Lenny Henry tells the story of Martin Luther King's visit to Tyneside in 1967 to be honoured for his campaign for civil rights, and explores its impact on the man and those he met.
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-Well, it may be true that morality cannot be legislated,
but behaviour can be regulated.
It may be true that the law cannot change the heart...
THEY SHOUT OUT
..but it can restrain the heartless.
Dr Martin Luther King was in the thick of the civil rights struggle.
And so that is a challenge, and a great one.
Opponents, black and white, lined up against him.
That same year, he made the 8,000 mile round trip to Newcastle
to receive an honorary doctorate from the city's university.
-And deliver... KING:
-We've got to come to see...
..a poignant and revealing speech.
..that the destiny of white and coloured persons is tied together.
For the first time, we show the film of King's speech,
to those who were there,
those who lived in a city renowned for racial harmony,
but where racism wasn't far from the surface,
and ask, why did this giant of the civil rights movement
travel so far to spend a few short hours
in a place he knew little of?
and human dignity.
MARCHERS SHOUT IN UNISON
In November 1967,
Dr Martin Luther King was jailed
on a charge of holding an illegal march.
Ambassador Andrew Young was a close friend and ally.
He didn't like jail...
..but he felt that jail time was important...
..to cut yourself off from the world.
And to strengthen yourself spiritually.
4,000 miles away in Newcastle, they were worried.
Within days, he was due to receive an honorary doctorate.
The university cabled its concern and was quickly reassured.
-"Dr King will arrive Newcastle by train
"morning of November 13th as planned.
"Departing same afternoon.
"Regret inability to spend more time at university."
A few days later, on the 13th of November,
Martin Luther King arrived.
Until the last minute,
it wasn't known whether he would actually speak at the ceremony.
Barbara Bosanquet, wife of Vice-Chancellor Charles Bosanquet,
kept a diary of events.
This is what she writes.
"Another great and moving occasion
"took place in November 1967.
"The university invited Dr Martin Luther King.
"He travelled up with his young secretary, Andrew Young.
"They had baths and breakfast with us at the Vice Chancellor's Lodge.
"They're both very tired men, so they rested
"until was time to leave for the ceremony.
"He was asked at the last moment if he would say a few words after
"receiving the degree.
"And he said he would, off the cuff."
-I need not cause to say...
For many years, it was believed
there was no record of King's speech.
In fact, the film lay in the university's archives,
yards from researchers trying to piece together King's visit.
It was a little treasure trove.
And in the midst of that documentation,
there is something that led me to believe that it had been filmed.
Contacted the audiovisual centre.
Sure enough, they found, you know, the tin cans
with the old footage in it.
The formal ceremony itself was short.
The university's public orator, John Burnet, set the scene.
So, Mr Chancellor, I ask you now
to confer upon Martin Luther King, Christian pastor...
Charles Nicholson, a student, was on the podium.
..the degree of Doctor of Civil Law.
Chance had thrown me
from a working-class background kid into the presence
of Martin Luther King.
At the ceremony, Charles carried the mace.
For this special occasion, they wanted a student to do it.
So, it was very nerve-racking, yes.
They'd given me the normal mace bearer's gloves,
which were about ten sizes too big for me.
So, I was very frightened that I was going to drop the mace
or do something wrong.
Ladies and gentlemen.
I need not pause to say how very delighted I am to be here today.
We were quite surprised when the speech occurred
and incredibly impressed
by the speech and the fact that he made it without any notes.
It was just straight off the top of his head.
Racism is a reality...
..in many sections of our world today.
Racism is still
the coloured man's burden and the white man's shame.
And the world will never rise to its full moral
or political or even social maturity
until racism is totally eradicated.
The speech warned of the risk of creating ghettos in Britain,
of the dangers of everyday racism.
King plucked phrases from a repertoire used
in his previous performances.
Yet, the speech had a profound effect on those who heard it.
You give me renewed courage and vigour,
-to carry on...
-..and the struggle to make peace...
..and justice a reality...
HE SOBS GENTLY
..for all men and women all over the world.
