Chi’s speech in Parliament on Martin Luther King’s visit to Newcastle

Below is the full text of Chi’s speech on the Westminster Hall debate to highlight the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s time in Newcastle in 1967. You can watch the full debate here.

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.

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