My song today is ‘New York, New York’. This was the theme song from the Martin Scorsese film of the same name which starred Liza Minnelli. The song was composed by John Kander with lyrics by Fred Ebb. It remains one of the best-known songs about New York City. In 2004 it finished at Number 31 on AFI’S 100 Years… 100 Songs survey of top tunes. It was also recorded by Frank Sinatra in 1979, which was my favourite recording of the song.
Unfortunately, the lasting memory I have of New York comes from the 1960s period. This was a time in history when racism in every corner of America still raised its ugly head on every corner, and when the black American citizen was treated as a second-class citizen.
I had been well acquainted with colour prejudice practised against non-white British citizens in England, and as the youngest textile shop steward in Great Britain on my 18th birthday, I can personally testify to discrimination and blatant racism in the workplace, in the trade unions, in every British institution, in the housing market, in every avenue of social advancement that was open to every indigenous white citizen. Whatever it was the customer queued for, it was the black British citizen who found themselves at the back of it.
I had planned to spend a few years in Canada and America between 1963 and,65, and believing America to be ‘the land of freedom’ where it was possible for every one of its citizens to pursue the American dream of prosperity, I looked forward to leaving behind the intolerant and unacceptable behaviour of the white British person toward the black person who lived in England. I had hoped to find in the new world where there were hundreds of different nationalities assimilated across the American continent, a much better relationship between the white and the black American. How wrong was I?
As an Irish immigrant to England as a child, my family was not themselves immune to racist taunts of ‘Irish Tinker’ from their English neighbours, along with being constantly told, ‘Why don’t you lot go back home where you belong, because you are not wanted here!”
Great Britain was at the height of its own racial practices (many of which were institutionalised) and which denied human rights to the British black person because of the colour of their skin. This was a time when landlords would put up signs in their house windows that read “No Blacks! No Dogs! No Irish” with no fear of caution or police arrest. It was around this time in 1964, when racism was increasing in England in a way never before seen in my lifetime. The constituency of Smethwick in the West Midlands gained national media coverage at the 1964 General Election, when Peter Griffiths of the Conservatory Party gained his seat against the national trend, amidst controversy concerning racism.
After the Second World War, Smethwick attracted a significant number of immigrants from Commonwealth countries, the largest ethnic group being Sikhs from Punjab in India. There was also a background of factory closures and a growing waiting list for local council housing. Griffiths ran a campaign critical of both the opposition and the government's, immigration policies.
The Conservatives were widely reported as using the slogan "if you want a n…er for a neighbour, vote Labour".
Even the Times quoted, “II would not condemn anyone who said that. I would say that is how people see the situation in Smethwick. I fully understand the feelings of the people who say it. I would say it is exasperation, not fascism”. The previous Labour Shadow Foreign Secretary, MP Mr. Patrick Gordon Walker, lost his seat.
In 1964 I went to live in Canada for a few years. During my time there, I travelled around some of the USA, especially when I worked on the long runs of the Canadian Pacific Railway. The first time I set eyes on New York was the first time I had ever seen as many black people in one place in my life. The thing which stuck most in my memory was not only the visibility of so many back people on the streets, but the nature of the occupations these black Americans filled. While there were no cotton fields in New York for the black population to serve their white masters (like they had done south for generations), every other role the black citizen filled merely represented a different form of servitude that emphasised their distinction in society from the white American citizen.
Every person who served the white citizens of New York was black in colour. Every low-paid job there was in the city, or the dirtiest of occupations were carried out by black citizens. Old black men occupied ‘shoe-shine boy’ roles as they polished and buffed their white brother’s footwear for ten cents a time. The nearest role to this in the Bible would have been washing the bare feet of tired travellers. Black door attendants held the doors ajar as they smiled and bowed ever so slightly as their white patron walked inside. Railway porters carried more cases from train to train than their bodies could bear, overfilled with fashionable clothes that the busy lives of their customers would never get the time to wear. A white seated patron might mess up their toilet cubical in the knowledge that a few minutes after they had left their stinky hole, the back wash-room attendant would have perfumed the air and washed the bowel and floor for the next white sitter. Wherever one cast their eyes, all the road cleaners, the refuse collectors, the hotel page boys, and hidden dish-washers in the back-room kitchens of busy restaurants would at their gainful employment in the background. These were the lucky black citizens. The bulk of the rest would be cramming the courts, occupying prison cells or begging for food handouts in situations where neither free medical care or basic subsidence to exist, did not!
Indeed, the lowest paid, dirtiest, the least attractive, and most servile jobs in the city were carried out predominantly by black Americans, and Washington and New York would then have been considered to have been part of the least racist sections of all the United States. Even here, the partition between black and white citizens was still practiced. Even famous and wealthy black Americans were made to run the racist gauntlet and had to enter white hotels and white establishments by the back door. They could be famous film stars with enough money to buy the most expensive house there was to buy, yet they were still economically boycotted from trying to establish themselves in a white community that was determined to stay 100% white.
