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Inspiring race relations conversations in the North East of England

In 1967, the preeminent figure in the US civil rights movement, Martin Luther King, stood in Newcastle University’s King’s Hall to receive an Honorary Doctorate in Civil Law. Until recently, the visit and words spoken by King when receiving this honour were consigned to the annals of history and forgotten. However, thanks to Brian Ward, Professor in American Studies at Northumbria University, King’s words are once again reverberating through the streets of Newcastle, empowering the North East of England to lead conversations on how to improve race relations and put a stop to social injustices occurring today.

Professor Ward’s recently published book Martin Luther King in Newcastle: The African American Freedom Struggle and Race Relations in the North East of England offers remarkable evidence of the personal and political pressure King was experiencing at the time of his visit to Newcastle, identifying the North East of England as playing a key role in understanding the activist’s final years. Professor Ward explains how Newcastle University’s recognition gave King the courage and support he needed to carry on in his struggle to improve human rights and social justice around the globe.

Further to this, Professor Ward has been credited with inspiring the 2014 BBC documentary A King’s Speech, thanks to his discovery of footage of King’s long-lost speech. The documentary was so well-received that it was awarded the Royal Television Society Award for Best Factual Programme and was rebroadcast in 2017.

Professor Ward’s book, alongside numerous interviews, and features on his work in local, national and international media outlets such as The Journal, The Guardian, BBC-TV, BBC Radio Five Live, and Huffington Post demonstrate Professor Ward’s success in increasing public awareness of the North East’s largely ignored history of racial, ethnic and religious diversity. Professor Ward has also given many talks on the topic, not only covering King, but also discussing the visits to the city of Frederick Douglass, an African American abolitionist and social reformer, in the 19th Century and Muhammed Ali in the 1970s. His research has led to the permanent installation of a plaque at 5, Summerhill Grove in Newcastle to commemorate Douglass’ relationships with the Richardson family, local abolitionists who helped to buy Douglass’s freedom.

Public awareness and engagement are not the only outcomes of Professor Ward’s work; a key aim is to uphold social justice. For example, in 2017, he spoke on a panel at Virgin Money about promoting racial and ethnic equality and diversity in the organisation’s various offices, where he reached 100 people. There are currently plans to host the content permanently on Virgin’s intranet.

Professor Ward’s research also became the stimulus for dozens of activities associated with Freedom City 2017 (FC2017). It is a programme of educational, artistic, academic and community-directed events and initiatives exploring the three themes – racism, poverty and war – that King raised in his impromptu speech. To date, FC2017 has engaged tens of thousands of participants.

From a policy perspective, Professor Ward has been impacting contemporary debates – in the UK and the US – about immigration, the changing demographic profile of the North East, and the global problems of war, poverty and racism. Indeed, his research was integral to the 2015 launch of Journey to Justice, a national organisation dedicated to confronting a variety of social injustice issues through the training of community activists and the empowerment of young people.


(Picture acknowledgement: Richard Kenworthy)

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