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2 posts from June 2020

24 June 2020

Remembering Dr King: US Black activism in the UK and beyond

This is the second of two blog posts responding to the murder of George Floyd, and the international Black Lives Matter protests.  Click to read the first post, “Hell You Talmbout”.

Following the assassination of Rev. Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. on the night of April 4th, 1968, the United States experienced rioting in over 100 cities.

While many who read the term ‘race riot’ think about African Americans rioting in their own communities, mass racial violence has a very long history in the United States as this comprehensive timeline on Wikipedia attests.Instances include attacks on Indigenous peoples, recent and established immigrant groups, and African Americans. This includes mass violence perpetrated by white Americans towards African Americans such as occurred during the Red Summer of 1919. The Red Summer witnessed one of the most deadly riots in US history, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of African Americans in Elaine, Arkansas.[1]  Similarly, in Tulsa in 1921, white Americans lynched the large and prosperous black community, burning down swathes of the city and killing hundreds.


Image of front cover. "The Arkansas Race Riot", by Ida B. Wells-Barnett, 1920.
Cover of Ida B. Wells’ journalistic account, The Arkansas Race Riots. This is available to read in full at the Internet Archive.


Nonetheless, instances of rioting in the twentieth century remained largely isolated until the 1960s which witnessed several waves of riots.  The ‘long hot summer of 1967’ was especially tumultuous, with 159 race riots including the Newark riot, the Watts riot, and the Detroit riot proving particularly destructive to life and property. Due to the continued unrest, President Lyndon Johnson formed the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders which delivered its infamous “Kerner Report” the following year.  The findings were stark: “This is our basic conclusion: Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal…To pursue our present course will involve the continuing polarization of the American community and, ultimately, the destruction of basic democratic values.” [2]


Image of front cover of the bestselling Kerner Report
Front cover of the bestselling Kerner Report


The commission’s stark warning identified racist policing practices as the primary factor that caused deep resentment amongst inner city African American.  However, they clarified:

The police are not merely a “spark” factor. To some Negroes police have come to symbolize white power, white racism and white repression. And the fact is that many police do reflect and express these white attitudes. The atmosphere of hostility and cynicism is reinforced by a widespread belief among Negroes in the existence of police brutality and in a “double standard” of justice and protection—one for Negroes and one for whites.

The commission identified that anger about the flawed criminal justice system was representative of much wider social divisions that were visible in all aspects of African American life.  Unemployment, inadequate housing, inadequate education, white racism, discrimination in consumer and credit practices, and ineffectiveness of political structures were just some of the grievances identified.  The commission’s finding was unequivocal: white racism in all forms of African American life was the direct cause of the riots.  It was an instant best-seller, demand outstripped supply.  This was exactly the point that Dr King had been trying to make in the final years of his life:

The only thing that can be done is to aggressively get rid of the intolerable conditions that bring riots into being… the culprit in this situation is not merely the one with a Molotov cocktail but the culprit is a Congress, is the recalcitrance of white society, the vacillation and ambivalence of white America on the question of genuine equality for the Black man.

Within weeks of the publication of the Kerner report, Dr King had been murdered.  Both the assassination and the rioting that followed received widespread international coverage.  Scenes from his funeral were widely televised, and many acts of solidarity took place around the world.  Authors, artists, and dramatists were inspired to commemorate him in verse, picture, and on stage, many examples of which can be seen throughout our collections.  These give an insight into Dr King’s position as an international speaker on matters of justice and race, and how the US was regarded from an outside perspective.  They are also indicative of conversations about race that were taking place locally, or in some instances, conversations that appeared to be about race but had other underlying purposes.


Cover of Benjamin Bharati’s play Murder of a Prophet: a moving and absorbing drama on the victorious life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Bombay, 1969)
Cover of Benjamin Bharati’s play Murder of a Prophet: a moving and absorbing drama on the victorious life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Bombay, 1969). Shelfmark: X.989/20837.


The above play, published in India, pays homage to Dr King's dedication to non-violence and the inspiration of Gandhi's advocacy of non-violence in campaigning against British colonialism.


Image of front cover of Drum Major for a Dream. Binding in pink silk
Cover of Drum Major for a Dream. Shelfmark: YA.1989.a.3738


This volume of poetry, Drum Major for a Dream (shelfmark YA.1989.a.3738), wrapped in beautiful pink silk, was produced by the Calcutta Writer’s Workshop. It includes Gwendolyn Brooks’ tribute poem Martin Luther King, Jr.


Image of front cover and illustration. Dolor por la Muerte de un Negro (Mexico, 1968), a poem by Manuel Aguilar de la Torre. Woodcut illustration by Arturo Garcia Bustos
Manuel Aguilar de la Torre’s poem Dolor por la Muerte de un Negro (Mexico, 1968) is powerfully illustrated by woodcuts. Shelfmark: X.908/19389.


