Michael X and the British war on black power

In 1965, Michael de Freitas – a man described as an unprincipled hustler – reinvented himself as Michael X, a charismatic revolutionary. Robin Bunce and Paul Field investigate what role Michael played in the struggle for black liberation in Britain...

Michael X, (right, foreground) black power advocate, in Hyde Park. (Photo by Terence Spencer/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the October 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine.

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Michael X, hailed by the media as the leader of Black Power in Britain, first came to public attention during the visit of his far more famous American counterpart, Malcolm X, to Britain in 1965. After a chance meeting, Michael became Malcolm’s guide, showing him around London’s ghetto.

Michael had begun that visit as plain old Michael de Freitas. He assumed the moniker Michael X due to a classic British misunderstanding. Approached in a hotel by a white British journalist, Malcolm X introduced Michael as his “brother”. Not understanding the vernacular, the journalist took this literally and assumed that X must be their surname. The name stuck.

Following Malcolm’s example, Michael announced that he had converted to Islam, and established the Racial Adjustment Action Society (RAAS), to fight for black rights. Michael named the group ‘RAAS’, as it amused him to hear well-spoken white journalists say ‘raas’, not knowing it was a Jamaican obscenity meaning ‘arse cloth’ or ‘sanitary towel’.

By August 1967, Michael, now a self-styled black-rights activist, found himself at loggerheads with the British state. The government used the new Race Relations Act as a weapon against Black Power and charged Michael with inciting racial hatred. The case gained massive public attention as the government used an anti-racist law against “the most famous black man in Britain”.

Yet in reality Michael was not a serious revolutionary. Unlike Althea Jones-Lecointe, Darcus Howe, Olive Morris, Ricky Cambridge and Barbara Beese – the black activists who took the movement to its greatest victories – Michael lacked the patience for grassroots organisation. Nor, unlike genuine black activists, was he interested in the intellectual task of studying black history and critiquing white power.

Howe, who met Michael after his trial, was damning: “Michael X was quite simply a hustler, who was hustling off of Malcolm’s name. He was a crook! He didn’t set up anything you could commit to – he didn’t organise anything political.”

White radicals, and white celebrities, took him more seriously. Leonard Cohen and the novelist Colin MacInnes both claimed to be the only white members of RAAS. John Lennon also supported him. However, black radicals were suspicious of Michael’s revolutionary credentials with good reason – for he had worked for Peter Rachman, the notorious slum landlord who charged black families extortionate rents.

 

The rise of Black Power

The Black Power movement took off in Britain after Stokely Carmichael’s visit of July 1967. Carmichael, prime minister of the American Panthers, spoke at the Dialectics of Liberation conference on the politics of dissent, held at the Roundhouse in Camden. Michael acted as Carmichael’s chaperone and invited him to speak at a RAAS event in Reading. All did not go according to plan. Fearing that Carmichael might be the harbinger of a Black Power revolution, Special Branch officers, acting on the orders of the home secretary, Roy Jenkins, ‘advised’ him to leave the country. As a result, Carmichael was forced to pull out of the RAAS event, leaving Michael the headline speaker.

Speaking to a crowd of perhaps 100 people at the Rainbow Hall in Reading, Michael rehearsed the themes of Carmichael’s recent lectures. But it was his statements about the Notting Hill race riots that caught the headlines. He said: “In 1958 I saw white savages kicking black women in the streets and black brothers running away. If you ever see a white laying hands on a black woman, kill him immediately.”

The Home Office was well aware of the political potential of the Black Power movement. Consequently, shortly before Michael’s Reading speech, Roy Jenkins established the Black Power Desk, a team within Special Branch dedicated to surveilling and infiltrating the new movement. Daily Express reports of Michael’s speech were a godsend. They allowed the Home Office to deploy a new strategy for dealing with Black Power by charging Michael with inciting racial hatred.

