An Anti-Immigration Speech Divided Britain 50 Years Ago. It Still Echoes Today : Parallels Half a century after Enoch Powell delivered the most incendiary political speech in Britain's recent history, his dire vision of race war hasn't come true. But it resonates in British politics today.
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An Anti-Immigration Speech Divided Britain 50 Years Ago. It Still Echoes Today

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An Anti-Immigration Speech Divided Britain 50 Years Ago. It Still Echoes Today

An Anti-Immigration Speech Divided Britain 50 Years Ago. It Still Echoes Today

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Fifty years ago today, as the U.S. was reeling from the assassination of Martin Luther King, the British politician Enoch Powell delivered an apocalyptic warning to his Conservative Party about the dangers of mass immigration. Powell's address came to be known as the Rivers of Blood speech. It was widely denounced as racist, and it led to Powell's ouster from his party's leadership. Even the Beatles weighed in. An early version of "Get Back" satirized the speech.

To this day, this speech is considered toxic. Last weekend, BBC Radio 4 was criticized for broadcasting a program featuring an actor's reading of the speech, even though the speech was broken up by critical analysis. As NPR's Joanna Kakissis reports, some in Britain hear echoes of Powell's fiery rhetoric in today's debates over national identity.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: The year was 1968. Britain was debating the Race Relations Act, which made it illegal to deny employment, housing or public services based on race or national origin.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: The Empire Windrush brings to Britain 500 Jamaicans.

KAKISSIS: The bill is intended to protect former colonial subjects from the Caribbean, India and Pakistan, immigrants who'd been arriving on British shores for the previous 20 years at the government's request.

SATHNAM SANGHERA: The immigrants were called over. You know, there was a labor shortage. There weren't enough people to run the factories after the war.

KAKISSIS: Sathnam Sanghera writes for The Times of London. His parents were part of the wave of immigrants from India.

SANGHERA: There came the idea that white people would be crushed by the rights that black and Asian people demanded.

KAKISSIS: This fear was especially pronounced where Sanghera grew up - the manufacturing town of Wolverhampton in central England.

SANGHERA: It was seen as the - one of the first cities or towns in Britain to experience mass immigration.

KAKISSIS: And that's where bus driver Tarsem Singh Sandhu made a stand against religious discrimination. A Sikh who wore a turban, Sandhu was told to blend in.

TARSEM SINGH SANDHU: They asked me that you have to go home and shave your beard and take your turban off. And that's the only way you can work.

KAKISSIS: He refused to take off the turban, and his bosses fired him. The Sikh community protested. Those protests angered Enoch Powell, who represented Wolverhampton in Parliament.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The Right Honourable Enoch Powell.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: The Right Honourable Enoch Powell, MP.

KAKISSIS: On April 20, in the speech that would define him, he attacked the Race Relations Act that outlawed discrimination. He said it was whites who felt a sense of alarm about the new immigrants.


ENOCH POWELL: This is why to enact legislation of the kind before Parliament at this moment is to risk fraying a match onto gunpowder.

KAKISSIS: Powell went on to quote a constituent, a middle-aged white man who he said told him...


POWELL: In 15 or 20 years time, the black man will have the whip hand over the white man. I can already hear the chorus of execration. How dare I stir up trouble and inflame feelings by repeating such a conversation. My answer is that I do not have the right not to do so.

SIMON HEFFER: His main worry in making that speech in 1968 was about things happening against the will of the British people without them being consulted.

KAKISSIS: That's Simon Heffer, a historian and Enoch Powell's official biographer.

HEFFER: He feared that these different communities who were coming here in quite large numbers and who were not integrating at that stage - they were living in separate communities - would cause great racial tension.

KAKISSIS: As Powell put it...


POWELL: It is like watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre.

KAKISSIS: A classic scholar, Powell also included a translated verse of Virgil's "Aeneid" about the River Tiber foaming with much blood. It was that line which gave the speech its name.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) Six, eight, we don't want to integrate.

KAKISSIS: The Times of London denounced the speech as evil, but polls showed that many British people supported Powell. Eleanor Smith, whose parents were from Barbados, was a schoolgirl at the time and remembers the atmosphere.

ELEANOR SMITH: And when we got to schools, they were calling us - blackies (ph) go home and, you know, go back to the jungle, those type of things that they thought they could say because it was acceptable in some respects to them.

KAKISSIS: As the years passed, more immigrants arrived. Powell died in 1998. Then, in 2016, immigration dominated Britain's debate over whether to leave the European Union. Journalist Sathnam Sanghera heard echoes of Powell.

SANGHERA: Brexit is just a rerunning of everything that was happening around the speech.

KAKISSIS: Chris Hannan agrees. He wrote a play about Powell and his speech called "What Shadows."

CHRIS HANNAN: One of the points he makes - and this is in 1968 - that the white people of England have begun to feel like a persecuted minority. Whether the right to think of themselves as a persecuted minority or not is another matter. They do, and they continue to think of themselves that way.

KAKISSIS: But Wolverhampton, which Powell used to represent, is a place that's gotten comfortable with diversity. His old office is now an African Caribbean community center where 82-year-old Uteldra Veronica Warren - a native of Jamaica - plays dominoes.

UTELDRA VERONICA WARREN: Can you imagine Enoch Powell sitting there and wondering, how did we get in here? And his ghost probably sits there watching us.

KAKISSIS: And he might be surprised that his constituency is now represented in Parliament by Eleanor Smith. That's the daughter of immigrants from Barbados we heard from earlier, the one taunted at school after Powell's speech.

SMITH: I'm very proud the way that Wolverhampton has moved on. And Wolverhampton has moved on to such a point where it's now become a city of sanctuary, where people - they're welcoming asylum seekers, migrant workers and people like that. I mean, that speaks for itself, does it not?

KAKISSIS: Tonight, Eleanor Smith is supposed to speak at an event in the same hotel in Birmingham where Enoch Powell warned of a race war, but her speech will celebrate Britain's diversity. It's called Rivers of Love. Joanna Kakissis, NPR News, Wolverhampton, England.


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