A life of pride and prejudice for Barking and Dagenham mayor
When a 21-year-old West Indian engineering student arrived on the shores of Britain in 1957, he was full of hope and pride for the British Empire that he belonged to.
However, what he soon encountered was the inhospitable chill of ‘ism’ and the unexpected severity of the British winter.
Mayor of Barking and Dagenham, councillor on Gascoigne and Chadwell Heath wards since 1993, and longstanding trade unionist, Milton McKenzie MBE has recalled his first experiences of life in Britain as a black man in the Fifties, when attitudes to race and ethnicity were different from what they are today.
Mr McKenzie said: “The culture shock was huge – it was a them and us mentality. I never grew up tasting ‘isms’ in any shape or form.
“We all came up against discrimination. Maybe that’s what propelled me in the workplace.”
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He prefers to use the suffix ‘ism’ as opposed to the term racism because he insists that the fundamental root cause of many ‘isms’ such as sexism or ageism are hatred and ignorance.
He said: “There’s not only racism. It comes in so many disguises, it has so many facets.
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“That’s why we are like sheep. We cling together because you then look for comfort within yourselves.”
The cold temperatures of his first British winter were another cause for concern.
Mr McKenzie said: “When December came round I used to tell my parents ‘I want to come back. This place is cold – I’m actually walking on ice’.
“There was no such cold as that cold of my first winter. Once I got through the December of 1957, the rest was about achieving one’s goals.”
His first palpable encounter with ‘ism’ involved an invitation for a job interview for the Ministry of Defence.
Having arrived in Basingstoke after a long train journey, he was asked whether he really was Milton McKenzie, as the paperwork suggested, before being told that the position had been filled.
Mr McKenzie said: “There were times when I thought ‘what are you doing here?’
“But this is the great British Empire that we had been taught about, yet people talk down to you in the street and spit at you and you ask yourself ‘why?’”
Raising his hands in the air, he added: “My god – that was my experience. It’s not nice at all.
“There were signs that read ‘no Irish, no dogs, no blacks’. We were relegated right down to the bottom below the dogs.
“But you had good people who would treat you as a person, or treat you without colour, especially in the workplace.”
He added: “Over the period of years, lots of people have managed to break down the barriers that existed. That barrier was so strong, you could almost touch it. My determination is what carried me.”
When asked why he thinks white Britons were suspicious of black people and why they made derogative remarks in the street, he quoted an old adage: “You divide and conquer. That’s where education comes in.”
He went on: “With Black History Month we’re supposed to be creating our own history, learn from the history that we have been denied.
“There are probably uneducated people who are saying that those people are coming over to take their jobs but they’re not looking at the contribution that those people are making in the Big Society.
“We all have a contribution to make. This is our country and we should all be proud of it.”
“I’m happy being part of what we set out to achieve. This is home.”
In the workplace Mr McKenzie witnessed prejudice and more ‘isms’ and slowly followed in his father’s footsteps by engaging in trade unionism and fighting for the rights of women to work at Ford.
Recalling the male prejudice he encountered from fellow trade unionists at the time, he justified his commitment by saying: “The women’s struggle was our struggle. The struggle against sexism is on an equal footing with that of other isms.
”When I became a shop stewart in the 1970s at Ford, my motto was: if I achieve, all achieve.”
He also successfully changed the culture of industrial disputes in the plant by moving away from frequent strike actions, which management often provoked to avoid paying wages during quiet periods, to more negotiation.
Would he have envisaged being where he is in life now when he first set foot in England?
He replied: “That never even came into the computer.”
He believes the contribution of black culture to British life has been huge.
“We have brought a lot of gaiety, in our attitude and mannerisms, of which, of course, there will always be good and bad.
“We have enriched life in Britain with colour and that’s not a pun. My gosh, life should be exciting. It’s not a dummy run. We came out smiling.”
The conversation about race and prejudice inevitably led to the subject of the far-right, anti-immigration British National Party, which held 12 council seats in Barking and Dagenham for four years until Labour regained control in the boroughin a landslide victory last year.
Having remained diplomatically quiet about the party’s past successes and failures, Cllr McKenzie spoke candidly about his relief when the party was ousted from office.
Asked about his opinion on the BNP, he replied: “Despicable. Some people walk around with a bundle on their chest, it’s like an anvil of hate. Why would you bring up so much energy figuring out how to hate?
He added:“We must never allow such atrocities to penetrate our way of life again. This council must deliver and be in tune with people who put their trust in us.
“We don’t want division in Barking and Dagenham, we want unity. It’s far better to love than to hate.”
Referring to the announcement of the election results at Goresbrook Leisure Centre in Dagenham last May, he said: “It was something to savour. To be there that night was the highlight of my political career.”
Finally, with a proud smile on his face, Mr McKenzie avoided the ideological straightjacket of another ‘ism’ by describing himself as an ‘ist’ instead. He said: “I’m a socialist,” and he parted with a firm handshake.
Milton McKenzie MBE:
Born in Guyana to a carpenter father, who was general secretary of the trade union of British Guyana, Milton McKenzie came to England in 1957 on a scholarship he gained through his achievements in football and athletics.
He studied engineering at Bethnal Green and Tottenham Technical College and worked at Lotus Racing Car Company and Ford Motor Company for more than 26 years. He became a shop steward in the seventies.
Mr McKenzie fought for equality on all levels – be it racial, gender or religious – in the workplace as an elected executive member of South East Regional Trade Union Council, a member of the GMB National Committee for Race and Equal Rights, and as chairman of the London Regional Race and Equal Rights Committee.
Together with his fellow trade unionist, Joe Gordon, he was at the forefront of the fight for women’s rights to work on the production line and in the maintenance section of the plant.
He retired in 1993 and in 1998 was elected to Barking and Dagenham Council – first in Gascoigne ward, then in Marks Gate and then in Chadwell Heath.
In 2009 he was awarded an MBE for his contribution towards equality and diversity at Ford.
He is a dedicated supporter of the Living the Dream Charity which helps aspiring young athletes from the borough to reach the 2012 Olympics.
He is married to Jenna, has six children, 14 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.