- Ruben Darrell
The Ku Klux Klan in the Midlands
This short series was inspired by research found in the course of researching for YHP’s upcoming project ‘Housing Black Britain’. Whilst this project aims to chart the development of Black Housing Associations, initiatives, and hostels, the following series explores the terror enacted upon black people in Birmingham, where the British Ku Klux Klan attacked black people and their homes. We believe that this chapter of British history is little-known, and so Ruben Darrell has collected much of his research into the KKK thus far and will explore their impact on black and brown communities throughout Britain. Readers should be warned that this series includes racist epithets and discussion of potentially life-threatening violence.
Part 1: Beginnings of the Klan and their activities in & around Birmingham
In 1965, during the year that Malcolm X would come to Birmingham, the city saw another American import to the British political landscape - the Ku Klux Klan. It is little known today that Britain’s Ku Klux Klan made their first ever public appearance in a Birmingham pub in June of that year. Their Chief Spokesperson, 27-year-old George Newey, addressed the room full of journalists and Klan members saying:
“This meeting here… is to form the Birmingham branch of the KKK. Greetings Klansmen, Greetings Klanswomen.”
The thoughts that are immediately evoked when one hears the words “Birmingham” and “Ku Klux Klan” put together are likely to be those of hooded men who speak with Southern drawls in American states like Alabama. But, it was Birmingham, England, in the West Midlands where, British Klansmen and women spoke with Brummie accents and did not quite fit into the archetypal image of a racist Klan member.
This iteration of the Klan first came to the Housing Black Britain group’s attention when a short clip about a cross burning incident at a home on Albert Road, Handsworth, was found. Albert Road, coincidentally, is where Amy Ashwood Garvey (a prominent Pan-African activist and another figure important to the group’s research), is reported to have lived fifteen years earlier. Ruby Henry, a black woman who lived with her husband, Larklan Henry, and their children was interviewed in the news clip and identified as the victim.
 ITN Reports, 16 June 1965  ATV Today, 10 June 1961 - Notably the reporter, in trying to find out the reason for the attack, asked Ruby Henry whether her husband had any political ties that might have motivated it - but interestly they did not ask this of Ms. Henry herself!
At around 11:30pm Mrs Henry was made aware of an issue when she heard a “...big shout that the front is on fire”, from a motorist passing by and, upon seeing the “blazing” door she realized that there was “a cross” on it. While her husband tried to remove the burning cross, she rushed to get some water to temper the flame. Despite living at this house for four years, she said after the incident, “I don’t think I’ll stop here any longer”, as she was “terrified” that it was “going to happen again.” The attack had clearly frightened her and it forced her to send her two children, only toddlers at the time, away to live with friends for their safety. Although, at this point in 1965 there were only tentative reports of “a secret Ku Klux Klan in the Midlands”, residents of the street shown in the interview, in particular the black residents, mostly believed it to be the work of the KKK.
The Albert Road attack demonstrates one facet of the difficulties black people faced not just in getting accommodation itself but also, in the racism that could be endured even in the comfort of one's own home. Instances of racist graffiti and attacks on black homes were all too common at the time in Birmingham. Such incidents, for example in 1962 on a Smethwick road, an area neighbouring Handsworth, the words “Get out Niggers” were written on a street wall, helped build a climate of racial hatred in the area that culminated in the election of the infamous racist Peter Griffiths to Parliament in 1964. This atmosphere of hate, in part, led to the subsequent formation of the Klan in 1965. The racial tension of the time in Smethwick and its surrounding areas had a lasting psychological impact so strong that one African-Caribbean elder recalling the period said that “when it does come into my mind I kill it out.” The emergence of a Birmingham Ku Klux Klan, unsurprisingly, could “hardly of… [been] expected to improve race relations” and most certainly did not ease tensions. Four years before they formally announced their presence to the world, over 100 posters appeared on Albert Street that bore the “flaming cross symbol of the secret society”, many of which were found on “the homes of coloured people.” This, again, illustrates the racist abuse and intimidation indicative of the place and period while showing how the homes of Birmingham’s black community were a vehicle for the stoking of both hate and fear.