This volume from Mexico carries vivid woodcut illustrations alongside a poem that reflects on Dr King’s words.  The woodcuts are by Arturo Garcia Bustos, who studied under Frida Kahlo and who was heavily influenced by Mexican muralism. Garcia Bustos also spent time studying printmaking in Korea and China. His work regularly touched on topics of political and social injustice, and revolutionary politics in Latin America.


Woodcut illustration by Arturo Garcia Bustos
Woodcut illustration by Arturo Garcia Bustos.


His treatment of Dr King’s murder takes on an agrarian imagery, similar to that of the workers and revolutionaries he depicted elsewhere. Dr King is thus depicted as a martyr for the world’s poor and oppressed.

One of the more interesting examples of international responses in our collections is this Soviet pamphlet, written the night of the assassination. Published by the Moscow based Novosti Press Agency Publishing House, a state-owned news agency, it is a treatise on racism in the United States and includes sections discussing the Watts riots, the Birmingham, Alabama church bombing, and the march from Selma to Montgomery.


Image of front cover of Fire Bell in the Night
Cover of Fire Bell in the Night. Shelfmark: X.808/4705.


The title Fire Bell in the Night references Thomas Jefferson’s comments upon Missouri’s petition to be admitted as a slave state in 1819, which demonstrates a detailed knowledge of the history of race in the US.  Often used as a shorthand for the superiority of communism, US race relations regularly featured in Soviet politics and culture. 

Indeed, throughout the twentieth century, many prominent African American and Caribbean creatives were invited to take part in projects with Soviet counterparts, which were unabashedly propagandistic in tone. Visitors to the USSR included authors Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Claude McKay, and singer Paul Robeson. Many of those who travelled recalled being met with a refreshing interest in their work and political opinions.  Hughes was particularly creatively inspired by his encounter with Soviet politics of solidarity and the promise of internationalist racial alliances, which can be seen in his selections of Soviet poetry for translation. Kate A. Baldwin writes: “As the poem "Kinship," written by Julian Anissimov and translated by Hughes, suggests, partnerships between "the Russian" and "the Negro" promised a shift from biologically determined links (that is, those fabricated through blood) to politically determined ones.”[3]


Front cover image of the anthology of ‘Negro poetry’ edited by Loren Miller, Africa in America (Aфрика в Америке)
The sponsored trips of Harlem Renaissance authors resulted in an anthology of ‘Negro poetry’ edited by Loren Miller, Africa in America (Aфрика в Америке). Shelfmark RB.23.a.36269. Some of the poems in the opening section of this anthology are likely to have been fabricated by the translator to make a clearer connection with Soviet politics.


Later, in 1976, Audre Lorde wrote about two weeks she spent in Moscow at the invitation of the Union of Soviet Writers in the collection Sister Outsider. In the essay she reflects of her experience: “I came away with revolutionary women in my head. But I feel very much now still that we, Black Americans, exist alone in the mouth of the dragon. As I’ve always suspected, outside of rhetoric and proclamations of solidarity, there is no help, except ourselves.” Her respect for Soviet culture but disillusion with the lack of pragmatic support for African American movements echoes that of the many authors and artists who preceded her, as they interrogated the motivations behind Soviet interest in US race relations. Notably, Lorde speaks of viewing positive relations between different ethnic groups on her tours of the Soviet Union, but of course she was not in a position to witness the treatment of Soviet’s own minority ethnic groups.

It is in this light, then, that we need to approach images such as the below which shows a meeting of workers at a Moscow automobile factory in memory of Dr King.  The placard reads “Shame on racist killers!”


Photograph from Есть у меня мечта. It shows a meeting of workers at a Moscow automobile factory in memory of Dr King
Photograph from Есть у меня мечта. Shelfmark: X.708/6833.


The Soviets were not the only Europeans whose interest in Black cultures and US racial politics reflected internal political dynamics.  Many have noted that their interest in such was quite late coming in comparison to say the post-WWI Negritude movement prominent in French arts and intellectual life (such as the jazz successes of James Reese Europe and the 369th Infantry, and the Pan African Congress of 1919 ). 

The first Pan African Congress, however, took place nineteen years earlier in London and was organised by a British based Trinidadian lawyer, Henry Sylvester Williams.  Notably it was attended by leading US black intellectual W.B. DuBois who would continue to organise the Congress after WWII, and later found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.  Anti-colonial activism, and international reciprocity between black intellectuals has thus been a long-standing feature of the British (and European) conversation about race.

