We went to Newcastle last December on a lark – to see some English soccer games – when fate added a gift. Our arrival coincided with the culminating events of a year-long celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s visit to that city 50 years ago.
A magnificent statue of King, commissioned by the Newcastle University, was dedicated on November 13, 2017, the exact anniversary of King’s visit to the school to receive an Honorary Doctorate in Civil Law in 1967.
I heard about this statue only weeks before our December trip while listening to National Public Radio, and the announcement sent me racing to the internet. What was this renowned civil rights activist doing in Newcastle, England? And only five months before his assassination? Newcastle is so far north of London – it’s almost in Scotland!
A web search gave immediate answers. In the midst of deepening tensions at home over the direction of the civil rights movement, opposition to the war in Vietnam, and the rioting in major urban centers, King had accepted the invitation because he felt the honorary degree promoted awareness of the ongoing struggle against racism in the US and throughout the world.
King’s impromptu speech at the time is now on YouTube. Although he wasn’t expected to talk, King did so without notes, and it was his last speech outside of the US before his death five months later in 1968.
Despite jet-lag and the overnight train trip from London, King gave an eloquent answer to critics who claim you can’t legislate morality: “It may be true that the law cannot change the heart but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me but it can restrain him from lynching me…”
The civil rights movement is a personal memory for many of my generation, and it is impossible to forget images from that era: the violent Southern response to school integration and voter registration in the early 1960’s, the terrorist bombing of the Birmingham church, Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X, the Black Power movement, and the summer rioting in major cities in 1967.
While I remember exactly where I was when I heard of Martin Luther King’s death in 1968, I never realized that these events had a world-wide audience as well. I was awed by the magnitude of Newcastle’s tribute to King, both past and present, and I immediately scheduled time to visit the university before our soccer game.
Newcastle University Campus
Fate smiled again when we arrived at the campus on December 8. We saw preparations for a graduation that day. In the tradition of women everywhere, the young female graduates did not let the 40-degree daytime temperatures stop them from being fashionably dressed under their graduation robes – high heels, bare legs, knee-length dresses. I was in long pants, knee-high socks, and boots – and my fingers froze every time I took my gloves off to take pictures.
We found King’s statue in King’s Quad, outside of the Armstrong Building. The statue is breath-taking in its human appearance and approachability. Working from photos, sculptor Nigel Boonham presented King as he appeared on the day of his award in academic robes.
I like this figure so much better than the mythic 30-ft. monument of him in Washington D.C. Its location and the size (slightly larger than life-size) invite people to get close and take pictures.
And that is just what was happening. As the graduates guided their families around the campus, many stopped to have their picture taken with this historic figure. I decided this was no time for me to be shy, so I just stepped up, identified my interest, and started asking questions.
Zoe Marie Dobbs, Masters in Museum Studies, described a feeling of connection across time.
“I’m feeling quite privileged to be walking across the same stage as Dr. King did when he received his honorary degree,” she told me. “It’s made our graduation today quite special.”
Zoe works in a gallery in Sunderland, not far from where her mother lives, as she prepares herself to become a curator.
I also talked to Alexandra MacGregor, Masters in History, and her proud grandmother. “I have always known about him [King],” Alexandra told me, “and the impact he made on humanity. It’s an honor to graduate from the same university where he received his honorary degree. He’s someone to emulate.”
When her grandmother mentioned that Alexandra lived in South Korea for three years, Alexandra explained her future goals. “I would like to work in some capacity that will have a positive impact on North Korean refugees,” she said.
The crowds thinned as students left to gather in their designated lines and families went inside to find a seat for the ceremony. I was happy to follow and get out of the cold. The marshals told me I could step inside the hall and take pictures of the empty stage as long as no students were there.
It was definitely humbling to realize that a man who marched in Selma, spent jail-time in the South, and negotiated with US government officials in defense of constitutional rights had also walked into this same building 50 years ago and spoken from that podium.
Discovery of King’s Speech
After lunch we found Professor Ben Houston, who teaches history, upstairs in his office. He was kind enough to share some of the backstory about the university and the surprising discovery of the “lost” film of King’s speech.
Houston said his students, “are absolutely enraptured by studying the civil rights movement. My classes fill up virtually instantaneously.” Many of them, he explained, are familiar with the history from their studies in high school.
Houston described the elation felt when Brian Ward, who was a junior lecturer at Newcastle in 1992, discovered the recording of King’s speech. At the time of King’s visit, school officials said there would be no recording because they did not want King to feel pressured to talk.
Decades later, examination of photos revealed what looked like microphones, and a search uncovered the long-ignored film.
Freedom City 2017
Organizing efforts for this celebration of King’s visit began over a decade ago. A year-long city-wide program of events, Freedom City 2017, began on January 16, 2017. Artists and academics worked together to present art, poetry, theater, film, lectures, and music performances that celebrated King’s message of tackling the global challenges of war, poverty, and racism.
The poetry anthology that arose from this celebration, "The Mighty Stream: Poems in Celebration of Martin Luther King," is now available on Amazon. Final events in the city will conclude this month, January 2018.
Brian Ward’s book, Martin Luther King in Newcastle Upon Tyne, was released in last September. It is an amazing chronicle not only of the inside story of the circumstances of the university invitation and King’s visit, but also the tradition of protest and abolitionism in Newcastle, and the city’s own struggle with race relations as non-whites moved to the UK from various parts of the Commonwealth.
I had no idea that Newcastle was a powerhouse of the industrial revolution (I guess that’s why they talked about “coals to Newcastle”), a ship-building center, and had a rich history as a print center.
Because of technology, Newcastle had a role in the development of the slave trade. But it also developed a centuries-long tradition of civil rights advocacy and abolitionism, giving shelter to people like Frederick Douglas, a runaway slave. Residents of the area raised money to buy his freedom.
The City of Newcastle
I have been to Newcastle twice now and I love this beautiful city. I almost want to call it quaint because it is so much smaller than London (it is only one fourth the size of San Diego.) But that is not really fair. The city sits on the River Tyne, has two universities, large parks, art galleries, great shopping, a music center, a children’s book museum, and of course, the St. James soccer stadium.
Today Newcastle is a cosmopolitan city in a location that would make a great beginning for a tour to Hadrian’s Wall and then up north to Edinburgh and possibly Loch Lomond. I should put this on my calendar for a future summer.