The Henry family’s fiery cross was the second in a string of cross burning attacks that targeted the homes of Black people & it had happened soon after the ‘Leamington incident’ which was the first. There were at least six such incidents; including one in Leamington, three in Birmingham and two in London. The fears surrounding these attacks were so pronounced that an Indian born “immigrant leader” and Birmingham’s first councillor of Asian descent, Dr Dhani Prem, warned that the Klan were being “taken too lightly” - as the police refused to acknowledge the group’s existence. Instead they blamed it on “hooliganism”. Prem, however, believed it did exist - “There is a danger”, he said due to police inaction, “that some hot-heads among the immigrants may take the law into their own hands.”
Jagmohan Joshi of the Indian Worker’s Association (the group that had invited Malcolm X to Smethwick) called for a “fight back” in the wake of Leamington burning cross incident, declaring that - “We are not afraid even of physical violence.” Although, he later believed his remarks had been “misinterpreted” and that “...there are many ways of hitting back. If violence is used, we will use every lawful means to combat it.” Using the language of self-defense, perhaps inspired by Malcolm X directly, Joshi advocated that the attacked communities present a united front. A few months later, at a West Indian conference in Birmingham, delegates announced their intention “...to form a national organisation to protect themselves from “Ku Klux Klan incidents.” The conference encouraged West Indians in Britain:
“...to mobilise in self-defence against the threat of the Ku Klux Klan who throw burning crosses into the homes of coloured people, since the authorities responsible for the protection of the community have shown a reluctance to do so.”
Joshi’s plans to “fight back” would be fully realised, in 1968, when a meeting in Leamington Spa gathered “Fifty Indians, Pakistanis and West Indians” who would go on to found the Black People’s Alliance. In an act of defiance against the KKK’s attempts to intimidate the community, it was formed in the very same house “where a Ku Klux Klan-style fiery cross” had been “nailed to the door” in 1965. Joshi, upon setting up this “militant force”, declared: “We shall defend ourselves in every way possible if our families are attacked.” Joshi and the Indian Worker’s Association “subscribe[d] to the political definition of blackness that connected… Asians’ struggles with those of immigrants from the Caribbean.” This organizing principle, in the face of the KKK, who saw no distinction between Asians and West Indians (as both were targeted), would be a much needed unifying factor in the midst of intense division.
In contrast to this protective community activism, the aforementioned inaugural public meeting of the Klan took place, and George Newey, the Klan’s spokesman, formally requested an alliance with their American counterparts and progenitors, the Imperial Wizard Bob Shelton’s Ku Klux Klan. Shelton, who claimed to have been “anticipating, very shortly, having a subsidiary movement… in Britain”, was keen to get involved. It was said that he led the “most dangerous and violent Klan organisation in modern history.” Up until 1987, Shelton was the head of the United Klans of America, and was readily complicit in violence against the US’s black community. For example, in 1981 Shelton presided over the Klan when the lynching of a black teenager called Michael Donald happened, and was held legally responsible when Donald’s mother successfully sued the Klan to the sum of $7 million in 1987.
However, George Newey would, on behalf of the Birmingham KKK, deny any involvement in the unfolding string of attacks both around and at the heart of Birmingham. He, despite wishing to partner with their undeniably and blatantly violent American namesake, quite outrageously claimed that they intended “to achieve our aims purely by peaceful means - I repeat, by peaceful means.” Newey audibly sighed before he said the following - as though he did not quite believe it himself:
“Our argument is not with the nigger in the street but [with] the pigs who have brought them over here.”
Newey had some more choice words regarding black people. He advocated for black people’s repatriation as he believed them to be “nothing but a scourge on the good land.” He blamed supposedly puppeteering “Jewish masters” as ultimately responsible for the “silent black invasion which consists of the scum and the throw-outs of their stinking black countries.”