French authors also were interested in US race relations.  Romain Gary’s book Chien Blanc (1970), set in Los Angeles, is a fictionalised account of the author’s attempts to re-programme a former Alabama police dog that had been trained to attack Black people on sight.  It is a tale of morality tale that reflects on the nature of racism, the California civil rights and Black power movements, and the hypocrisy of white activists (which included his ex-wife, actress Jean Seberg).


Image of front cover of Romain Gary’s Chien Blanc
Cover of Romain Gary’s Chien Blanc shows a graphic of a police dog attacking a Black protestor, against the backdrop of a Metropolitcan skyline. Shelfmark: X.709/10618.


In the UK, King’s death and the rioting was widely commented on.  Many spoke directly of Dr King’s work and sacrifice, and of concern for the social wellbeing of the US, that historically.  However, the occasion also provided a way to reflect upon race relations at home.  This was not a passing superficial comparison.  At the time, two key acts were being discussed in Parliament: the 1968 Race Relations Act (RRA) and the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1968 (CIA).

The 1968 RRA act sought to bring in additional provisions that were omitted from the 1965 legislation (the first of its kind in the UK). The sections that proved most controversial to a British public at the time related to legislation around discrimination in housing, employment, and the provision of goods. The updated act also enabled civil proceedings against those who broke legislation in the earlier act. While the RRA gave more powers to the Race Relations Board which was seen by many as a previously ‘toothless’ organisation, the simultaneous passing of the CIA further restricted the rights of citizens from Commonwealth countries to move to the United Kingdom (building on 1962 legislation). 

 Just two weeks after Dr King’s death, Enoch Powell delivered his deliberately inflammatory ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech which resulted in a rise of racist incidents across the country, particularly in the West Midlands where Powell delivered his speech.  The author Hanif Kureishi who was 14 at the time recalls that “At school , Powell’s name soon become one terrifying word – Enoch. As well as an insult, it began to be used with elation. ‘Enoch will deal with you lot,’ and ‘Enoch will soon be knocking on your door, pal.’”  While Powell was summarily dismissed from the cabinet, his speech and the response to it made immigration a key Conservative issue.  The party’s win at the 1970 general election heralded policy changes in Commonwealth immigration that were a root cause of the deportations of British Caribbean citizens at the heart of the Windruh generation scandal .

It is no coincidence that just three years prior, Malcolm X had visited Smethwick.  He was invited to tour the area by the local branch of the Indian Workers’ Association (IWA) following an unashamedly racist election campaign by the local Conservative MP. Following successful lobbying by residents, housing segregation had become the official policy of the local Conservative council.  Malcolm X visited Marshall street where the council had agreed to buy unoccupied houses to block non-white ownership, and witnessed the colour bar in local businesses. It leads to his observing that Britain was worse than some parts of the United States where these activities were now outlawed.


Black and white photograph of Malcolm X taking a walk down Marshall Street in Smethwick, to inspect the housing segregation practices supported by the Conservative-led Council
Malcolm X takes a walk down Marshall Street in Smethwick, to inspect the housing segregation practices supported by the Conservative-led Council.


The then secretary of the Smethwick IWA, Avtar Singh Jouhl, recalls that Malcolm X said that “he was travelling to get more information and more education on the structure of how imperialism works. There was a big revolution going on inside himself.”  Part of this was looking at how this corresponded to British colonialism, and affected Asian as well as black communities.  His visit provided hope for local anti-racist activists and renewed inspiration to persist with their activities. “He reminded us that without struggle change can’t come.” 

While many white locals did not know who Malcolm X was, many were also outraged by his visit.  This included the Mayor of Smethwick who said that “it makes my blood boil that Malcolm X should be allowed into this country” and called his visit to Marshall Street “deplorable” and an incitement to increased tensions in the community. [4]


Photographic image of the blue plaque erected to commemorate Malcolm X’s visit to Marshall Street
The blue plaque erected to commemorate Malcolm X’s visit to Marshall Street.


This visit formed part of Malcolm X’s growing international itinerary in the last year of his life, which had contributed to his gradual development of an internationalist approach to race and racism.  He was killed 9 days after his visit to Smethwick. 

Like Malcolm X, Dr King’s visits to the UK also informed his understanding of the causes of racism, which was becoming increasingly global in outlook.  He visited on several occasions.  In 1961, during which time he was interviewed in depth by the BBC’s John Freeman (available to watch in full on BBC iPlayer for UK based readers).

