Sam King was a shining light of the Windrush generation. On his passing Lester Holloway reflects on what he stood for
A part of black British history moved from the living to the past as Sam B. King MBE, a prominent figure in the Windrush generation, joined the ancestors after 90 years on earth.
I was privileged to have interviewed elder Sam a couple of times as a journalist in the black press, and can attest to the aura he carried which outshone even the hard-won medals on his chest from his days defending Britain as an RAF pilot.
Sam came to Britain on the SS Empire Windrush, which sailed from Jamaica to the Tilbury Docks on the Thames estuary in 1948 amid anxiety in Westminster and beyond, and with MPs debating whether the ship should be turned back. But arrive it did, heralding with it the first non-white mass migration which so enriched a bleak, cold grey and depressed post-war Britain with culture, talent, colour, sound and flavour. The Windrush generation plugged labour gaps getting transport moving and the NHS healing.
Elder Sam was one of the giants of his generation, a real pioneer who achieved many ‘firsts’ – including being the first black mayor of Southwark and one of the first black councillors in British politics. All this in the face of incredible hostility towards Caribbean’s, an experience which many today would prefer to forget or deny it happened.
Sam King was someone who told his story while many of his peers kept many their negative experiences in 40s, 50s and 60s Britain from even their own children and grandchildren. He inspired others and represented living history; a link between the Caribbean community today and the first generation who saw “No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs” signs in B&B windows.
When I first interviewed him for The Voice newspaper I found him to be an imposing character who retained his armed forces posture and no-nonsense approach. But very quickly I also saw a kindly man who cared passionately about his local community.
And I was moved to hear him speak of the rejection he felt as an RAF pilot who had resided in Britain during the war when the British public appeared to love him, but when the war ended the mood quickly changed against people of colour. He was no longer welcome and he returned to Jamaica, only to later make the journey back to the UK with his compatriots, such as the famous calypsonian Lord Kitchener, on the Windrush.
Elder Sam and the likes of Lord David Pitt, put down roots in the face of NF and White Power graffiti seemingly sprayed on every corner, and when explicit racist attacks and abuse on the street were commonplace. They made this country their home, retained a love for Britain, disguised a weariness with racial prejudice, and brought their children up with high expectations and values of respect.
Today the Caribbean community is in some respects declining. Mixed relationships – Caribbean’s are more likely to have a white partner than most other ethnic groups – and being overtaken in numbers by Africans in neighbourhoods that were for decades Caribbean in nature – mean that Caribbean identity is in danger of slowly disappearing along with the story of those early pioneers.
Much of the Windrush story remains untold. Yet we cannot allow the Caribbean contribution, experience and legacy to fade. The sacrifice West Indians made to the war effort to keep the Mother Country free, and the spirit with which that generation laid down roots in challenging circumstances – a generation who were themselves the grandchildren of slaves brutalised by British in Caribbean plantations - must not be forgotten.
The struggle for ethnic minority political representation has at its’ heart characters like Lord David Pitt, Lord Bill Morris and Bernie Grant. The grassroots activism that drove parliamentary representation is exemplified by the likes of Sam King. He is a reminder of the struggle and the milestones of achievement when the Windrush generation generated many ‘firsts’ in politics.
It was an era when loyalty to Britain was tested to destruction on the frontline, and this generation saw their children resist police brutality, mods and neo-Nazi skins in the 70s and 80s amid new frontlines and media-perpetrated negative stereotypes, such as muggers.
Having come through all of that perhaps we are now seeing Caribbean culture itself reduced to a stereotype where the full culinary spread is reduced to about five dishes, Caribbean musical influences are mixed, blended and bled of their authenticity and the Bacchanal of carnival turned into an all-embracing urban festivals with a little bit of everything for everyone.
However, Windrush is not just about Caribbean history. It is also a milestone that helps frame immigration in the context of the tensions between preserving traditions and culture, the pressures to integrate and assimilate, and the scale between host community fear and prejudice and legitimate debate about a changing society. All of which remain relevant today.
Although there was a notable black presence in Britain before Windrush, through Georgian and Tudor times to the Roman Empire and even beyond, nevertheless 1948 provides a moment in time from which to measure the rate of progress on race equality by legislation and key moments like inner city uprisings. From this point we can see the relationship between laws and protection won through the blood, sweat and tears of political struggle and how much actual change there has been as annual TUC surveys continue to show black unemployment remains double that of white unemployment.
It was Sam’s generation who forged Black political movements in Britain uniting immigrants of colour from every corner of the Empire and, in tandem with brothers and sisters in America, reclaimed pride in self as we sang ‘black is my colour’, ‘young, gifted and black’ and ‘proud to be black’, and sought to cast off mental chains and reject any divider-and-ruler seeking to yank at them.
Sam King is important to history not least because the grandchildren of Windrush ought to know on whose shoulders they stand, and not just look at America for black history. The black community did not just have national figures but everyday local heroes too who fought to make things better. Black history matters and is now part of the historical roots of Britain as a whole.
We should celebrate Windrush Day on 22nd June every year to acknowledge this significant moment in shaping the multicultural society we have today, and the values that the first Caribbean pioneers brought. Celebrating will help unearth the hidden histories that unveil the personalities and personal stories that bring it to life, and better remember the real Caribbean story not a watered-down, simplified and Anglicised pale imitation of it.
Some may not have heard of him, and his passing has not sparked Sam-mania. There have been no mass vigils and no front-pages, yet King’s contribution laid down important firm foundations for modern multicultural Britain. His was a journey of grassroots activism over decades, not based on fame, titles or privilege. Celebrating his life, and that of other minority ethnic figures, is something that all people should do more of regardless of their own background.
Although Sam King has a blue plaque, erected as part of a community effort to honour BAME people who made a major contribution, the new mayor Sadiq Khan should support a new memorial in his name, such as a park, for 22nd June 2018, the 60th anniversary of WIndrush, as well as backing events for Windrush Day itself. It elder Sam’s passing leaves this legacy it will be a fitting tribute to a great man.