Paul Barry photographed the event for The Courier,
the university's student newspaper.
And I can assure you that this day
will remain dear to me as long as the chords of memory shall lengthen.
I'm not an emotional man.
..catalysed, I think, was to do things to help.
You honour the hundreds and thousands of people
with whom I have been in the struggle for racial justice.
To be in the same room as this person was just phenomenal.
The basic thing about Martin that I remember is he was just a lovely
person with no airs and graces, no big "I ams".
He was just wanting to know about other people.
You got that sense of, this was a very rare person.
Whether it exists in England or whether it exists in South Africa,
wherever it is alive, racism must be defeated.
That particular speech
motivated my involvement in protests
a month or so later against the white
South African rugby team.
I really don't think up until that point I challenged anything.
I think he was the catalyst for me
becoming what I did become throughout my life.
The tragedy of racism is that it is based not on an empirical
generalisation, but on an ontological affirmation.
You could've heard a pin drop.
He just told you how it was from his heart.
It is the idea that the very being of a people is inferior.
Meredyth Bell was there in 1967.
He was a very impressive orator.
And all the students were so enthusiastic when he got the degree.
This is something important for a man
who did so much to combat racism.
What an honour for us.
Chris Clode, a student, was also in the audience.
HE LAUGHS HEARTILY
I think you store the resonance of the things that people like him
and like Mandela said.
And they bury themselves somewhere in the back of your mind.
And hopefully, they become a sort of guide, you know,
a guide for yourself later on.
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.
There was something about them.
It was their stature, their pace with which they spoke to people...
And so that is a challenge, and a great one.
For all men of goodwill to work passionately and unrelentingly...
And the way that they would listen to their enemies.
Which, I think, was almost unique about them.
For me to express my deep and genuine appreciation...
The speech was delivered at a time
of increasing racial tension in Britain.
-..six, eight. We don't want to integrate!
In the late '60s, the Conservative MP Enoch Powell
was making lurid speeches about immigration.
They were seized on by racists.
In 15 or 20 years' time,
the black man will have the whip hand over the white man.
Enoch Powell spoke the truth and he's been sacked for it!
88% of Slough people say they support Enoch Powell.
88% Slough people.
It wasn't just in southern England.
Racist letters were published in the Newcastle papers.
He's dead right about the darkies.
It's too late to avoid the fate overtaking the United States.
We put up with the coloured people for years.
To have them taking our houses, jobs,
school places will be going just too far.
Workers at a Tyneside factory walked out,
refusing to work with "coloured staff", as they put it.
The factory's workforce was all white.
Parmjit Mattu experienced racism first-hand.
There's always been verbal abuse.
And derogatory names.
I would never have worn Asian clothes on the streets.
Never. Because people would verbally abuse you.
My full name's Parmjit.
But the teachers couldn't actually say Parmjit,
so they named me Pamela.
And it was only at secondary school I was thinking, well, you know,
I'm actually going to tell them my name's Parmjit.
Chris Mullard met King in 1964.
On his advice, he set up the Newcastle branch
of the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination.
One experienced more or less daily racism.
You know, people calling one "nigger", people calling...
Insults of that kind.
To deny that it was racist would be, you know, foolhardy.
It was racist like in every other part of the country.
Institutionalised racism was a reality.
I was the very first community relations officer for the whole area.
So, most of my work was casework.
One particular case, which went on for years, was out in a small little
village in Northumberland.
And a doctor's family,
where all sorts of dreadful things were happening.
The whole village ganged up against her.
But it would be wrong to portray the North East
as simply a hotbed of racism.
It also had a reputation for having better race relations
than other parts of Britain.
Newcastle MP Chi Onwurah was a child when King came.
But all over the world today...
We had our windows broken.
We had dog muck smeared on our windows.
So, the daily realities and challenges that many people have to face,
you know, they were certainly there in the '60s and '70s.
But Newcastle has long and enduring values
and a long tradition of the fight for social justice.
I think that reputation for...
..for racial harmony is absolutely right in terms of the values.
There was also a tradition of demonstrating and recognising civil rights activists
stretching back to the campaign against slavery.