He visited twice in 1964. During one of these visits he preached a rousing sermon at St Pauls and this speech at an event organised by Christian Action. Looking across both speeches, it becomes clear that he was interested in drawing out the connections between racism and economic justice on the global stage.  He spoke of segregation in the United States, of South African apartheid, and finally of the situation in the UK: 

“… the problem of racial injustice is not limited to any one nation. We know now that this is a problem spreading all over the globe. And right here in London and right here in England, you know so well that thousands and thousands of colored people are migrating here from many, many lands—from the West Indies, from Pakistan, from India, from Africa. And they have the just right to come to this great land, and they have the just right to expect justice and democracy in this land. And England must be eternally vigilant. For if not, the same kind of ghettos will develop that we have in the Harlems of the United States. The same problems of injustice, the same problems of inequality in jobs will develop.”

Dr King also met with the Trinidadian historian and social theorist C.L.R. James, with whom he subsequently corresponded.  Notably, James gifted him his own influential book The Black Jacobins, and George Padmore’s Pan-Africanism or Communism?


Black and white portrait of C.L.R. James
C.L.R. James


Together they later met with British immigrant groups who explained in more detail the structural differences between British and American race relations, particularly the importance of Britain’s colonial past and its relationship to immigration. Dr King thus influenced British activism in turn: the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination, an early pacifist campaigning group that coordinated activities by numerous Commonwealth migrant groups was established following this meeting.

Like Malcolm X in the West Midlands, Dr King’s visits to the UK formed one element of a larger international conversation (interestingly, the Jamaican poet and intellectual James Berry wrote to various people in the US including Dr King in the early Sixties, in an attempt to establish a Black Studies journal. These can be found in the James Berry archive). The flow of ideas and strategies was reciprocal, and was informed by a growing body of black scholarship, literature, arts and culture, as well as activism.


Black and white photographic image of a young man wearing a Public Enemy ‘Fear of a Black Planet’ jacket raises a Black Power fist by a statue of Nelson Mandela in Parliament Square, London, on 6 June 2020
copyright Misan Harriman, WWS, Black Lives Matter march, London, 6 June 2020


We can see this political and cultural fusion in images of the protests that have taken place in London in the last few weeks.  In the image above, a young man wearing a Public Enemy ‘Fear of a Black Planet’ jacket raises a Black Power fist by a statue of Nelson Mandela in Parliament Square.  Below, another man wears the black beret that was part of the US Black Panthers’ ‘uniform’ while similarly raising his fist.  The embroidery on his jacket is a quotation by Nelson Mandela: “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”


Black and white photographic image of a man wearing the black beret that was part of the US Black Panthers’ ‘uniform’ while raising his fist. The embroidery on his jacket is a quotation by Nelson Mandela
copyright Misan Harriman, WWS, Black Lives Matter march, London, 6 June 2020


Most people remember the Black Panthers as a US movement, but like Malcolm X and Dr King, their influence spread much further afield. In the UK, the Black Panther Movement established in London in the summer of 1968, a few months after the riots that followed Dr King’s assassination. You can find two representative issues of their newsletter Freedom News at shelfmark: RH.9.x.1790, (by coincidence the George Padmore Institute and Shades of Noir have just announced a digitisation project for these).

While unaffiliated with the US party, they were heavily influenced by their namesake.  Unsurprisingly, then, their activities focussed on policing and community programmes. 


Cover of ‘Freedom News’, June 1973. Headline reads "Police terror must stop"
Cover of ‘Freedom News’, June 1973. The headline and photograph highlights “growing police terror in South London” which resulted in a “police riot in Brockwell Park”. Courtesy of George Padmore Institute and Shades of Noir


Particularly noteworthy was the influential ‘Mangrove Nine’ case. This followed the arrest of nine protestors from the Black Panthers Movement after a march against repeated police raids on the Mangrove restaurant in Notting Hill, which served as a meeting place for activists. The defendants followed the US Black Panthers’ radical defence strategy in the court room, calling to be tried by a jury of their Black peers.  While they weren’t entirely successful, they were able to dismiss 69 jurors for being unsuitable and find two black jurors.  All nine were cleared on the charge of riot, and the closing statement made by the sitting judge was the first in the UK to mention racial prejudice on the part of police.


Black and white photographic image of a young woman holding a placard which reads ‘I never liked pigs they’re haram anyways’, Black Lives Matter march, London, 6 June 2020
copyright Misan Harriman, WWS. Young woman holds placard which reads ‘I never liked pigs they’re haram anyways’, Black Lives Matter march, London, 6 June 2020


This image is particularly interesting in how it captures the overlap of popular and protest cultures between the US and the UK. The placard is clearly tongue-in-cheek in its anti-police sentiment, highlighting the woman’s pride in her (presumably) Muslim identity, but in the wake of the George Floyd murder, it is a serious and sombre message that carries echoes in the UK and internationally (depressingly familiar parallels can be found in policing tactics in France, and Brazil, for example). It could be taken straight from a US Black Panther publication, which regularly used the term and imagery of ‘pigs’ to refer to police, national guard, military, government figures, and US imperialism more broadly.  Particularly noteworthy here is the artwork of Emory Douglas (the Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party) which featured regularly in the publication (of which we hold some examples at shelfmark: LOU.A499).


