One of the most well-known civil rights figures of the 20th century died nearly 50 years ago but it was his legacy rather than his life which was celebrated on Martin Luther King Day at the Victoria and Albert Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green on Monday, January 18.
Although dedicated to King’s memory, the focus was on the issues faced by Caribbean, African and Asian immigrants in east London, wanting to raise their children in a society that guarantees social justice.
The event, attended by nearly 100 people, was organized by ‘Journey to Justice’, a voluntary organization that aims to inspire others through learning about human rights movements.
Speakers highlighted the struggles faced by the immigrants in the 1960s and how Martin Luther King’s ideas inspired them towards social mobility.
Professor Gordon Lynch from the University of Kent and co-curator of ‘On Their Own: Britain’s Child Migrants’ said: “Martin Luther King is a huge figure, a complex man with personal struggles. His deep commitment to non-violence to provoke change was of tremendous effect.
“It’s really striking to see how those ideas are introduced to young people and how each generation is discovering him after those years.”
Others questioned whether Britain really is a multi-cultural society since for some immigrants their experience of living in a new country was tarnished with racism, discrimination and xenophobia.
According to Dr Michael McMillan, artist and playwright, immigrants still have to deal with similar issues. “The way that they talk about immigrants today is the same way that they did in the ‘70s. They still demonize immigrants and their descendants. England is an island and has a siege mentality. They don’t want people who are part of their ex-colonies to invade them. It’s xenophobia. I hear often politicians talking about British values. I want to ask them what is Britain today? Can they describe it and how Britain has been for the past 60 years?”
Writer Eithne Nightingale had a different opinion when she introduced her research on ‘Children, Migration and Diasporas’, telling the story of 36 immigrants, aged between seven and 91 years, who achieved social mobility despite the harsh conditions they were confronted with when they first arrived.
“The environment in east London has changed a lot. It’s far better than it was in the ‘70s. There was a lot of racism, separation, and families living in one room. Immigrants faced big issues. Martin Luther King’s heritage has helped raise awareness and inspired all those people who were fighting for justice in terms of race and colour to improve their conditions and their rights.”