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“In honouring me today, you not only honour me, but you honour the hundreds and thousands of people with whom I have worked and with, whom I have been associated, in the struggle for racial justice. And so I say thanks, not only for myself, but I also thank you for them – and I can assure you that this day will remain dear to me as long as the cords of memory shall lengthen.”

These modest and gracious words were spoken by Dr. Martin Luther King Jnr. on the 13th of November, 1967. He was not, however, on American soil: this particular speech was made in our very own region, as the infamous activist accepted an honorary degree from Newcastle University.

As 2017 marks the 50th anniversary of this little-known – yet clearly momentous – occasion, both Newcastle University and the Newcastle-Gateshead Initiative (NGI) have come together to plan a series of enlightening events in the form of this: the Freedom City festival, which, already in motion, continues on Saturday 17th June.

As the Senior Festival and Events Manager at the NGI, Vikki Leaney stresses the incredible importance of the event to those living in and around Newcastle today.
“In accepting his honorary degree, Dr King delivered a moving address in which he talked about three urgent and great problems; ‘the problem of racism, the problem of poverty and the problem of war’.

“Fifty years on, those issues are just as relevant today, which is why a city-wide programme has been developed to commemorate Dr King’s historic visit to Newcastle upon Tyne, and inspire a new generation to tackle the problems of war, poverty and racism.”

Opening in June with a lecture from Professor of US History Tony Badger at Newcastle University, Vikki goes on to highlight more of the festival’s best picks.

“There’s a broad  programme of events taking place – mainly across Newcastle and Gateshead, but also at venues in South Tyneside, Sunderland and County Durham! Events include theatre productions, inspiring exhibitions, uplifting musical performances, world-class academic research and more.

One of the biggest highlight events will be Freedom on the Tyne; an epic, day-long performance of drama, dance, art and music culminating in a mass participation procession along Newcastle’s iconic quayside. International artists, performers and community groups will join members of the public to tell the story of how people through history have demanded change, even when it has carried the threat of physical harm.”

As a part of local history not many of us are too familiar with, what exactly occurred on Dr. King’s brief visit to the North-East? Quite a bit, according to Benjamin Houston, Newcastle University’s Senior Lecturer of US History.

“The whole of Dr King’s UK trip was not quite 48 hours, most of that spent in transit, and not even eleven hours in Newcastle.

It’s probably fair to say that the city was not looming on his radar before the invitation from the University, as his secretary asked if he should take a taxi to Newcastle from Heathrow!  His schedule was crammed: breakfast at the vice-chancellor’s lodge, a social coffee with students, a sherry reception with staff and university senators, a buffet lunch, a quick media appointment, the ceremony and then he immediately took the train back to London.”

Benjamin also notes that the trip provided some much-needed optimism and motivation during what was proving to be a difficult time in Dr. King’s life.

“His trips to England reinforced the notion that, as he once said, that “More and more I have come to realize that racism is a world problem,” an idea underlined when white supremacists shouting “Keep Britain White!” heckled him at Westminster City Temple Hall in 1964 during one of his speeches.
His acceptance of the Newcastle invitation can be linked to the immediate context of his life and times in November 1967 – he was feeling besieged and depressed. He had recently served a prison sentence in Alabama; the new calls for Black Power, however much he understood the frustration behind it, were counter to his vision of nonviolence; white liberals and the media were attacking him for having spoken out against US involvement in the Vietnam War, which had further alienated his sometime ally President Lyndon Johnson; former compatriots were differing with him about future directions for the Movement.  And the FBI was actively spying and harassing him.

He was trying to work on a new initiative, the Poor People’s Campaign. He was wracked with doubt and depression about his leadership and the scope of the evils he was trying to confront; the expansiveness of his vision was inspiring skepticism instead of support.

In short, King, great man that he was, came to Newcastle feeling tortured. He was anxious, insecure, mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausted. He questioned whether he had the answers to the questions that plagued America, the questions that he had been trying to respond to for years.

In that sense, the Newcastle invitation undoubtedly was a lift for him: a token of appreciation and support from afar, and one that enabled him some scope to link the African American freedom struggle to other manifestations of racism and social justice issues across the globe. It was a simple acknowledgment that his message, that the issues borne out of his historical place and time and context had resonance with other struggles against injustice globally, was being heard.”

It was clear that Dr. King was fond of Newcastle – in recognising our region’s collective spirit, he claimed: “In a real sense we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.”
For our modern society, which continues to be plagued with issues of war, racism, violence and inequality, this festival couldn’t have come at a better time: it is a much-needed reminder of the individuals who have fought for the rights we proudly hold aloft today.

Freedom City will run from Saturday 17th June, with events up until Sunday 24th November.

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