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A King in Newcastle

HONOURED: Dr Martin Luther King collecting his honorary degree at Newcastle

THE NORTH east of England is not readily known for its civil rights activism or its diversity.

At least, it wasn’t. And I speak from experience – I grew up there.

Yet, it was here – on November 13, 1967 – that civil rights leader Dr Martin Luther King made a special visit to accept an honorary doctorate awarded to him by Newcastle University.

It was the only British university to do so in his lifetime. It was also the first time the university itself, or its parent university Durham, had ever honoured an African American, praising King for “his contribution to furthering the brotherhood and dignity of men.”

Less than five months later, King was assassinated in the United States. But his Newcastle visit, an extraordinary moment in history, was captured on film and recently uncovered.

Last week, I was one of a privileged few to see the rare footage, screened in the very same room – King’s Hall – where the great man himself once stood. Also at the event was Newcastle Central MP Chinyela “Chi” Onwurah, the city’s first MP of African heritage.

Struggles

Her election in 2010 shows just how far things have come since my own childhood in the neighbouring city of Sunderland. Then, when my Caribbean mother wanted to see another black face, she drove to Leeds, in Yorkshire.

The Newcastle of today is much more diverse and far more accepting of difference.
The leader of Newcastle City Council is openly gay, and while the majority of the city is still white, two per cent describe themselves as African Caribbean and another two per cent define as mixed race.

The publication of the 2011 Census results could show these numbers are even higher.

When King made his whirlwind trip to the city five decades ago to collect his honorary degree in civil law, he too was the only black face. From the video, it was clear he was humbled by the gesture.

“Words are certainly inadequate for me to express my deep and genuine appreciation to the University of Newcastle for honouring me in such a significant way,” said King in front of a room that was all white and, as far as I could tell, predominantly male.

That the Baptist preacher was allowed to speak at all was extremely unusual for such a ceremony, but perfectly understandable. What academic would want to miss an opportunity to hear the voice of a generation?

King went on to deliver a powerful address referencing some of his most poignant quotes, including one of my personal favourites: “It may be true that morality cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law cannot change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law can’t make a man love me, but it can restrain him from lynching me and I think that is pretty important also.

“So, while the law may not change the hearts of men, it does change the habits of men if its vigorously enforced. And through changes in habits, pretty soon attitudes change and maybe hearts can be changed in the process.”

Personal

The screening, to mark the 45th anniversary of King’s death, was part of the Claudia Jones Memorial Lecture, organised by the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) Black Members Council, held each October to mark Black History Month.

Jones, a trailblazer in her own right, founded Britain’s first black newspaper, the West Indian Gazette, as well as the Notting Hill Carnival.

Paying tribute to the civil rights leader, Onwurah told of the special significance the visit held to her own life. The Labour MP’s father, a Nigerian, was a student at the university’s medical school when he met her mother, a union that was not well received by everyone in her white family.

The couple eventually moved to the West African country but the onset of civil war in 1967 would change that. Just a few months after King’s visit to Newcastle, she returned to the city with her mother and two siblings.

Onwurah said: “The Biafran war and famine meant my parents faced the stark choice of watching my baby brother starve or dividing the family."

“I do hope when she [my mother] returned to Newcastle with three small brown children, she knew that her husband’s university and her city were honouring both the fight for civil rights in America and the courageous man who was leading that fight with a doctrine of non-violence.”

She added: “Newcastle then was very different from the Newcastle of today. There was a great deal of ignorance and with it a great deal of racism.”

The first memory Onwurah had of King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech was at age nine or ten inside a Boots chemist in the city centre. “I was moved – really powerfully struck by those words. Of course, I identified with his little children and I hoped his words would come true not only for them but also for me,” said Onwurah, who went on to become a passionate anti-apartheid activist.

The Shadow Minister for Business, Innovation and Skills added: “We still cannot say every child in Newcastle has the opportunity to be judged by their character, and not by their race or background."

“It is part of my job as the MP for this great city to work towards that. When we can say that, then I believe Dr. King’s legacy in Newcastle will have been fulfilled.”  

Watch the footage here:

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