 

Calls for prosecution

This new crime had been created by the 1965 Race Relations Act (RRA). Labour had been considering an act of this kind for many years. Indeed, the Attlee government, seeking to counter fascism, considered a ban on racist rabble rousing. Having regained power in 1964, Labour acted quickly, passing the RRA. Subsequently, incitement was punishable by up to two years in prison and a £1,000 fine. The new law was first used, as had been intended, against a neo-Nazi, Christopher Britton, who distributed a pamphlet entitled “Blacks not wanted here” in Notting Hill. Britton was convicted in 1966, but later released on appeal.

Nonetheless, the act was not used to deter more high-profile examples of anti-immigrant prejudice. In a speech attacking mixed marriages on 24 July 1967, Conservative MP Duncan Sandys declared: “The breeding of millions of half caste children would merely produce a generation of misfits and create national tensions.” Nor did complaints about anti-immigrant headlines in the Daily Sketch lead to prosecution.

Yet, in 1967, the Home Office used the act against the self-styled leaders of the new Black Power movement. This chimed with the common, but mistaken, perception that Black Power was a form of anti-white racism. Indeed, the initial impetus to prosecute black activists may well have originated outside the Home Office. The first calls for prosecutions came from white people angered by comments Carmichael made on the BBC show Panorama during his visit to the UK. As a result of public outrage, a senior police officer visited the BBC, warning that the corporation risked prosecution if it broadcast similar material.

While the BBC escaped prosecution, black radicals did less well. Following his Reading speech, Michael was charged under the RRA in mid-August. Soon after, the government extended its attack. Roy Sawh, a leading member of the Universal Coloured People’s Association, Britain’s first true Black Power organisation, was charged, along with three others, for speeches he made in Hyde Park.

If the government hoped that prosecuting Michael would put a lid on the growing Black Power movement, they were disappointed. The court case gained international coverage, from the Caribbean to India, with US papers such as the Washington Post and New York Times following it. The British media, from countercultural zines like Oz to organs of the establishment such as The Telegraph, picked over every detail of the trial.

Indeed, Michael knew how to hook the press. Reporters noted every detail of his wardrobe, including his thigh-length purple smock and his dark blue frock coats.

 

A different wavelength

The trial began in early September. In the convoluted language of the act, Michael was charged with “intent to stir up hatred against a section of the public in Great Britain, distinguished by colour”. Michael’s defence, simply put, was that he was speaking a language that white people did not understand. Thus, a speech that sounded provocative to white people was wholly innocuous to a black audience, he claimed.

He dismissed his solicitor for similar reasons, arguing: “I could not understand his language.” Michael’s defence struck a chord with William Burroughs and Alexander Trocchi, white experimental writers. In fact, they offered to act as his ‘interpreters’ during the trial. As neither was in Britain when the case was heard, Michael represented himself. Michael’s cross-examination of journalist Brian Park, as reported in Oz, gives a flavour of his approach:

Michael: Do you understand black people when they talk?

Park: Yes, just as I hope they understand me.

Michael: Are you mamma-guy?

Park: I beg your pardon. I do not understand you.

After a fruitless quarrel between the court and the defendant, there was this exchange:

Michael: We are not speeking [sic] the same language. We are on a different wavelength.

Magistrate: No. We are speaking basic English.

Park was a key witness because his report in the Daily Express was the basis of the prosecution’s case. During their exchange Michael asked the court for an interpreter so that he could carry out his cross-examination “in the language of the ghetto”. It was denied.

 

Highlighting hypocrisy

Michael also used his right to challenge jurors. Michael explained he was basing his objection on statistics. He said that following a television programme, the BBC received 150 calls from white people, and all but two said black people should go home. “That shows,” he continued, “the ratio of jurors I should be able to choose from.” Needless to say, the court recorder rejected Michael’s call to vet 900 jurors ahead of the trial. When the trial ended in November, Michael was found guilty and given a one-year sentence.

