Claudia Jones memorial lecture remembers Martin Luther King
10 December 2012
The NUJ hosted two Claudia Jones memorial lectures in 2012. The first took place in Newcastle as part of the NUJ Delegate Meeting (DM) on Friday 5 October 2012 and focused on the legacy of Martin Luther King Junior.
Martin Luther King Junior delivered one of his most powerful speeches at Newcastle University in 1967 - five months before he was murdered. He was there to accept an honorary doctorate in civil law, the only such honour conferred on him by a British University in his lifetime.
He came at a time when he was exhausted by more than a decade at the forefront of the Civil Rights struggle, at a time when he was grappling with the intractable enemies of social justice
Film of the speech had been lost, but rediscovered and for the first time in 45 years, those thoughtful, forceful words filled again the space in which he had stood. They had lost nothing of their eloquence, their power, and their anger and they moved deeply the Claudia Jones audience gathered in King’s Hall.
In 1967, he told the congregation that the world faced three urgent problems: racism, poverty and war.
And he focused on racial injustice:
"The coloured man’s burden and the white man’s shame."
Affirming his faith in the rule of law, he said:
"It may be true that morality cannot be legislated, but behaviour can be regulated.
"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; and I think that is pretty important also.
"And so while the law may not change the hearts of men, it does change the habits of men, if it is vigorously enforced, and through changes in habits, pretty soon, attitudinal changes will take place and maybe the heart may be changed in the process."
He told the audience that the recognition by the university of his work gave him "renewed courage and vigour to carry on the struggle to make justice and peace a reality for men and women all over the world"
The occasion departed from the usual Claudia Jones format to feature a panel of speakers, each bringing their own insight to Dr King’s legacy to the world today.
Dr Gerald Durley, a colleague of Dr King as a civil rights leader in the student movement, and a man who has spent his life building bridges between people in conflict, flew from Atlanta Georgia, to join the panel.
He spoke of the difficult days he and Dr King had seen. Of his commitment to non-violence, even in the face of violence, vitriol and extreme provocation, of Dr King’s caution that there were "difficult days ahead", and the strength they would need to face those days.
Dr Durley said:
"Were we afraid – yes! Did we want to go to jail – No! Did we want to get beaten – no! We were afraid.
"But it wasn’t about the dreamer, it wasn’t about the vision, it was about a man who said there will be difficult days ahead …. a man who was concerned about the oppressive conditions of a people as well as the ills of a nation.
"I saw a man who was unafraid and unapologetic to speak truth to power."
He spoke of the difficult days that Claudia Jones had faced and of her achievements.
And he explored the problems which lie before us today, and drew lessons that we can still learn from Dr King in taking on the difficult days which lie ahead of us.
Professor Brian Ward, who had discovered the film, introduced it - and in an analysis of the role Dr King’s message was then playing in the US presidential elections.
He told how Barak Obama "had always mixed admiration for that inspirational prophetic dreamer of 1963 with an appreciation of the more radical Martin Luther King of 1967 and 68."
Jim Boumelha, president of the International Federation of Journalists and a past chair of the NUJ’s Black members council (BMC) focused on the continuing lack of representation of Black and minority ethnic (BME) journalists in mainstream media in Britain and the US.
Chi Omwurah, Newcastle Central MP, spoke of her own upbringing in Newcastle in which Dr King became a positive role model in a world of racial hatred.
Her father was a dental student from Nigeria and her mother was from Newcastle and she was born in Wallsend.
The family emigrated to Nigeria in 1965, but in 1967 her mother returned with the three children to escape the civil war.
It was the month that Dr King spoke in that hall.
"I think 45 years on, Dr King would be impressed by how far we've come, but we still don't have real equality in the city, or the world. We still have a lot to do," she said.
Lionel Morrison, BMC Chair, who had been instrumental in making the event possible chaired the evening and, with Newcastle University Deputy Vice Chancellor, welcomed the audience to the lecture and to Newcastle University.
Long-standing NUJ member Alex Pascall closed the lecture with an account of the struggles Claudia Jones had faced, and the legacies that both she and Martin Luther King had left society.
Dr Durley was flown from Atlanta by Friendship Force International, which was established following President Jimmy Carter’s visit to Newcastle in 1977, 10 years after Dr King’s visit.