Image from the US Black Panther newspaper, copyright Emory Douglas
Image from the US Black Panther newspaper, copyright Emory Douglas


It is worth remembering that the Black Panther Party in the US was a varied organisation that carried out wide ranging activities.  As well as calling for “community control of police” as per the above image, they organised community programmes such as free breakfast clubs for families living in poverty which served approximately 20,000 meals per week across nineteen communities. They also became strong advocates of health as a human right, and established free health clinics in thirteen communities and ran a national sickle cell screening programme (a genetic disease that had previously been largely ignored because it mostly affected people of African descent).  It is because of activities such as these that the party had such a stronghold in Oakland and San Francisco, and it is why when Dr King was assassinated, these cities remained unaffected by the rioting that erupted across America: they were quiet, Bobby Seale said, “because we told them to be quiet.”  

This, often overlooked, aspect of the Black Panthers has striking parallels to Dr King’s radical later work with the Poor People’s Campaign and the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike. While their route to this was substantially different (Karl Marx, via Mao’s ‘Little Red Book’ for the Panthers), they nonetheless came to share a globally informed understanding of racism, and its relationship to economic and social injustice.


Image of woodcut illustration by Paul Pieter Piech, Words and Wisdoms of Martin Luther King, 1968
Woodcut by Paul Pieter Piech, Words and Wisdoms of Martin Luther King, Bushey Heath, Herts. The Taurus Press (1968). Shelfmark: Cup.510.bea.4.


The above work by Paul Pieter Piech was printed in the UK, in commemoration of Dr King. His woodcuts are set alongside quotations taken from his ‘Drum Major Instinct’ sermon', which was played at his funeral service.  It is one of many such items in the Library’s collections that recall Dr King’s civil rights work through his own words, and which treat as inseparable the issue of racial inequalities based and American nationalism.

Almost a year after Dr King’s assassination, Coretta Scott King who was an activist in her own right, followed in her husband’s footsteps and preached at St Paul’s Cathedral (the first woman to preach at a statutory service there):  "Many despair at all the evil and unrest and disorder in the world today, but I see a new social order and I see the dawn of a new day."  Many today would question whether that new day has yet dawned.

It is interesting, then, to compare the results of polling of Americans on their views of racism following the riots of 1967 to the protests of 2020.  Following the publication of the Kerner report, “Polls showed that 53 percent of white Americans condemned the claim that racism had caused the riots, while 58 percent of black Americans agreed with the findings.”  By contrast, this poll by Monmouth University Polling Institute shows that the George Floyd murder and the current protests have led to large numbers of Americans changing their perspective on racism, policing, and the justification for protests. 

Most Americans say the anger about black deaths at the hands of police officers that led to recent protests is fully justified, even if they do not feel the same about the actual actions. A majority of the public now agrees that the police are more likely to use excessive force with a black person than a white person in similar situations. Only one-third of the country held this opinion four years ago. The [poll] also finds that the number of people who consider racial and ethnic discrimination to be a big problem has increased from about half in 2015 to nearly 3 in 4 now.

It is deeply troubling to reflect that this shift was precipitated by a viral video of a murder.  Let us hope that no more such deaths or videos are now necessary to bring about the necessary urgent action to accompany these changes in perspective that are being demanded in the US, the UK, France, and beyond.

It feels fitting to end here with one of the poems in Drum Major for a Dream.  ‘After the Killing of Martin Luther King’, written by Lou Lipsitz.  It speaks of ways of finding consolation and strength when faced with intolerable injustice.  Like many African Americans before and after, Lipsitz finds strength and historical resilience in the blues and jazz traditions.

I listened to old music

all day

trying to console myself

- the New Orleans jazzmen,

Big Bill Broonzy, Brownie

McGhee -things


The Southbound Train

My Bucket’s Got

a Hole in It and Twelve Gates to the City

music out of the chain gangs

music out of loneliness, desolation

music of the poor who would not be humiliated

that shows you how to jump

the truck

out of history

and pick yourself up in the dust

damn near whole.



[1] There is no clear final count of deaths, but historians agree it was over one hundred and likely in the several hundreds. One contemporary account by Louis Sharpe Dunaway places this as high as 850. For more information on this event, see

[2] For more on the Kerner Commission, see this wonderfully illustrated article from the Smithsonian magazine which accompanied an exhibition at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. See also “Riot Report Book Big Best Seller” in The New York Times, March 14, 1968, p. 49.

[3] Kate A. Baldwin, “The Russian Connection: Interracialism as Queer Alliance in Langston Hughes’s The Ways of White Folks”, Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 48, No. 4, Winter 2002, pp. 795-824.

