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Martin Luther King’s 1967 Visit to Newcastle

Volume 616: debated on Tuesday 1 November 2016

I beg to move,

That this House has considered commemoration of Martin Luther King’s 1967 visit to Newcastle.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I thank everyone who has come to this important debate.

Like most, if not all, MPs, I make no secret of my pride in representing my constituency, the area in which I was born and grew up, and this debate is about a day in Newcastle’s history that is a particular source of pride to me. On 13 November 1967, Newcastle University awarded Dr Martin Luther King an honorary degree. It was no accident that Newcastle was the only university outside the United States to honour King in his lifetime. From the trade union movement to the co-operative and fair trade movements, we have a long and active history in the struggle for social justice.

The university’s historic decision was made all the more remarkable by Dr King taking the time to come to Newcastle to accept the award. He was accompanied by his secretary, Andrew Young, who went on to be a Congressman, a mayor and an ambassador for the US. Rev. Gerald Durley, who was an aide to Martin Luther King at the time, told me that Dr King was absolutely exhausted. He had been imprisoned just two weeks earlier for five days, and he was suffering from a serious cold. He was in the UK for a mere 24 hours, a short break from his busy schedule that included, among other things, campaigning for Carl Stokes in his successful bid to become the first black mayor of Cleveland, Ohio. Dr King was assassinated five months later in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was speaking in support of striking refuse workers. His decision to come to Newcastle must be seen in that context.

In accepting his award Dr King broke with Newcastle University tradition by giving an acceptance speech, which was to be his final public speech outside the United States. Dr King’s “I have a dream” speech is rightly famous across the world, but few people are aware of the powerful speech he gave that day in Newcastle. He held the audience spellbound as he spoke of his struggle for racial justice and against the

“three urgent and indeed great problems that we face not only in the United States of America but all over the world today. That is the problem of racism, the problem of poverty and the problem of war.”

I will be quoting from Martin Luther King a number of times today and, of course, I cannot aspire to his eloquence, but I hope that by recording some of his words the House will gain an impression of how powerfully he spoke and of his impact that day. Dr King was right that our world

“will never rise to its full moral, political or even social maturity”

until racism, poverty and war are eradicated. The struggle for humanity is a continual, day-by-day battle to defend and enlarge the territory of social justice. We must passionately, unrelentingly work in that struggle, whether in the UK, the USA or anywhere else in the world.

King’s work had huge impacts, and not just upon the legal and political rights of black people. His life is an inspiration for individuals across the world, including me. My earliest memory of him is of reading the “I have a dream” speech for the first time. I remember exactly where I was—Boots in Eldon Square, Newcastle. My eye had been caught by a poster of an African-American woman with doves flying out of her huge afro. I remember wondering whether that look would work for me. [Laughter.] Black women and hair.

After being drawn to the poster, I was caught even more powerfully by the words:

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

I was about nine or 10 at the time, and I was really moved. I was struck by the power of those words, and of course I identified with Dr King’s little children. I hoped his words would come true not only for them but for me. That was at a time when the only black people on TV seemed to be singers, dancers or African despots. Only someone like Martin Luther King could help inspire me to dream that I could one day be the Member of Parliament for my hometown.

When the three great problems of racism, war and poverty are still all too real for millions of people, we all have a responsibility to take forward Dr King’s legacy. To mark the upcoming 50-year anniversary of the degree ceremony, Freedom City 2017 will be celebrated across Newcastle and Gateshead. It takes its inspiration from Dr King and the themes of his speech at Newcastle University. The landmark event will launch a three-year cultural programme of international artistic and political significance. World-renowned artists and local communities will come together to produce new artworks responding to Dr King’s iconic speech and legacy.

Working with local delivery partner Northern Roots, Newcastle University and community, faith, civic, artistic, business and academic organisations from across Newcastle and Gateshead, Freedom City will have dozens of events, programmes and workshops so that everyone in the community can get involved. I cannot emphasise the scale of Freedom City enough, but I will mention a couple of events about which I am particularly excited.