Frederick Douglass, the most important black abolitionist of the 19th century, comes to Newcastle.
William Wells Brown, the man who publishes the first black novel in the United States
and a former slave himself, he comes through Newcastle.
Says it's the most a friendly place he's ever encountered
for people of colour.
Those who met King at Newcastle were struck by his calm and presence.
There are certain things in your life that you will always remember.
And when he came into a room, it was like a spotlight came on.
I mean, it didn't, but you felt it did. And people moved for him.
He was very courteous.
And he asked us what we studied.
And I was doing dentistry.
So, he said, it's very professional.
And he gave you that feeling that you were the only person
that was important.
He had three colleagues with him, black Americans,
and they had these incredible mohair suits on which were, I mean,
for a student, you know, on £2 a week, it was wow!
There was money there.
He just seemed perfectly normal.
Very quiet, approachable, friendly man.
Well, we were all wearing our suits and ties and on our best behaviour.
I remember Andrew Young saying to me,
"Don't you have any radical students at this university?"
By 1967, King was under pressure.
There is concern about his being away from the US and his mood.
He was always in anguish and in doubt,
mostly about himself.
He often wondered,
"Why was I going to lead this?"
Singer Harry Belafonte was a close ally and friend.
For him to leave America and we were still in our own upheaval,
his presence out of the country
meant a lot to us.
Dr King was under brutal, brutal pressure.
The government of the United States, they'd crucified him.
-Dr King, one of the foremost fighters for civil rights,
is one of many speakers who remind the gathering
that this march must not be counted a final victory or defeat,
no matter what the immediate reaction of the members of Congress may be.
One of the most powerful men in the world,
and certainly in the American government,
was a man by the name of J Edgar Hoover.
He ran the Federal Bureau of Investigations.
It corrupts our youth and blights the lives of our adults.
He did everything in his power to discredit Dr King.
No, no. Black people are not going to let white people just slap them any more.
So, what do you see happening now?
Well, every time they slap us, we're going to move to break their arms.
Fellow civil rights campaigners criticised him for being too soft,
and for preaching nonviolence.
A nonviolent demonstration gives individuals a chance
to let out their pent-up frustrations.
They didn't believe that we were able to go through all of
the difficulties - the jailings, the beatings, the dogs,
the fire hoses -
without any bitterness and without any hostility.
We had been at the task of trying to change our conditions for so long
that people were beginning to become weary.
Faced with so much criticism,
the honour became extremely important to King.
It represented much needed support.
And it could be widely publicised.
His speech from Newcastle had huge impact in the Commonwealth.
I mean, his, his...
Being honoured at Newcastle was no secret in the Caribbean.
It was no secret among the English-speaking Highlands.
It was no secret among millions of people on the continent of Africa.
They were willing to stand up for what was right with a little man
who had no army, no money.
And the only reason he was being recognised was because of a moral vision.
To have a university in England share that vision
was a very powerful asset to his ministry.
MUSIC: Baby Love by The Supremes
# Baby love, my baby love... #
The Supremes singer Mary Wilson supported King, raised funds.
Racism is exactly what it says it is.
This is the first time she's seen the speech.
Racism is a myth of the inferior race.
This needs to be shown in America.
It is a notion that a particular race is worthless.
People always saw him in the struggle.
It would be good to see that this wonderful honour was given to him.
Your honouring me today in this very meaningful way
is of inestimable value.
Many black people were not honoured in those days.
So, that was an extremely high honour.
For a black man.
And although I cannot in any way
say that I am worthy of such...
It took someone from outside of the United States
to give someone an honour like this.
Before America would do it.
My deep and genuine appreciation to the University of Newcastle
for honouring me today in such a significant way.
I think that it was probably one of the highest points in his life,
to receive the honour from Newcastle University.
Newcastle in the 1960s was not the vibrant, cosmopolitan city of today.
Its shipbuilding, mines and factories were in decline.
But its university had ambition and guts.
It risked a backlash in honouring King.
Others who had invited him to speak were pressured to cancel.