[4] “Malcolm X in Smethwick” Birmingham Daily News, Saturday 13 February p. 1 and 34. You can see this article and other responses in local newspapers using the British Newspaper Archive


Reading list

This Oxford Press bibliography has some great reading recommendations related to African Americans and communism:

Saladin Ambar, Malcolm X at Oxford Union: rcial politics in a global era. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2014.

R. Kelley and S. Tuck (eds.): The Other Special Relationships: Race, Rights, and Riots in Britain and the United States

Audio: Archive on 4: Malcolm X in Oxford: listen here (UK only)

“Britain’s Most Racist Election: the story of Smethwick, 50 years on”, The Guardian, 15 October 2014,

The London Black Panther Movement newsletters are digitised on the website Shades of Noir:

The George Padmore Institute holds a rich archive of material relating to the black community of Caribbean, African and Asian descent in Britain and continental Europe.

The Black Cultural Archives has an ongoing programme of exhibitions and events related to Black British history:


[Blog post by Francisca Fuentes Rettig -Curator, North American Published Collections]


04 June 2020

Hell You Talmbout

On 25 May in Minneapolis, an unarmed man was murdered by police officers while being arrested for suspicion of “passing counterfeit currency” ($20). 

George Floyd. Say his name.

His is the latest to join a long roster of black men and women who have died under police custody in the United States.  The country has now experienced a week of protests, some have involved the destruction of property and others have been violently suppressed, with many cities under curfews. Protestors have taken up the phrase 'I Can't Breathe' as a rallying call, in reference to Floyd's pleas for help. 'Black Lives Matter' solidarity marches have also taken place globally and citizens of many countries including the United Kingdom are reflecting on how the US situation is mirrored in their national contexts.

The historian of the Reconstruction era, Eric Foner, has influentially argued that that most overused of concepts, 'freedom', is "the subject of persistent conflict and debate in American history."  The debates revolve around three things "the meaning or definition of freedom, the social conditions that make freedom possible, and the boundaries of freedom, who, that is, is entitled to enjoy it."  While the Constitution outlines some of these, it is the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments and the judicial interpretations of these that have been instrumental in keeping this conversation active.

13th c.160.c.4.(1)
United States. [Messages, etc., of Presidents. II. Separate Messages. Lincoln (Abraham), 1861-65 ] By the President ... A Proclamation. [Declaring all slaves in the United States free. Dated Jan. 1, 1863.] ([Washington, 1863.])

Invariably, as these three amendments relate to the rights of former slaves, the conversation about freedom has continued to be integrally connected to the conversation about race.  Now, when the rallying call of a protest movement is 'I Can't Breathe', and the President is threatening to deploy armed forces against protestors, it seems to this curator that we should not shy away from calling this what it is: an urgent public conversation about freedom in the US, and beyond.

The significance of the word freedom was not lost upon the activists of the Civil Rights Movement who used it rhetorically to evoke hope amongst African Americans who were risking their lives for the cause, but also to engage the support of sympathetic middle-class whites. During this last week, many people have called on the memory of Rev. Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. whose leadership and advocacy of non-violent protest were a key component of the successes of the Movement.   While Dr King is often invoked during public race relations debates, in this instance the rioting and protests are directly comparable to the circumstances that followed his assassination.

In a two-part blog posts, I will reflect on the similarities and difference between these two historic moments and consider what useful lessons might be drawn.  I shall also highlight some collection items and other online resources that may be of interest to readers.  This post takes a closer look at the national campaign that Dr King was working on at the time of his murder, and the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike.  The second post will focus on Dr King’s assassination, the rioting that followed, and the response to this in the UK. 

A list of resources for researchers, teachers and families can be found at the bottom of this post.

Looking closer at non-violence and the Memphis sanitation workers' strike

Dr King’s son, Martin Luther King III has remarked in the last week that his father used to say that "violence is the language of the unheard."  His position of non-violent protest was thus not a superficial glossing over of the anger begot from the deep inequities of segregation and institutional racism, rather Dr King tried to speak directly to the grief and pain of African American communities by offering an organising tactic that empowered protestors by asserting their innate dignity when faced with violence.

Where do we go from here
King outlines his vision for tackling social deprivation, and tactics for organising in his final publication. BL Shelfmark X.809/4814.

Dr King's non-violence must be understood within the framework of the Christian (Baptist) theology he preached, and alongside the many local activists and organisations who worked tirelessly to instil change in their communities.  These were the unions and church leaders and educators who would teach basic literacy to adults to enable them to enact their constitutional right to vote, or would document transgressions by local law enforcement, organised local boycotts and many other such activities.  King relied on these grassroots activists, many of whom were women, to help decipher local politics, to do the minutiae of civil rights' work, and in return he brought a national platform to their local causes.

