Thank you Brian. It really is a great pleasure to be here. It is always, of course good to be in Newcastle University, one of this country’s great Universities and also, conveniently, my father’s alma mater. I should for the avoidance of doubt add that my mother went to what is now Northumbria so I really am the daughter of both Newcastle’s great universities.
Now 45 years ago next month someone travelled many thousands of miles to Newcastle, someone who was to have a profound influence on my life and politics.
Yes, well clearly she had already influenced me by bearing me and then bringing me, with my brother and sister, back from Nigeria. We had moved there from Newcastle when I was a baby, but the Biafran war and famine meant that my parents faced the stark choice of watching my baby brother starve or dividing the family.
I don’t know but I do hope that when she 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 the doctrine of non-violence.
I hope it provided her with some reassurance and comfort as she faced the prospect of a life without husband or work. Newcastle then was very different from the Newcastle of today.
There were very, very few black people, mainly students, and even fewer black children.
There was a great deal of ignorance and with it a great deal of racism. I know some members of her own family had been upset that she had chosen to marry a man from Africa.
And I believe the knowledge that her city was honouring Martin Luther King, and that Dr King had chosen to travel from the United States to Newcastle to accept that honour, would have been a great comfort to her.
I can’t say of course, I was only two at the time and though my first memory of Dr King is very distinct, it isn’t quite that old.
My earliest memory is of reading the ‘I have a dream’ speech for the first time. I can remember exactly where I was. I was in the big Boots in Eldon Square, the one next to Fenwicks. Those of you who are from Newcastle and of a similar age to me will remember that you used to be able to buy posters in Boots and they would be displayed on large hangers and you would then buy them all rolled up.
I guess that particular business model has been taken over by Amazon, or maybe kids don’t put up posters any more.
And there was this big poster of an African American woman with a big afro and doves in her hair. Really I remember the doves. Thought they were a very difficult look to pull of and I’d better not try it.
But below the woman were the words
And what 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.
And I think I was about nine or ten, I’m not sure but I was young. And I was really moved. Just struck by the power of the words.
And of course I identified with Dr King’s little children.
And hoped his words would come true not only for them but for me.
That was a time when the only other black men on tv seemed to be Michael Jackson and Idi Amin.
Only Martin Luther King could help give me the inspiration to dream I could one day be the Member of Parliament for my home town.
Over the years I did learn of others struggling in the fight for equality.
I became a great admirer of Gandhi, who also preached non-violence, Malcolm X, who did not, and Nelson Mandela, who neither rejected violence nor embraced it to be the only way.
Indeed for many years my political activism was focused on the Anti Apartheid movement, eventually I was elected to their national executive.
There I met many of the leaders of the ANC and the trade union movement in exile. And they often said to me that to see so many people so far away, in cities and towns great and small, marching or fundraising or just speaking out in support of a free South Africa…
They said that gave them a source of strength to continue when all the odds seemed against them and the road to freedom so very, very long.
King himself said here in Newcastle.
I can assure you that your honouring me today in this very meaningful way is of inestimable value for the continuance of my humble efforts.
I think that it is not by accident that Newcastle was the first UK university to honour King. Though sometimes considered parochial in the deep South, that is to say London, the North East has long had an internationalist side to our egalitarian values. We see that in Fair Trade. We see that in the Co-operative movement. We see that in our support for the continuing struggles of peoples around the world.
So I hope, and expect, that the people of Newcastle and the University will continue to champion those men and women – for women’s voices are too often overlooked – struggling against inequality across the world – and also here in Newcastle.
For we still cannot say that every child in Newcastle will have the opportunity to be judged by their character and not by their race, or their background.
Certainly as MP I believe it is my job to work to achieve that. When we can say that, then I believe Dr King’s legacy in Newcastle will have been fulfilled.
Below is a video of the ceremony from YouTube.