White people would clap their star performances on the stage, watch them admiringly on the screen and queue around the block to see them in the films they watched, but when it came to allowing them to join the white neighbourhood or the local golf club,or God forbid, dare to ask their daughter on a date, their money, their academic achievement, their community accomplishments counted for nothing. That was the most civilised and more enlightened part of America in 1964.
Were one to watch the national television news daily down in the southern states of the USA, one would witness discrimination and racism in its most inhuman form. Human rights were blatantly ignored, black children were bussed to schools that taught only black pupils, national Grey Hound buses were segregated in two portions, where all the black passengers boarded by, sat in, and alighted by the back of the bus only (to avoid contact with the white passengers). It mattered not if every seat in the white section was vacant, and every seat in the black bus section was filled to standing room only, still, the blacks were obliged to ‘keep in their place’ at the back of the bus.
White High Schools refused to register black pupils to learn there, and officials in County Halls would find all manner of bogus reason to refuse their black citizens their right to vote. Water pumps were located around southern towns for ‘whites only’. and restaurants, coffee houses cinemas, theatres, hotels, motels, and all toilets and restrooms enforced a strict apartheid regime where white and black could use the same facilities. This effectively meant that there were many public places where a black person could not go because they were not a white citizen!. There were even southern states where it was against the law for people of mixed race to marry or sexually associate. White policemen randomly beat, shot, killed and arrested black citizens for no just caused, and knew that what they did would go unreported and unpunished.
Before I returned to England two years later, black Americans were still being denied their human rights, their leaders were being assassinated, and black Americans were still being regarded and treated as ‘second class citizens’ in their own country. I arrived back in Great Britain when Enoch Powell MP was courting bigoted popularity of the electorate by fuelling and stoking the countries greatest fear at the time’ that white England would eventually lose its cultural identity. This reader of the classics at university, who got a double first, and was an acclaimed historical authority of the day, warned the Government that if it did not severely curtail or stop immigration by non-white migrants and begin a programme of compulsory repatriation, the country would find its culture swamped and its identity erased. It would be April 1968 before Enoch Powell made his notorious ‘Rivers of Blood ‘speech to a meeting of the Conservative Party in Birmingham Centre. His speech strongly criticised mass immigration, especially Commonwealth Immigration to the United Kingdom. It became known as the "Rivers of Blood" speech, although Powell always referred to it as "the Birmingham speech".
The expression "rivers of blood" did not appear in the speech but is an allusion to a line from Virgil’s ‘Aeneid’ which he quoted: "as I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman. I seem to see ‘the River Tiber’ foaming with much blood'."
The speech caused a political storm, making Powell one of the most talked-about and divisive politicians in the country, and leading to his controversial dismissal from the Shadow Cabinet by Conservative Party leader, Edward Heath. According to most accounts, the popularity of Powell's perspective on immigration may have been a decisive factor in the Conservatives' surprise victory in the 1970 General Election, and he became one of the most persistent rebels opposing the subsequent Heath government. He eventually faded in importance from being the man of the moment and his political career eventually petered out with Powell defending a Unionist seat in Northern Ireland.
I went to Canada and America over the Christmas period of 1963. American President, J.f. Kennedy had been assassinated a month before I landed in America. In 1964, as I contemplated my return from Canada to England, the USA was once more like an ignited tinder box, and Matin Luther King Jnr. was assassinated, and Robert Kennedy. Racism was as rife as ever in the United States, and the southern states were looking as though they were ‘ungovernable’ as they refused to comply with American legislation being applied equally to all its people.
A large part of me had hoped to find in America, a country more settled with itself and its multicultural population of USA citizens, but sadly, I found a melting pot of irreconcilable cultures and customs. What I discovered was a far less harmonious country than England was; the country I had taken a two-year break from, and which despite its many faults and racist practices would never (in my view) become as divided a nation as the Americans had. We still had far to travel and though we advanced at too slow a pace for the British black citizen, we were moving in the right direction.
Over the past sixty years, I cannot pretend that England has come on in leaps and bounds when it comes to not expressing racist and discriminatory views against its non-white citizens. However, I do believe that there is much advancement in attitude and action that has been made that we should not ignore. I also sadly believe that ‘institutional racism; is embedded in our culture and that will prove to be more resistant to change.
However, why we should not ignore such advancement between the black and white citizen is not for the British to give themselves ‘a pat on the back’ or a ‘well-done badge of patronisation’ but to act as no more than a benchmark to honestly reflect how little has been true advancement of the black citizen over the past centuries, and just how far there is still to go before true equality can be said to exist between the white and no-white citizens across the world.
Love and peace