Despite their vitriolic rhetoric, the Klan often seemed quite clownish. Their membership boasted a range of 125 subscription paying members to “400 vowed members… ready to operate.” However, only 16 showed up to the Chapel Pub meeting on June 12th before they were “ignominiously”, and quite comically, thrown out by the pub landlord who had not been aware of the true purpose of their meeting. As one might gather from this incident, the Klan may not actually have been representative of the wider public sentiments at this time.
In comparison to some of the United States’ Klan leaders, Newey, himself, could hardly be described as charismatic. Despite being their Chief Spokesperson, he often stuttered and stumbled his way through his remarks and from the little footage there of him was no stranger to blunder. For instance their Deputy, 21 year old, John Richards, claimed that they did “not intend [on] wearing hoods or having initiation ceremonies.” However, Newey would directly contradict him in saying that they would in fact wear “Hoods and, er, the same regalia as the KK [sic] in America.” He made it clear that although “the law, specifically, says that we cannot dress up in public but, er, for private meetings, in private, I think we will, yes.” When asked if he hated ‘coloured people’, Newey responded that he didn’t “...no. I just hate… dislike their presence for being in this country.” This, I think, is a laughable distinction. In the same clip Newey, again, couldn’t seem to pronounce the word “Marxist” correctly, and yet he held strong to the belief they were the people behind much of the nation’s turmoil. As the self-declared representatives of the “Great British race who have repelled all invaders for a thousand years with blood and courage”, Newey vowed to put a stop to the Labour Party who, as he claimed, had “pledged to make Britain a Communist satellite country. Yet this seems to have been an enemy they could barely appear to name accurately. Guyanese novelist and activist Jan Carew, when interviewed in response, aptly stated that “...the ladies and gentlemen [of the KKK] weren’t particularly splendid examples of the super-race.” 
Carew would further say, ostensibly on behalf of “Britain’s coloured community”, that “we are not worried by this specific aberration” of the KKK. However bumbling and idiotic the Birmingham Klan may have appeared, as Carew rightly highlights, they were still a genuine threat and his comments, as a whole, fall into a similarly dismissive tone taken towards them by many at the time. Establishment figures seem to have attempted to give “assurance[s]” that while “Klan crosses are burning in Britain… the people responsible are just a ‘lunatic fringe’.”The KKK were often referred to as a bizarre and “fanatical minority.” One commentator warned of “the risk of playing it too cool” in regards to these attacks as he believed that others had been “so anxious not to accept any idea that a British Ku Klux Klan may exist that they have… played down this dastardly business.” The combination of Police inaction and feigned ignorance coupled with Government spokespeople attempting to play down the significance of “Britain’s edition of the White US terrorist organisation,” placed immigrant communities between a rock and a hard place.
Despite indications from some those fanatical terrorists were not of major concern, another element to the threat the Klan posed, was that they were not simply a “Birmingham branch of the KKK”, or a copy-cat collection of racists, but they were also a Birmingham branch of British fascism. The majority were also former members of Colin Jordan’s openly Neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement and much of their rhetoric was adopted virtually wholesale from Jordan. These “Rebel British Nazis” split from Jordan’s movement to form “militant branches of the Ku Klux Klan” after disagreements with their leader, who was known as “World Fuhrer”. In light of this, there should be no question of the potential danger (never mind the actual danger of 1965) posed by the Birmingham Klan. Even their fascist forefathers did not take them lightly, albeit for malign reasons, as shown by the wife of Colin Jordan (the niece of Christian Dior) while “speaking for her husband” said that any NSM member who joined the splinter group would be “immediately expelled.” The threat of the Birmingham Ku Klux Klan, their membership and their terrorism would outlive the year of their public inception.