A bronze sculpture of Dr King, incorporating a quotation from his acceptance speech, will be installed on the university campus in November 2017. There will also be a day of celebration and remembrance of those who risked and lost their lives in the march for freedom, called “Freedom City on the Tyne.” It will pay tribute to all those who marched with King, either physically or spiritually: from the Jarrow march to Sharpeville, Peterloo and especially the famous Selma confrontation between Dr King, his marchers and state troopers on the General Pettus bridge.

The Freedom City project will be launched on Friday of next week, ahead of the 49th anniversary of King’s degree ceremony, with community groups, schools and citizens from Newcastle reflecting on King’s legacy ahead of next year’s celebrations. The American embassy gave £30,000 to support Freedom City in its initial stages; I pay tribute to it for that. The American ambassador, Matthew Barzun, who is coming to the end of his term, has been a particular champion of this project and friend of Newcastle, and I would like to record my gratitude to him. This great festival also owes a debt of gratitude to Arts Council England, which has given us an award of £595,000 from its Ambition for Excellence fund in recognition of the festival’s ability to

“stimulate and support ambition, talent and excellence across the arts sector in England.”

Freedom City will take forward the legacy built around the creative case for diversity, changing the way artists and organisations present diverse arts in participatory, programmed and presented work. It will go further, too: it will educate and inform young people on the themes of Martin Luther King’s speech and will encourage reflection on how those themes relate today to our social history and our future.

The lives of those who fought for an end to racism still play a role in inspiring citizens today, and not just in Newcastle. Hull has chosen to honour William Wilberforce in its city of culture celebrations, which will also take place next year and will complement Freedom City. What are the Government’s plans to follow these great northern cities in taking forward King’s legacy? They have a responsibility to every child to make sure that, in King’s words,

“they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

I ask the Minister and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to visit Newcastle during the celebrations and discuss how King’s legacy can be taken forward. Will the Minister accept that invitation?

Newcastle was lucky enough to host Dr King during his lifetime, but the memory of his work should be kept alive to inspire every British citizen. Black History Month, which is a fantastic celebration of black achievement, has just ended, but there are still many stories to bring to light. Dr King’s visit in 1967 was all but forgotten—I myself growing up in Newcastle was not aware of it—until Professor Brian Ward of Northumbria University rediscovered the film of his speech. I recommend it to everyone; it is a fantastic speech and the film is available on the Freedom City 2017 website. Other materials are now coming to light, including fantastic footage of the first black newscaster in Britain, Clyde Alleyne, interviewing Dr King for Tyne Tees Television during that visit.

I hope and expect that the Government, along with the people of Newcastle, will continue to champion the men and women—women’s voices are too often overlooked—who struggle against inequality throughout the world and in this country. We must also set our own house in order. Parliament is yet to truly represent the country it seeks to speak for. Have the Government considered an annual event to mark the struggle for diversity in politics? Freedom City 2017 will be officially launched here in Parliament on Martin Luther King day next year, but we would be happy to share that important date with the Minister, the Government or official parliamentary commemorations.

The battle against injustice is by no means over. Some 50 years after Dr King came to Newcastle, it is still the wealth and status of a child’s parents that will determine his or her potential to a greater extent than almost anything else. That is why Freedom City is so important. I want every child in Newcastle and beyond to know not only that Martin Luther King came to Newcastle, but that he came for them, to speak to them. Those three themes of poverty, racism and war not only speak to them but are to be answered by them—by every child and every adult in Newcastle and throughout the country. Everyone in every generation has a role to play in addressing those great challenges. Just as Martin Luther King saw the struggles around the world as part of the struggle for civil rights in America, there should be no limitations to our horizons. We still cannot say that every child in Newcastle and the rest of the country has the opportunity to be judged by their character and not by their race or their background. I certainly believe that it is my job as an MP to work to achieve that. When we can say that that has happened, I believe Dr King’s legacy in Newcastle will truly have been fulfilled.

