If the 16 year old Maxie Hayles arrived in Birmingham today, he would certainly have a culture shock, but he would find himself in a much better environment for Caribbean people than existed in 1960
Back then, Birmingham was a city of factories and fog, with people eating their chips out of newspapers. There was rampant racism, inequality and routine police harassment. There were no protections: no Race Relations Act, no Equal Opportunities Act. In short, Britain invited Caribbean immigrants to help rebuild it in the post-war era, but made no basic preparations.
I vividly recall seeing ‘No dogs, blacks or Irish’ on the doors of so-called guest houses. Along with our Irish brethren, we had the social status of dogs. There was no right to public housing and the Race Relations Act of 1965 failed to address this.
Although we were invited to help rebuild the country, only menial tasks such as labouring and cleaning was available to black people. We often had line up on a daily basis for factory work. If we did get selected, more racism awaited us on the job. Apprenticeships were not for us; they were strictly the preserve of the local white population. This environment inevitably stifled any upward social and economic mobility, and still exists to a great extent. How many senior politicians, judges etc. in this country are black?
These days there is a lot of debate about disproportionate police use of stop and search powers against young black youths, but this is nothing new. I remember being stopped six times on one night between West Bromwich and Handsworth.
We encountered racism and injustices on a daily basis, and we dealt with it by whatever means necessary. That usually meant moving around in groups – safety in numbers – carrying knives for our own protection because the police wouldn’t protect us.
In spite of this adversity, we remained resilient. We were barred from pubs and clubs, so we created our own entertainment – Blues Parties, Cheveens and so on with old ‘Blue-Spot’ record players.
Black people were unwelcome in mainstream churches, so we created our own. From small beginnings in Pastors’ living rooms, these grew over time to become well established, and well attended black churches.
A landmark event was the visit of Malcolm X to Smethwick in 1965, but this was countered in 1968 by Enoch Powell’s infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in Birmingham.
The 1970’s was the worst period for black people in this country, many of whom were now second genera