When most people think of England in 1963 and 1964, they typically conjure up images of The Beatles, the four mop-topped lads from Liverpool who thrilled the country with their infectious melodies and bright optimism. But beneath the benign surface of Beatlemania, England’s cities were undergoing a different kind of revolution that would forever change the face of the nation.
Since the end of World War II, millions of immigrants from parts of the former British Empire – particularly India, Pakistan and the Caribbean – had poured into the United Kingdom, settling in urban neighborhoods searching for an abundance of jobs. Many ended up in London and in parts of grim old industrial towns in the Midlands and northern England – including a hamlet called Smethwick, in the West Midlands, just to the west of Birmingham.
The immigrants were attracted to plentiful jobs in the factories and foundries, said Adam Carey, a local historian and former Labour Party councilor in Smethwick. “Post-war Smethwick had 50,000 jobs in an area of only four square miles,” he said. “Immigrants were often single men in overcrowded private lodgings until joined by their families, when they bought houses and put down roots.” Working conditions in foundries where immigrants found work, Carey noted, were very poor and they were sometimes paid less than their white counterparts.
The relatively sudden influx of these strangers from thousands of miles away created enormous social upheavals and triggered conflicts between the newcomers and the white Britons who witnessed entire neighborhoods in their cities transformed into "Little Indias" and “Little Jamaicas."
By 1964, in the town of Smethwick the local government council took an extraordinary -- perhaps unprecedented -- step to prevent the integration of one of their neighborhoods caused by mass immigration. The Smethwick town council passed a measure to buy up all the empty properties on Marshall Street – a rather anonymous neighborhood in the northwestern part of the town – in order to let (rent) or sell the homes exclusively to white families.
The Smethwick Council at the time claimed that they were simply responding to the complaints of white people in the area who were alarmed by the number of "colored" immigrants moving into the neighborhood and wanted no more of them to rent or purchase properties there. The council also alleged that the nonwhite families were segregating themselves by not mixing with local white residents (although the council members seemed exclusively concerned with the entreaties of their white constituents).
British media at the time reported that some whites in Smethwick were distressed by the appearance of blacks and Asians in their neighborhoods and feared what their presence would do to the value of their homes and the quality of their lives. “During the last two years Marshall Street has completely fallen apart,” one white woman in Smethwick told ITN News in 1965. “We have watched it happen. And this [move by the council] was purely to take a stand to stop the road being taken over by colored people. Only being resident in Marshall Street four-and-a-half years, we’re proud of this house that we’re buying and we want to keep the road reasonably clean and fit to live in and live peaceably with the colored people as long as it’s on a 50-50 basis.” She added: “But if all these houses that are for sale in the near future do go to colored people, we shall definitely be outnumbered in this road.”
An elderly man who had lived in Smethwick all his life judged: “Their way of living is not like the white people. What they cook, there’s all these fumes coming from it. I don’t suppose any white people would like it.” A young woman similarly complained: “If there were less of them perhaps and more of us, then they would learn to live as we do. But as it is they’re living in their own communities and the standard of living is very low.”
Smethwick Councilor Ernest Gould, the chairman of the housing committee, told ITN TV that he was not concerned about the welfare of the immigrants. “That isn’t our problem,” Gould hissed. “That is the problem of the immigrant himself. What we do think [is] that this road must not be completely taken over by immigrants. We think this would be segregation, and that is the last thing we want if we want the colored people to settle down among the white residents of this road.”
Meanwhile, the racially discriminatory housing plan in Smethwick came to be symbolized by Conservative Councilor Peter Griffiths, who won a seat as Smethwick MP in the 1964 general election in which he and his supporters were linked to one of the most notorious political slogans in British history: “If you want a n*gger for a neighbor, vote Labour.” Griffiths, who had long denied that he ever uttered that offending remark, was nonetheless permanently tarred by it – he died just last month at the age of 85. Regarding the infamous slogan, Griffiths said back in the mid-1960s: “That is a manifestation of the popular feeling. I 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 that say it. I would say it is exasperation, not fascism.”
Race was decisive in the capture of the parliamentary seat by Griffiths in 1964. “This was the first major eruption of racism in modern British politics, and many considered the election result to be a major national scandal,” said Carey. “The shock of the slogan… has echoed down UK politics [ever] since.”
The racial imbroglio in Smethwick became so pronounced and egregious that no less a figure than U.S. civil rights leader Malcolm X visited Marshall Street in February 1965 – only nine days before his assassination in New York City. Reportedly, an immigrant advocacy group called the Indian Workers Association had invited the black American activist to Smethwick. But other reports indicate that Malcolm’s trip was organized by a BBC journalist who wanted the Muslim black nationalist to publicly debate Griffiths (who refused). “I have come here because I am disturbed by reports that colored people in Smethwick are being badly treated,” Malcolm told local reporters, in what became one of his final interviews. “I have heard they are being treated as the Jews under Hitler. I would not wait for the fascist element in Smethwick to erect gas ovens.”
