, the Muslim struggle is a struggle against capitalism, the Muslim struggle is a struggle against the oppression of women, against imperialism and all oppression. It is a struggle to be fought, in the words of El-Hajj Malik El-Shabbaz, by any means necessary.


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