Today I will have the honour of representing the UK government on the fiftieth anniversary of Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s historic “I have a dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial.
I’ve represented my country at many big events in my 20-year diplomatic career, from G8 and UN Summits to the State of the Union address. But to join President Obama, other Presidents, King family members and civil rights leaders in commemorating the March on Washington promises to be an extraordinary experience.
Especially for a black British diplomat born of English and Kenyan parents.
As I rode the bus to work today, I also reflected on a lesser known anniversary in the international struggle for civil rights and racial equality. Fifty years ago today saw the end of the bus boycott in Bristol, England, which overturned the local bus company’s ban on black employees.
It is no coincidence. The Bristol boycott was inspired by actions in Montgomery, Alabama, and set the stage for Britain’s own landmark civil rights legislation, the Race Relations Act of 1965.
The history of the civil rights movement is a uniquely American story. But it is intertwined with the fight for equality and human rights around the world, from post-colonial Britain and France to apartheid South Africa. The anti-slavery campaigns of the English politician William Wilberforce, begun in the 1780s, would later be recognised by Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln as an essential part of the struggle.
The liberating experience of GIs stationed in unsegregated Britain during the Second World War surely contributed to the birth of America’s civil rights movement.
Trinidadian anti-racism campaigner Claudia Jones was an activist in Harlem, New York, before being deported to the UK in 1955. In London she continued her work for equality by establishing a landmark newspaper, the West Indian Gazette, and helped found what later became the Notting Hill Carnival, now one of the world’s largest celebrations Afro-Caribbean culture.
W.J. Weatherby, a fearless Guardian journalist, was among those beaten during protests in Oxford, Mississippi in 1962. You can read more about the links between the British and American struggles against racism in our Buzzfeed article here.
Britain’s racial history is of course different to America’s. Although there have been black Britons for hundreds of years, the biggest wave of immigration from British colonies in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean took place in the decades after the Second World War.
Families came not as slaves, but in many cases to fill low-skilled jobs in Britain’s expanding welfare state and public transport system. They did not face US-style segregation but, as the Bristol bus strike illustrates, encountered discrimination and prejudice that would be gradually rolled back by legislation.
Like Americans, black and mixed-race Britons have our own landmark events. Although I grew up in a predominantly white, middle-class area of the UK, I recall the shocking images of police clashing with black youths in the infamous Brixton riots of 1981.
Some twenty years later I lived in a Brixton that was undergoing gentrification and regeneration to match the historically black neighbourhoods of New York, Chicago or Washington – with both positive and negative results.
No black Briton forgets the 1993 murder of London teenager Stephen Lawrence: the failure to prosecute his killers led an inquiry to conclude that our police force had been “institutionally racist”, and changed the debate on race in the UK.
Black Britons also had our own cultural and sporting icons – such as the soccer players who endured racist chants from their own fans through the 1970s and 80s. But for sheer class and audacity, the inspirational figures were in America: Muhammed Ali and James Brown; Arthur Ashe and Stevie Wonder; Tiger Woods and Chuck D.
According to the 2011 census, the non-white population of the UK is now around 14%, of whom 7.5% are of Asian descent and 3.3% Black. As in America, great strides have been made to ensure racial equality before the law over the last 50 years.
The London Olympics showed just what a diverse country we have become, while many black Britons have become leaders in spheres that go well beyond sport and entertainment. Personally, I am fortunate to work in a Diplomatic Service that is making great efforts to strengthen diversity of all kinds, including through the recruitment and promotion of ethnic minorities.
But I think that most Britons would agree that, as in America, a historic legacy of prejudice and discrimination remains; and that more needs to be done to achieve equality of economic and social opportunity. And in Britain – as elsewhere in Europe – black political leaders have not reached the prominence of Jesse Jackson and Eric Holder; Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice; and of course President Obama.
With the succession to the throne now established for three generations, I don’t think my country will be seeing a black head of state any time soon. But we should continue to share experiences and learn lessons from our American cousins, and take inspiration from the efforts here to realise Dr King’s Dream.