Black British history lecturer Dr Hannah Elias, remembers Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s 1964 visit to London where he commanded a 4,000-strong congregation at St Paul’s Cathedral, that bulwark of national and imperial memory which was also a site of radical conversations.

Over the course of its centuries-long history, St Paul’s Cathedral in London has been a site of major national occasions, commemorations and royal weddings. Its crypt commemorates martial victories from the height of Britain’s imperial power, and houses the tombs of Horatio Nelson and the Duke of Wellington. During the Second World War, St Paul’s was called the ‘parish church of Empire’ on the BBC, and images of the dome of St Paul’s surviving Luftwaffe attacks during the Blitz became iconic symbols of national resilience and resistance under fire. 

But this bulwark of national and imperial memory has also been the site of radical conversations, ones that have contested how ideas of ‘nation’ and ‘citizen’ are defined. 

It is well known that churches and faith communities played a significant part in the civil rights movement in the US. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference played a leading role in organising protest groups and actions throughout the South, including the Montgomery Bus Boycott. As Kerry Pimblott has recently shown, black liberation theology was also influential in the Black Power movement and community organising. What is less well known, are the ways that organised religion and faith communities in Britain contributed to anti-racist and anti-colonial movements that challenged xenophobia and white supremacy. 

On 6 December 1964, Dr Martin Luther King Jr became the first black man and the first Baptist minister to preach at a statutory service in St Paul’s Cathedral. London was a brief stop on his trip to Oslo, to collect his Nobel Peace Prize. A crowd of more than 4,000 people filled the aisles and nave of the Cathedral to hear his words. For Dr King, the politics of race could not be separated from the politics of faith; church structures, networks and institutions could be strategically and helpfully used by activists in the struggle for racial equality.  

Dr King’s sermon was followed by a press conference in the cathedral’s Chapter House, where he responded to questions on race relations in the UK. He said, 

‘I think it’s a fact now, and everybody knows it, that there are growing racial problems in Britain as a result of the large number of coloured persons from the West Indies, from Pakistan and India who are coming into the Country. And it is my feeling that if Britain is not eternally vigilant and if England does not in a real sense, go all out to deal with this problem now; it can mushroom and become as serious as the problem we face in some other Nations.’

He observed that Britain faced a lack of equal opportunity in education, training and employment, which could exacerbate racial tension. He also criticised the Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1962, which ended the automatic recognition of people in the Commonwealth as British citizens, and restricted migration by requiring registration through a voucher system. Immigration laws based on colour were, he said, totally out of keeping with the laws of God and with the trends of the 20th century. 

Dr King was invited to preach at the Cathedral and then speak at City Temple the following evening in support of the South African Anti-Apartheid Movement. His visit was planned and organised by John Collins, a Canon of St Paul’s Cathedral and a committed activist. Collins also served as the Chairman of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and smuggled over 100 million pounds into South Africa to fund the legal defence of anti-apartheid activists who had been jailed. Collins believed in a ‘revolutionary’ Christian theology; it was a Christian’s duty to organise actively on both a local and national level to ensure that a Christian vision of ‘justice for all’ would be enacted in public life. 

Dr King’s visit had significance beyond the brief duration of his time in London. After his speech at City Temple, he asked Collins to work with Trinidad-born social worker Marion Glean to gather leaders of immigrant groups for a short discussion about race relations in Britain. This meeting was the catalyst for the formation of the Campaign against Racial Discrimination (CARD), a federated organisation made up of West Indian, South Asian and African immigrant groups, and chaired by Dr David Pitt, a West Indian medical doctor and Labour London county councillor. 

The way we teach, frame and write our histories is often limited to national boundaries, but this moment is best understood through a transnational perspective. The exchange of money and ideas, and the creation of associations between Christians and activists committed to the social gospel and racial equality allowed what King termed a ‘network of mutuality’ to flourish.

The established Church of England was home to activist networks that put a revolutionary faith into practice, and the politics of migration were contested in church spaces. Though St Paul’s Cathedral is often regarded as an archetypal establishment institution, some members of the Cathedral chapter’s and community participated in radical politics on an international scale. 

Religious teachings, movements and organisations have been used to coerce, control and manipulate. But, religious communities have also made meaningful contributions to networks that advocate for social justice, and have fundamentally altered public understandings of civil liberty. 

Dr Hannah Elias is lecturer in black British history at Goldsmiths, University of London. Her research on ‘John Collins, Martin Luther King Jr, and transnational networks of protest and resistance in the Church of England’ has recently been published in The Church of England and British Politics since 1900 by Boydell & Brewer. Now available as an eBook for £19.95.