It was while he was supporting such a local cause – the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike – that Dr King was assassinated.  It will perhaps not come as a surprise that the strike was triggered by the death of two workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker. In the segregated city, black sanitation workers walked alongside refuse collection trucks while white workers drove them.  When it rained, the only shelter afforded black workers was inside the compactor and horrifically, Cole and Walker were crushed to death by a faulty mechanism during a rainstorm.  The subsequent strike was supported by the local and national unions, and the striking workers would march daily to downtown Memphis. They faced regular assault from police, including tear gas and mace.  In response to this, the strikers made pickets with the now iconic slogan “I AM A MAN”.

Withers Memphis sanitation workers
Credit: Ernest Withers, CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. St Lawrence University Archive, call no. SLU 95.24

It is a remarkably simple and effective banner, a vehement declaration of the fundamental humanity and dignity of Black men (workers).  While separated by half a century, the logo of the Black Lives Matter movement directly recalls the banners the sanitation workers carried.

Black Lives Matter logo, available from

Dr King and others from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) arrived in Memphis towards the end of March, several weeks into the strike.  The concerns raised by the strikers resonated with the SCLC’s ‘Poor People’s Campaign’, which directly tried to address the dire poverty and social issues such as poor housing that many African Americans lived with.  Amongst other things, the campaign called for a guaranteed basic income, a radical proposal for its time.

Fager Uncertain Resurrection & Bryant To Whom It May Concern
Two 1969 volumes about the Poor People's Campaign - one depicting 'Resurrection City', the protest camp established in DC following King's assassination Shelfmarks Document Supply AL69/5078 and AL69/3630 respectively

In later years, King’s political understanding of the causes of racism and inequality had developed considerably.  He was particularly influenced by the continuing presence of the US military in Vietnam, and the high deployment of African Americans in frontline combat positions.  He eventually came to the position that he had to speak out against the Vietnam war.  In a key speech titled Beyond Vietnam he connected the war with the economic injustice in the United States, criticising the increase in the country’s militarisation, stating that "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death."

MLK Vietnam
Dr King's publications about the Vietnam war. Shelfmarks YA.2003.b.651 and YD.2009.a.9462
Listen to the full 'Beyond Vietnam' speech below

King’s vision of non-violence, then, was radical, complex and informed by geopolitics as well as a detailed understanding of the problems that afflicted African American communities.  This position proved to be seriously damaging to his reputation, including among African Americans many of whom felt that he risked damaging the Civil Rights Movement by complicating the discussion, and alienating sympathetic whites who were an important donor base with ‘radical’ views.  The sanitation workers’ strike would prove to be a difficult campaign for King, but it was also a perfect example of the domestic challenges that the SCLC was battling in the PPC and both King and SCLC were in need of a ‘win’.

It is sobering to see that many of the concerns raised by the Poor People’s Campaign and in Memphis in 1968 are shared by contemporary protestors.  In a collection of essays about miscarriages of justice against black people, the author and activist Mumia Abu-Jamal asks the question “Have black lives ever mattered?” stating that if the question seems provocative, the answer “no matter how damning, [is] far more provocative.  And yet who dares answer but any way other than the negative?”  Abu Jamal has spent thirty-eight years in prison, twenty-nine of which on death row, and regularly comments on matters related to the US criminal justice system.

BL shelfmark YD.2018.a.2149
The introduction is available to read for free online here: 

Within the current debate it is important to remember that policing in the United States mostly takes place at the state, district, and city levels. Nationally, there are over eighteen-thousand police departments, each of which is governed by a different set of powers.  Additionally, police officials at various levels are regularly subject to public elections.  Changing policing strategy, already a complex problem, is thus further complicated by the lack of geographic and temporal continuity.  Another complicating factor, as detailed in this article by Mother Jones, is that the Trump administration released police departments from federal oversight.  This included the use of consent decrees which imposed reform on police departments that consistently misuse force in a discriminatory way.  Many departments, such as in Chicago, that had lost the trust of their local communities had benefited from such intervention, and the Obama administration also actively pursued over seventy cases against police officers.  Some gains were being made, albeit it slowly.

Without continued federal oversight and leadership on this issue, harnessing change once again becomes the remit of local activism.  In this respect, there is much to be hopeful about.  Local people are often the best placed to identify problems and concerns in their communities, and to organise for elections.  The Memphis sanitation workers’ strike, which married grassroots activism with a national campaign, provides an inspiring historic precedent of an African American community standing up for the civil rights of Black men to be recognised and respected. 