Furthermore, despite Carew’s claim that black people were not fearful of the Klan it is quite clear that “fears.. [were] growing among the coloured community in the city” as evidenced by the words of the victim of this terror, Ruby Henry, or the actions and words of the various political figures and groups like the West Indian Conference, the Indian Workers Association and Dr. Dhani Prem. Carew outlined the historical specificity of the origins of the American Klan and claimed that there was “no parallel situation here.” Instead, he emphasized the issue of the “colour… discrimination” in Britain. Although, the Colour Bar was certainly a pressing issue of the time, it belittles the significance of the very real physical terror enacted by this Klan sect on ordinary black people. I think that to dismiss their greater potential threat so crudely does harm. It is not possible nor logical to separate, so simplistically, these two forms of racism, as in Colour Bar discrimination and the acts of racist terrorists, and I think it undermines, by needlessly comparing the two, the significance of one versus the other. Carew’s explanation of the rise of the American KKK was articulately put, and while he has been proved right in the sense that the Birmingham Klan did end in failure, the idea that a group of violent extremists was not a threat, in my eyes, was a great miscalculation. As I will explore in part two, the threat of the British KKK would unfold in a range of violent attacks, and their impact and legacy must be discussed further.
 ATV Today, 10 June 1965  Birmingham Library, Cuttings on Race issues in the West Midlands - MS 2141/A/7/13  Birmingham Mail, Malcolm X Gallery, 16 February 2015 - The KKK declared their support for Peter Griffiths in their June 12th meeting. Griffiths was likened to a Klansman in Parliament by the future leader of the Labour Party, Michael Foot MP, who refused to withdraw the “charge of racialist propaganda against [Griffiths]… since everybody knows that he does it.” The KKK also declared support for a ‘colourful’ local MP, who is now rather historically obscure, named Gerald Nabarro who had in 1963, asked a live radio audience: “How would you feel if your daughter wanted to marry a big buck nigger with the prospect of coffee coloured grandchildren?”  Negotiating memories: Elderly Caribbeans remembering the racist 1964 general elections in Smethwick, West Midlands by Adaora Aligbe  ITN Reports, KKK in Britain, 16 June 1965  The Birmingham Post, November 20 1961  The Birmingham Post, 15 June 1965 Birmingham Library, Cuttings on Race issues in the West Midlands MS 2141/A/7/13  The Birmingham Post, 15 June 1965 - Prem was positively fearful of more militant immigrant activism.  Express News Service, 8 June 1965  Daily Mirror, June 10 1965  The Birmingham Post, August 16 1965  ibid  Daily Mirror, April 29 1968  ibid  ibid  Black was the Color of our Fight by Rosalind Eleanor Wild, Page 214  ITN Reports, 16 June 1965 "THE 1980 LYNCHING OF MICHAEL DONALD", Hezakya News and Film, YouTube https://youtu.be/8CFfOViJDFE The quote is from Morris Dees who co-founded the Southern Poverty Law Centre and was the lawyer of the mother of Michael Donald. https://www.splcenter.org/sites/default/files/d6_legacy_files/downloads/case/beulahvunklan_judgment.pdf - Donald’s victory is said to have destroyed the last vestiges of the already decaying UKA. Robert Shelton said in a 1994 interview that “The Klan will never return… The Klan is my belief, my religion. But… The Klan is gone. Forever.”  ITN Reports, 16 June 1965 - Shelton made similar claims about his own Klan sect’s supposed peaceability.  ITN Reports, 16 June 1965  ibid  ibid Birmingham Library, Cuttings on Race issues in the West Midlands, MS 2141/A/7/13  The Birmingham Post, 14 June 1965  ITN Reports, 16 June 1965  ibid  ibid  ibid  ibid  ibid  County times and Gazette, 18 June 1965  The Birmingham Post, 9 June 1965  The Birmingham Post, 16 June “THE RISK OF PLAYING IT TOO COOL” by W.E Hall  Express News Service, June 8 1965  ITN Reports, 16 June 1965  MS 2141/A/7/13  MS 2141/A/7/13  ITN Reports, 16 June 1965  ITN Reports, 16 June 1965  ITN Reports, 16 June 1965