But Malcolm X was viewed by some as an interloper in a local issue that he had nothing to do with. The local newspaper, the Smethwick Telephone and Warley Courier, called him “an unexpected and largely unwelcome guest.” (MP Griffiths, incidentally, also had called for Malcolm X to be banned from entering Smethwick.)
In any case, the plan by the Smethwick Council to rent properties only to whites on Marshall Street was squashed by higher powers. Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson, who castigated Griffiths as a "parliamentary leper," condemned the whole affair. Essentially, the housing minister, a man named Richard Crossman, squelched Smethwick council’s plan by rejecting its application to borrow money to pay for the houses on Marshall Street. (Griffiths himself lost his seat in parliament in 1966 to Labour candidate Andrew Faulds.) The Smethwick Council itself disappeared, having been merged into Oldbury and Rowley Regis to form Warley. Later, that entity was absorbed into West Bromwich in 1974, ultimately emerging as the present-day Sandwell Council.
Now, nearly a half-century later, Marshall Street is home to a cornucopia of races and ethnic groups living side by side, and there is even a plaque commemorating Malcolm X’s long-ago visit to the neighborhood. A 71-year-old black man, who emigrated from Jamaica in 1961 and now lives on Marshall Street, told the local paper, the Express and Star: “It’s nothing like that now. We all get along well. The Asian families invite the neighbors whenever they’re having a wedding. That [housing] policy [from 1960s] didn’t happen. And the concerns about people living segregated didn’t come true.” One of his neighbors, a 29-year-old Asian man, declared: “People stick together because they’re your neighbors. If the council had started telling people you can’t live somewhere because of the color of your skin, then that would have looked bad to other countries.”
Griffith's old parliamentary seat is now part of the Warley constituency and occupied by Labour MP John Spellar. “What the council of the day and Peter Griffiths did was to enflame the issue rather than try to resolve it and bring people together,” he told the Express and Star. “But it hasn’t lasted. Smethwick is a model for the way different communities can live together and get along with each other.”
According to Carey, nearly one-third (30.9 percent) of the town’s population comprised people born outside the UK as of 2011 – versus figures of 2.8 percent in 1951 and 6.5 percent in 1961. The more broadly defined total "black and minority" population accounted for 61.3 percent of Smethwick's total population as of 2011, compared to 33.3 percent in 1991 (the earliest available figure).
To illustrate how much attitudes have changed in Smethwick since the days of Griffiths, a Pakistani man named Mahboob Hussain, who arrived in Britain in 1970 at the age of 10, was elected a councilor in 1995 in a ward that was 87 percent white. “I have never felt anything other than welcome by the community,” he said. “Even after the Sept. 11 attacks of 2001 that did not change. I was concerned that having a name like Hussain would have caused me problems but it didn’t. The majority of people just aren’t like that.”
But while racial animus may have lessened considerably over the past 50 years, Smethwick has other serious problems to contend with – namely crime and poverty. Smethwick has been “badly affected by deindustrialization and the resulting social stress,” and includes some of Britain’s most deprived neighborhoods, Carey said. But crime levels have fallen significantly from their peak in the 1990s, he added. “There is a now a strong community and third sector,” Carey stated. “Smethwick is a now a ‘live-and-let-live’ place with good community relations.”
Economically, the late 1970s and early 1980s (largely under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher) were catastrophic for Smethwick. Between 1977 and 1981, employment in Smethwick fell by 15,800, or 42 percent, which Carey described as a “mass extinction.” But the decline in manufacturing was eventually compensated by a growth in service-sector employment. “This was mainly driven by an expanded public sector such as local government, health and the related third sector,” Carey noted. “Employment in finance, business and other professional sectors nevertheless, remained low, at 6 percent in 2011 compared to 19 percent regionally.”
Interestingly, Smethwick has also avoided the racial and civil rioting that spread throughout urban Britain during the long hot summers of 1981 and 2011, despite the town’s physical proximity to the Handsworth and Lozells areas of Birmingham – two neighborhoods which suffered significant damage from public disorder.
In contemporary Smethwick, the ethnic minority population is widely diverse and spread out geographically. West Smethwick was mainly settled by Punjabi Sikhs from northwestern India, North Smethwick by Bangladeshis; and Cape Hill predominantly by Pakistanis. Most of the town’s Afro-Caribbean community live in Windmill Lane.
Smethwick also enjoys a particularly prominent place in the history of the Sikh diaspora. The Guru Nanak Gurdwara, a Sikh temple in Smethwick, opened in 1961. “At the time, it was the first Gurdwara in the world to be located outside the Punjab,” Carey noted.
In addition, the Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council (which includes Smethwick under its jurisdiction) includes councilors with surnames like Hussain, Gill, Sidhu, Rouf, Bawa, Haque, Khatun and Dhallu, exemplifying the rise of Asian-origin politicians in the area.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.