Dreams of solidarity

WHEN Martin Luther King arrived in the northern British city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne in November 1967 – precisely 50 years ago – what must have probably struck this great historical figure at first was the cold, as biting winter winds swept in from a river that for generations had formed the central artery of this industrial region’s coal-mining industry.

But as anyone who has visited this fascinating city will know, what would have warmed the great civil rights leader to his core would have been the solidarity and excitement surrounding his trip to a city that is distinctive for its proudly progressive and radical traditions.

Indeed, as the ‘History of Activism Research Group’ project demonstrates on its ‘Mapping Radical Tyneside’ website, this area has had huge historical importance as a centre of political activism, something that helps to put in context Dr King’s visit.

That visit – being celebrated this month throughout Newcastle with a series of commemorative events – underlined both King’s importance to the radical tradition far beyond his homeland, but also how solidarity between different ethnic communities had become a cornerstone of his world view.

Indeed, there is no better example of the solidarity that King inspired than the reason for his fleeting trip to northern England in the first place. He had travelled there to receive an honorary Phd (Doctor of Civil Law) awarded to him by Newcastle University in recognition of his activism, the only such degree awarded by a British university to the black American leader.

The award was the highest mark of distinction that the university could confer upon King at a time when he was being seen as an increasingly controversial figure because of his opposition to the Vietnam war and his scathing critiques of capitalism.

It is remarkable that footage of the ceremony and King’s short, but moving speech, can still be seen on YouTube (below), and even today the civil rights leader’s rousing words continue to have great meaning for the United States and for the World. While his “I have a dream” speech is known globally, few people will be aware of his brief but spellbinding address to a fusty but well-meaning English academic audience in Newcastle.

King told them: “There are 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. And the things that I have been trying to do in our struggle at home and in the struggle that is taking place all over the world has been to deal forthrightly and in depth with these great and grave problems that pervade our world.”

What makes Newcastle’s commemoration relevant to Latin America, however? As Brian Behnken shows in his great book Civil Rights and Beyond: African American and Latino/a Activism in the Twentieth-Century United States (2016), reviewed elsewhere on this website, solidarity in the battle against injustice had been growing throughout the 1960s between black American activists and Hispanics. Indeed, as some of the more militant Puerto Rican groups subsequently demonstrated, the Black Power movement would become a formative influence both on their ideas and activities.

As Latino activists have long pointed out, inter-ethnic solidarity – and perhaps even their own inter-communal solidarity – was a major product of the mobilisation that was embodied by Martin Luther King.

This was noted in 2003 by Raul Yzaguirre, a former president of the National Council of La Raza, who told NPR on the 40th anniversary of the celebrated 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom that the eloquence of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech moved him to take his own civil rights advocacy beyond Latino causes.

“Although the focus was on the African-American community at that time, I think his thoughts, his sense of justice resonated with those of us who had perhaps a broader sense of inclusion, who wanted Latinos and Native Americans and other minorities to be an integral part of a civil rights movement,” Yzaguirre said.

At this juncture in history, it is incumbent on all of us to dwell upon solidarity of this kind – celebrated to its great credit today by the city and university of Newcastle University – as racial intolerance and populism again begin to weigh down upon minorities everywhere.