In this week’s episode, we sit down with Brian Ward, historian and Professor in American Studies at Northumbria University in Newcastle upon Tyne, England, to discuss his 2017 book Martin Luther King: In Newcastle Upon Tyne about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s landmark 1967 visit to Newcastle University. Brian explains what makes this brief yet historic visit to northeastern England so exceptional, and we discuss the context of King’s journey, his motivation for coming to Newcastle, and the impact his presence continues to have on race relations in the northeast of England today.
At first glance, Newcastle seems like and unlikely place for King to visit—even today, the transatlantic journey to northeastern England involves layovers and costly travel expenses. 1967 was considered one of the busiest years of King’s life, and between his packed traveling schedule and the physical toll of his incarceration, certainly one of his most stressful. Why make the lengthy voyage to Newcastle to spend only a handful of hours there?
Brian speculates that King had many reasons to feel both “embattled and exhausted” in the preceding months. His anti-war stance on the Vietnam conflict landed him in hot water with black moderates, and wealthy white liberals expressed increasing alarm at his radical stance towards economic inequality –particularly his involvement with the Poor Peoples Campaign. Rising tensions within the Civil Rights community left King under immense pressure, and accusations of communism from the FBI, CIA, and Johnson administration often put King on the defense. Though King maintained his calm demeanor and unshakeable charisma, he was racked with doubts about the future of the movement he created; when an invitation arrived from Newcastle from an enthusiastic group of people who admired both King and his cause, he wholeheartedly accepted. The journey, though rushed, left him re-energized, giving him the courage to continue.
Brian recounts uncovering the clip in the unlikeliest of places—not on one of the many transatlantic trips required of a British historian dedicated to studying the African American struggle for freedom and equality in the U.S. south, but a mere five-hundred feet from his workplace in Newcastle, sitting untouched in two tins in a medical archive. This rediscovery of this priceless record offers insight into King’s relationship with the emerging British Civil Rights movement as he bestows advice and encouragement to those in attendance.
The northeast of England, Brian explains, possesses a rich history of abolitionism and progressivism, attracting the likes of Olaudah Equiano, William Wells Brown, Frederick Douglass, and Ida B. Wells. The welcoming reputation of the area, which is overwhelmingly white, goes back centuries, partly due to the Quaker/pacifist population heavily interested in women’s suffrage, economic equality, race relations, and other progressive movements. However, that reputation is not without criticism—race riots are recorded throughout the early to middle 20th century, and modern-day xenophobia and Islamophobic fearmongering unfortunately persist. With this in mind, we learn why it is important to contextualize, not romanticize, the Northeast’s welcoming reputation, while still recognizing its undeniable attraction to the marginalized, oppressed, and underrepresented.
Though the subsequent twenty-two minutes of King’s speech are missing today (likely cut, spliced, and scattered amongst the various British media outlets of the time), the impact of his words on the British struggle for racial and social equality cannot be understated.
You can buy Brian’s book here. We’d like to offer him a huge thank you for sitting down for this conversation.