Not too long after Newcastle,
it had been arranged for him to go to speak
to the American church in Paris.
The State Department had so intimidated that little church that
they withdrew its invitation to Dr King and told him
that we are under much too much duress.
In fact, Newcastle was the only British university to honour King
in his lifetime. The question is, why?
Newcastle gets its autonomy as an institution in 1963
and it becomes part of its mission to try to insert itself
into the great social debates of the day.
The university wants to be on the right side of the angels.
It wants to acknowledge King's previous work
and to give him a sense of encouragement to continue that work.
But it would be foolish to say that it doesn't also see some benefit
from actually bringing this kind of figure to campus.
King's safety was an issue wherever he went.
David Maslin couldn't get into the hall at Newcastle.
He hid in a corridor hoping to catch a glimpse of the great man.
And startled him.
I stood here in this position.
And as they were going by,
I was looked at by the academic, a little bit angrily, I thought.
And Martin Luther King then looked up and he saw me.
And he pulled back a little bit.
I thought it was almost like a slight flinching movement.
I don't know quite what he thought,
whether there was a small element of fear or anxiety.
While taking tea with the Newcastle students,
the possibility of assassination was raised.
Catherine Potter reads from her mother's diary.
"One of the students asked if he was scared of being shot.
"He answered yes, of course he was.
"But what was the use of being scared?
"He said sensible precautions were always taken.
"A special guard was travelling with him in England.
"But he had to go on with his work."
He said, "Like everybody else, I'd like to live for a long, long time.
"What I'm more interested in is how well I have lived.
"And that I did something for humanity."
He said, you must overcome the love of wealth and the fear of death.
Only then can you truly be a free human being.
And I think he practised that.
In January 1968,
King wrote thanking Newcastle University for its tremendous encouragement.
He added, "I do hope that our paths will cross again sometime in the
"not too distant future."
On the 4th of April, 1968,
Dr Martin Luther King was shot dead
on a balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.
Andrew Young, standing below in the car park,
had been speaking to him.
And all of a sudden, we heard a shot.
Which I thought was a...
Until I looked up there and saw that he was no longer standing.
And my first reaction was, he's clowning.
He went back into the room.
But when I ran up there,
I saw him laying with half of his neck blown away.
And I realised that...
..he had died instantly and probably didn't even...
..didn't even hear the shot.
So ended the life of one of history's greatest fighters
for social justice.
His death reverberated around the world.
America, where the death of another man, Dr Martin Luther King,
has left the sane world stunned and...
Martin Luther King was the leadership.
And now, all of a sudden, we've lost the leadership.
It is such an evil thing to have happened to this man.
The waste, the tragedy of it, is just enormous.
It was despair that someone so great...
..killed. I mean, just...
A new print of the film has been made by the North East Film Archive.
The words of a man who drew comfort
from an honour bestowed on him by a Northern university,
a man who made his mark on history, are preserved for posterity.
There are three urgent and indeed great problems that we face.
That is a problem of racism, the problem of poverty
and the problem of war.
That's the unfinished part of his movement.
To redeem the soul of America,
and, I should say now, and the world,
from the triple evils of racism, war and poverty.
And the things that I have been trying to do
has been to deal forthrightly...
..and in depth
with these great and grave problems that pervade our world.
We were proud of Martin Luther King.
People were proud of him.
Well, it may be true that morality cannot be legislated,
but behaviour can be regulated.
Today, we need leadership.
We don't have that kind of leadership.
And through changes and habits pretty soon added to the new changes
will take place and even the heart may be changed in the process.
He was a courageous man.
And I'm glad the University of Newcastle...
honoured that courage.
We've got to come to see
that the destiny of
white and coloured persons
is tied together.
We all felt it was a honourable thing that Newcastle did.
With this faith, we will be able to transform
the jangling discords of our nation
and speed up the day when all over the world,
justice will roll down like waters
and righteousness like a mighty stream.
Fifty years ago Martin Luther King came to Tyneside to be honoured for his civil rights campaigning. Sir Lenny Henry tells the story of a unique visit - and its impact on the man and the people he met.