Does Croydon need its own Martin Luther King?

By - Wednesday 30th October, 2013

As we approach the end of Black History Month, Sean Creighton our local historian, reflects on the impact Martin Luther King had on Croydon from across the Atlantic.

Photo by InSapphoWeTrust
Image used under Creative Commons license

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal.’”

This is the key message in Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech which is being remembered this year, 50 years after it was given to the civil rights marchers in Washington. There are many who think that it is applicable to Britain today.

“Why is it in some areas black women are six times more likely to die in their pregnancy? Why is it in places like Croydon people are less likely to be referred for help with depression? Why is it that there are people in Croydon who don’t have food in their belly and their children seem to be on the near malnutrition list? When we start asking those specific questions and proposing the answers ourselves, we put race back on the agenda and people stop being apathetic.”

These questions were raised by Alexandra Ankrah, chief executive of the Tutu Foundation UK. He was speaking at a forum tackling the question ‘Has race been taken off the political agenda?’ on 5th June organised by The Voice newspaper at the Trade Union Congress headquarters.

A petition is asking Parliament to debate the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, to highlight that it can be applied to circumstances in Britain. It also wants steps taken ‘to ensure that the increasing inequality of income and wealth in the UK is reversed, and that sexual equality, racial and religious harmony are encouraged and upheld.’ If 100,000 people sign it will have to be discussed by MPs.

The growth of Britain as a society with many races, ethnicities, religious faiths and cultures has coincided with my own life. For me the petition hits the nail on the head with regard to inequality. There is more inequality to come as the ConDem cuts bite down harder on the increasing number of people who they see as ‘the enemy within’: people on benefit, the unemployed, the single parent and young adults. The attack on our civil rights and liberties increases year by year.

The Freedom Fighters

Earlier this month I was involved in leading a post-screening discussion about the American Freedom Riders documentary about the defiance of civil rights campaigners against the segregated interstate buses through the Southern States in 1961.

The bravery of the Freedom Riders is awe inspiring because they faced physical attack, injury and possible death, and yet, remained committed to non-violent protest. Their cross race, class and faith campaign was one momentous stage of the long journey for civil rights, respect and equality, a fight that continues in the US today.

The US civil rights movement inspired actions like the bus campaign in Bristol, and Dr King’s visit here in 1964 stimulated the formation of the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination. Croydon South’s Labour MP David Winnick (1966-1970) was active in tackling anti-discrimination in the borough.The situation that Britain faced in 1948 with the growing population from the Caribbean and the Indian sub-continent was entirely different from that facing America. Yes there was prejudice and discrimination, but it was not of the magnitude and as deeply embedded as in US society. While the struggle against prejudice and discrimination has been a long one here, there have been advances and set backs.

Reflecting on the speech black activist and thinker Gus John argues that “much has changed since then, undoubtedly. But, the central issue CARD grappled with… struggle against racial discrimination and for racial equality and social justice remains.”

Hugh Muir in The Guardian has stressed in relation to the disadvantages experienced by Britain’s black and asian population “wasn’t that, in essence, what King was saying? Shouldn’t benefits, freedoms and opportunity impact citizens the same?’

Croydon’s Multi-Cultural Diversity

The misnamed ‘regeneration’ of Croydon is all about building “cathedrals to capitalism”, as someone observed at the Croydon Arts Debate on 10th October. It ignores the needs and aspirations of the bottom quarter of Croydon’s residents. The ‘multi-cultural’ diverse nature of Croydon was raised in the debate, along with the importance of cultural activity in linking together diverse sections of residents.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor is a historic symbol of that diversity; a mixed race black British composer who lived most of his life in Croydon up to his death on 1st September 1912. But he was more than a highly successful composer. He was also a supporter of African and Negro culture as re-framed through the English classical compositional prism, and a supporter of black rights.

 Coleridge could have become a voice of the underdog — just as Dr King was.

The writer of an assessment of Coleridge published in April 1918 suggested that if he had lived longer “he might have become the spokesman of a great mass of the world’s family, whose joys and griefs have never yet been fully sung”.

On Thursday 17th October at St John the Evangelist church in Upper Norwood the pianist Waka Hasegawa played music that had been played at the former Crystal Palace including a piece by Coleridge. Orphy Robinson performed his work inspired by the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech and Dr King’s ‘I’ve Been to the Mountaintop’ speech in 1968. Both were stages in Dr King’s personal journey, between which he developed a revolutionary non-violent analysis of the ills of America and what needed to be done. That journey ended abruptly with his assassination the day after he spoke about the  ‘Mountaintop’.

But what links both speeches with Coleridge-Taylor?  If the 1918 writer is correct in his analysis then Coleridge could have become a voice of the underdog — just as Dr King was. This should help motivate us as we seek to tackle the problems of inequality and disadvantage and improve equality and harmony here in Croydon and elsewhere.

Sean Creighton

Sean Creighton

A former employee of and freelance project worker with community and voluntary organisations, Sean is active with Croydon Assembly and with the Planning and Transport Committee of the Love Norbury group of residents associations. He is Chair of the Norbury Community Land Trust. He is a historian of Croydon and South-West London, British black society, social action and the labour movement. He coordinates the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Croydon Radical History networks. He runs blog sites covering Croydon, Norbury and history events, issues and news. He runs a small scale publishing imprint called History & Social Action Publications. He gives talks on a range of history topics and leads history walks.

More Posts - Website