MLK Jr. And The US Civil Rights Movement’s Impact On The UK

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s epochal civil rights speech and the March on Washington, we look at some of the connections between Dr. King’s work and the UK. posted on

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, and of Dr. King’s pivotal “I Have a Dream” speech, an event that will be commemorated later on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, in the very same spot where Dr. King spoke. Staff at the British Embassy are honoured to join people from across the globe in marking the anniversary. As we reflect on this historic occasion, we look at some of the connections between Dr. King’s work and the UK

2. 50th Anniversary of the Bristol Bus Boycott

Wikimedia Commons / Via upload.wikimedia.org

In 1955, American Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man. The arrest sparked the famous Montgomery, Alabama Bus Boycott of 1955-56. This event would draw national and international attention to the legal practices of racial discrimination in the United States, and is widely considered one of the founding events of the US civil rights movement. Her brave actions also inspired similar protests in the UK.

3. Guy Bailey, Roy Hackett and Paul Stephenson

In London, racial integration of bus conductors and drivers began in the 1950s. This was not, however, the case in Bristol, England. Paul Stephenson, a young black social worker who moved to Bristol and taught classes at night, joined the ranks of other young activists Roy Hackett, Owen Henry, Audley Evans and Prince Brown—who had recently formed the West Indian Development Council—to address the racially discrimination blighting the city.

In April, 1963, 18-year-old Gus Bailey went to the Bristol Omnibus Company to apply for a job and was turned away by the receptionist because of his race. Paul Stephenson had carefully called the day before to make sure they were hiring and had set up the interview for his pupil, Bailey. They would not interview him, however, because he was black. Stephenson, a close follower of Dr. Martin Luther King, wanted to use the discrimination at the bus company as a way to demonstrate the inequalities within Bristol, and call people to action. He wanted to stage a Bus Boycott in Bristol, England, styled after the one in Montgomery, Alabama.

Stephenson was strongly influenced by Dr. King and others within the US civil rights movement, and like them he and his fellow boycotters emphasised nonviolence and peaceful protest.

The boycott spread across the city, gathering support from students at Bristol University, high-profile politicians, neighbours and residents.

On August 28, 1963—the SAME DAY as the March on Washington and Dr. King’s famous speech—the Bristol Omnibus Company announced full integration of its buses. In September of that year, they hired their first non-white bus conductor.

4. Martin Luther King at St. Paul’s Cathedral

MLK Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech / Via youtube.com

On his way to Oslo to accept the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, Dr. King spoke at St. Paul’s about race relations in the UK. The video above is from his 1964 acceptance speech.

When he spoke the day before at St. Paul’s Cathedral, King said:

“God is not interested in the freedom of white, black, or yellow men, but in the freedom of the whole human race.”

5. Dr. King received an honorary degree from Newcastle University—the first UK university to honour him during his lifetime

In November of 1967, Dr. King received an Honorary Doctorate of Civil Law from Newcastle University. He travelled to the UK to receive this degree personally, and was invited to give an acceptance speech. Recipients traditionally did not give remarks, so the invitation to speak was a testament to Dr. King’s incredible oratory skills. He did not disappoint, holding his audience spellbound as he spoke of the struggle for racial equality.

6. The Roots of Notting Hill’s famous Carnival

The civil rights movement in the UK started not long after it did in the US. Claudia Jones, founder of the African-Caribbean magazine The West Indian Gazette, organized a traditional festival for local Caribbean talents in jazz, dance, and steel bands that later came to be called the Notting Hill Carnival.

The Notting Hill Carnival began as a grassroots movement to strengthen Afro-Caribbean relationships in the immediate years after the August 1958 race riots in Notting Hill and Nottingham. Today, it is a celebration of different peoples and their racial and cultural identities, all within the UK.

Held every August Bank Holiday Weekend in London’s Notting Hill neighbourhood, the Carnival continues to be the largest street festival in Europe, typically attracting over a million revelers.

8. American Sit-Ins Inspire British Drink-Ins

In another interesting bit of history about the UK’s civil rights movement, Pembroke College Oxford history lecturer Stephen Tuck writes, that “American sit-ins found their way to Britain in the form of freedom drink-ins in British pubs — Operation Guinness, in London, was particularly popular in 1965.”

9. Perspectives from a black British diplomat

Our own James Kariuki represented the UK at today’s ceremony. Read his thoughts here.

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