Order. I understand that Chi Onwurah has permitted her colleague, Dawn Butler, to make a short contribution to this debate.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) for securing this important debate here in Westminster Hall on an important and powerful subject. As she said, Black History Month has just finished, and Martin Luther King’s words are still as valid and poignant today as they were at the time. He said:

“A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

The letters in our mailbags and the daily emails we get resonate with that.

I support my hon. Friend’s call for an annual event in this place, and I am pursuing that idea. It is important that one of the oldest democracies in the world should talk about how far we have come with race relations but also acknowledge how far we still have to go. I cannot believe that she was lucky enough to have had Martin Luther King in her constituency; it makes me quite envious. When he received his award—I watched that speech over and over again, and it became more powerful every time—he said:

“I can assure you…that you give me renewed courage and vigour to carry on in the struggle to make peace and justice a reality for all men and women all over the world.”

When the Opposition fight for equality laws and ask the Government to re-implement the equality assessments that they have said they no longer need because they are a tick-box exercise, people in this place often wonder why we push for those things so much. Martin Luther King put it beautifully:

“It may be true that the law cannot change the heart but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me but it can restrain him from lynching me”.

That is why we push so much for equality legislation: to move forward and continue to move forward until we have true equality in the world.

My hon. Friend talked about her journey here as a Member of Parliament representing Newcastle. Lots of little girls and boys and young adults who look at representation in the House and see people such as her and me will feel that they too can make it anywhere they like, as long as they have the drive, ambition and support—and the right legislation to help to make it happen.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. May I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) on securing this debate? It is important that we commemorate one of the greatest African-Americans, Martin Luther King, and his visit to Newcastle nearly 50 years ago. He came to Newcastle on 13 November 1967 to accept an honorary degree of Doctor of Civil Law from the university. As we heard from the hon. Lady and her Front-Bench colleague, the hon. Member for Brent Central (Dawn Butler), it was an extremely powerful speech that captured the mood at the time and still endures today.

Britain today can claim to be a successful multi-ethnic and multi-faith country. In recent years, members of African and Caribbean communities have achieved in many different areas, such as business, sport, the arts and government, as well as in this House. We know that we still have a very long way to go, but we believe in a United Kingdom by every definition, which means that the Government will stand up against injustice and inequality. It is only by doing so that we can make the country work for everyone, not just a privileged few.

Last December saw the 50th anniversary of the Race Relations Act 1965, which historic legislation opened the way to all the subsequent equalities legislation. We can all be proud of the UK’s world-class equalities legislation, but we know that it is not enough on its own. We must all champion equality and recognise and challenge discrimination.

We have in place a strong legal framework that protects all individuals against racial and religious discrimination, and against racially and religiously aggravated hate crime. Following the spike in hate crime and racist incidents taking place in communities after the vote to leave the EU, the Government stepped up efforts to tackle the scourge of hate crime. We have published a new hate crime action plan, which focuses on reducing hate crime, increasing reporting and improving support for victims. The scenes and behaviour we saw over the summer—including offensive graffiti and abuse hurled at people because they are members of ethnic minorities or because of their nationality—were absolutely despicable and shameful. We must all stand together against such hate crime and ensure that it is stamped out wherever it happens.

Fighting disadvantage and extending opportunity is the surest way to build strong and cohesive communities. My Department’s current integration programme is focused on bringing communities together and celebrating what unites us rather than divides us, through projects such as Near Neighbours, Holocaust Memorial Day and Mitzvah Day.

In Newcastle, over two years between 2012 and 2014, we funded Show Racism the Red Card to deliver a programme of work designed to combat the influence of the far right on young people’s attitudes and behaviours. With the Arts Council and the British Library, we funded the Enterprising Libraries project, which in Newcastle helped to create 385 new businesses and more than 660 jobs over a two-year period to 2015. Of those who have started a business using the Newcastle Business & IP Centre services, 11% described themselves as black, Asian and minority ethnic, against a national average of 6% of businesses being led by members of a minority ethnic group in 2014.