Clearly today’s changed communication channels have substantially influenced the nature of activism, facilitating devolved organisation and the rapid spread of support.  However, it remains the case that a grassroots presence of individuals and organisations is essential to the success of a movement. 

Holy Trinity Lutheran Church
Food Bank at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Minneapolis.

This can currently be seen by the work being done by local churches in dispersing aid packages and sheltering peaceful protesters from the effects of tear gas, and the calls for financial assistance for organisations such as United Families and Friends Campaign which supports those directly affected by the deaths of Black and minority ethnic people in institutional settings, and Green and Black Cross who have provided legal support to those arrested at protests.  We also know that George Floyd was involved in local community programmes, through his church in Houston's Third Ward, and had moved to Minneapolis to fill a similar role helping youth through a church programme.

DC Riot 68 Food Center LC-DIG-ppmsca-19732
Credit: Warren K. Leffler, Food Distributing Center, Washington D.C. April 8, 1968. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

These community-based institutions have long histories of supporting activists and organising at times of crisis, and much can be learnt from reflecting on historic precedents to the current scenario.  The night before his assassination, Dr King preached to a packed church hall in Memphis.  He spoke of the local injustice experienced by the sanitation workers, linking it to the need for national political change: “All we say to America is be true to what you say on paper.”  He spoke of the need of the community to stay strong and united in the face of continued adversity and resistance to change by white officials.  He outlined continued protest strategy including non-violent protest, economic boycotts of locally produced products and businesses.  Finally, he went on to deliver one of his most rousing sermons in which he speaks of the sacrifice that he and, by proxy, Black activists might have to make. 

In it he evokes a different kind of freedom, that of Christian redemption.  Dr King was assassinated the following morning.  His funeral, attended by over 100,000 people, was televised nationally.  During the ceremony at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where he and his father were senior preachers, a recording of his final sermon at the church, ‘the Drum Major Instinct’, was played. His body was then carried by a mule cart to Morehouse College where he studied, followed by the crowd.  He was subsequently buried at South View cemetery which was established by slaves beneath an inscription that reads “Free at last, Free at last, Thank God Almighty, I’m Free at last.” 

Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Say his name.

Credit: Bj/AP/Shutterstock A striking Atlanta sanitation worker kneels at Dr King's grave, April 1970. He wears a placard that carries the same slogan as the Memphis sanitation workers' strike.


Electronic Library Resources

For researchers the following electronic resources that the British Library subscribes to may be useful. Please note that while the Library remains closed to readers during the Covid19 lockdown, reference services staff are assisting with requests for electronic research materials that are not available to readers remotely:

African American Newspapers: 1827-1998 parts 1 & 2 (available to registered British Library readers from home).  This invaluable resource brings full access to hundreds of local, regional, and national African American newspapers.

US Congressional Serial Set (available to registered British Library readers from home).  Reports, documents and journals of the US Senate and House of Representatives in full text, 1817-1994. Includes congressional reports on the 1968 riots, as well as broader records of discussions about the Civil Rights Movement.

The Black Freedom Struggle in the Twentieth Century: Organisational Records and Personal Papers, parts one and two (reading room access only).  Includes the organisational papers of the Southern Christian Leadership Congress, the Congress of Racial Equality, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs, and the Revolutionary Action Movement.  They also include the personal papers of Bayard Rustin, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Robert F. Williams.

Race Relations in America, 1943 - 1970 (reading room access only).  The Race Relations Department, based at Fisk University, was a highly influential think tank offering a forum for discussion and research on racial topics. The work of the Department highlighted topics such as poverty and inequality, class, housing, employment, education and government policy. Its programme attracted many well-known figures in the Civil Rights Movement, including Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King Jr., Bayard Rustin, Charles Houston, and Marguerite Cartwright.

Further materials can be found online at the following links:

The Freedom Archives

The Civil Rights Digital Library

Digital SNCC Gateway

Educational Resources

For any parents who are struggling to find a way to talk with their children about race and racism, the following online resources may be useful.

Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust resources page

Black Cultural Archives

Black Lives Matter toolkits

National Museum of African American History "Talking about Race"

New York Times article "First Encounters with Race and Racism: Teaching Ideas for Classroom Conversations"

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Education and Research Institute online resources

The King Centre

US National Archives: Civil Rights in America

Civil Rights Teaching:

Finally, this conversation on twitter has a long lists of children’s books about race and racism:



Eric Foner, “The Contested History of American Freedom”, The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol.137, No. 1 (January 2013), pp.13-31.

Joan Turner Beifuss, At the River I Stand: Memphis, the 1968 strike, and Martin Luther King. Memphis: B&W Books, 1985.  Document Supply 86/09202

At the River I Stand (film). 1994.  Dirs. David Appleby, Allison Graham, Steven Ross.

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