Obi B Egbuna, an activist who would go on to found the British Black Panther movement, highlighted the hypocrisy of the British government in his magazine Black Power Speaks. He pointed out that the RRA was used against Michael, yet Enoch Powell, the politician who had become the figurehead of anti-immigrant prejudice in Britain, had not been charged.

Michael served eight months and following his release the movement continued without him. By 1969 Althea Jones-Lecointe was the leading figure in the London Panthers, while the new generation of black radicals rejected Michael as an unprincipled hustler. Yet, later Black Power trials were informed by his case.

For example, the nine black defendants in the Mangrove trial – who, in 1971, were charged, and acquitted of, incitement to riot for organising a protest march against police racism in Southall – including Jones-Lecointe, Darcus Howe, Barbara Beese and Frank Crichlow, demanded an all-black jury. A year later Howe and Olive Morris, who were arrested during a protest outside the Old Bailey, demanded “fair representation” on their jury. Both claims made some reference to a jury’s ability to understand the language of defendants.

The British government did not forget Michael X. Special Branch files reveal that, as late as 1970, the authorities continued to view him, erroneously, as the leader of Black Power in Britain. The government also learned lessons from the trial. Home Office documents show that senior officials recognised that the use of the RRA against black people had won Michael widespread sympathy.

Michael met an early end in 1975 when, having fled back to Trinidad in 1971 to evade extortion charges, he was hanged for the murder of Joseph Skerritt, one of his followers. Skerritt’s body was found on his property in Trinidad, as was the body of Gale Benson, the daughter of a Conservative MP.

Michael X was never a true radical – the British Black Power movement turned its back on him long before his execution. Yet his trial had exposed the hypocrisy of the British government and, in so doing, it helped galvanise genuine black radicals who would go on to advance the cause of black liberation in Britain.

Robin Bunce is a historian based at Homerton College, University of Cambridge. Paul Field is a lawyer specialising in the fields of discrimination and employment. They are co-authors of Renegade: The Life and Times of Darcus Howe (Century, 2008).

 

Michael X timeline

February 1965: Malcolm X visits the UK to meet black activists, including Michael de Freitas. De Freitas converts to Islam, adopts the name Michael Abdul Malik or ‘Michael X’, and forms the Racial Adjustment Action Society.

June 1966: Newly elected leader of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Stokely Carmichael, coins the phrase ‘black power’ during a speech in Greenwood, Mississippi.

July 1967: Riots erupt in Newark, New Jersey and Detroit. Stokely Carmichael addresses Dialectics of Liberation congress at the Camden Roundhouse on the subject of Black Power.

September 1967: The Universal Coloured People’s Association, having been the first UK organisation to adopt the ideology of black power after Carmichael’s visit, publishes Black Power in Britain, written by founding member Obi B Egbuna.

June 1968: The British Black Panther movement is formed, the first Panther organisation outside the USA.

July 1968: Darcus Howe and other activists participate in BBC’s Cause for Concern. In a live studio discussion with Assistant Metropolitan Police Commissioner Robert Mark, they are the first to accuse British police of racism and corruption on TV.

August 1970: The British Black Panther Movement help organise the Mangrove march in defence of the Mangrove restaurant in Notting Hill, following repeated police raids. The battle of Portnall Road takes place, leading nine activists to be charged with incitement to riot.

August 1971: Members of the Black Unity and Freedom Party and the British Black Panthers demonstrate in Grosvenor Square against the death of George Jackson, an African-American activist shot by prison guards.

Oct to Dec 1971: The trial of the Mangrove Nine at Central Criminal Court, the Old Bailey. Black Power activists lead their own defence and are acquitted of incitement to riot.

Oct to Nov 1972: The trial of the ‘Old Bailey Three’. Olive Morris, Darcus Howe and Abdul Macintosh are prosecuted following a protest at the Old Bailey. Having demanded and won the right to “a fair representation of black people on the jury”, the three are acquitted.