The Government are committed to creating a fair society in which all people, of whatever ethnic origin or background, are valued and able to participate fully and realise their potential. The Prime Minister could not have been clearer about her determination on this issue from the very moment she arrived in Downing Street. We are making real progress, with black and minority ethnic employment rates at their highest levels for 15 years, but there is clearly more to do.

We are certainly not complacent, which is why the Prime Minister launched a race disparity audit in August to look at the racial disparities in our public services. It will stretch right across Government and highlight the differences in outcomes for people of different backgrounds, including in health, education, childcare, welfare, employment, skills and criminal justice. Gathering and publishing such information has been shown to have an effect on improving public services and outcomes for certain racial groups.

By looking at how racial grouping affects treatment in public services, the audit will be comprehensive and, where possible, linked to geography and income. This is the first time that a Government rather than an independent body will carry out an audit of racial group disparities in public services. The audit will inform the Government’s approach to ending the injustices that many people experience. Work on the audit has already begun. We envisage that the large and ambitious programme of data collection and interrogation will take some months, but we hope to have the first tranche of data published before summer 2017.

I thank the Minister for his kind and entirely true words about Newcastle earlier. The audit he is talking about is of great interest. Will he give a little more detail on what data will be collected on the users and/or deliverers of public services? I was pleased to hear that it might be separated by region. In addition, I hope he will not forget to respond to my invitation.

The hon. Lady’s invitation did not escape my attention and I will address it in a moment.

On the audit, the Prime Minister has been clear that she does not want there to be disparities in how our public services are provided. The audit will look comprehensively across the range of public services, and we will look in depth at the challenges and barriers in the treatment of people from BME groups. As I said, it will be linked to geography and income where possible. I hope that, in the not-too-distant future, we will be able to provide further information on how the audit is progressing. It will inform the work not only of the Government but, we hope, of other Members of the House.

We are continuing to work towards the ambitious goals set in 2015 to improve opportunity for BME people, such as on take-up of apprenticeships, employment and university places, and recruitment in the police and armed services. We have stretching and challenging targets but are absolutely determined to meet them.

Two reviews started earlier this year: the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) is looking at the treatment of and outcomes for BAME individuals in the criminal justice system, and Baroness McGregor-Smith is examining the obstacles faced by businesses in developing BME talent, from recruitment right through to executive level.

The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central mentioned the Freedom City 2017 events. It is fantastic to hear about such an initiative and it is great to see that the Arts Council is supporting it significantly. It is also good to hear about the support being provided by the US embassy. I understand that the initiative will involve not only several world-renowned artists but many local artists from the Newcastle area, and that it will focus on the values of freedom, togetherness and empowerment.

I very much look forward to seeing that work come forward, and can certainly give the hon. Lady my commitment to come up to Newcastle. My sister currently lives in Northumberland, but she is moving to the edge of Newcastle, hopefully in the next few weeks. I am sure she will be glad to see me when I go up to Newcastle, so I really do look forward to that event next year.

I thank the Minister for accepting my invitation and I hope to meet him and his sister in Newcastle. Will he say something about parliamentary diversity and some kind of celebration and action to increase it?

I apologise that I did not cover that point in my speech. I shall certainly look into it. I would be grateful to hear more information from the hon. Lady about what she envisages such action would look like. If she can please provide that information, we can look to see what might be achieved in the House.

In conclusion, I thank the hon. Lady again for securing the debate. We should take this opportunity to remember the huge contribution made by people from Africa and the Caribbean, many of whom gave their lives fighting for this country in the first and second world wars. As a Government, we reiterate our commitment to standing up against injustice and inequality, making this a country that works for everyone and not just the privileged few.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.