Windrush Pioneer and Christian Advocate (1926-2016)
It is very difficult to quantify the enormous legacy of the Windrush Generation, let alone the Black presence over the centuries (especially in Bristol, Cardiff, Liverpool and London). The contribution covers the spectrum of public life – politics, faith, public services (especially the NHS), business, music, food, fashion/lifestyle, sports and the arts – in shaping the nature of multicultural Britain. The genealogy of the Windrush legacy can be traced back to the original Windrush Pioneers in the 1940s and 1950s. Thus, with the passing on Friday 17th June of Sam Beaver King MBE, it feels like the end of a particular chapter for the Caribbean community.
Sam was born at Priestman’s River in Portland, Jamaica. Sam grew up in a strong Christian household with his parents and 10 siblings. His father owned a banana farm where Sam worked as a child. His grandmother used to take him to the local Baptist church, but his father, who was the churchwarden at St Mark’s (a local Church of England church), eventually convinced Sam this was the church he had to attend. Following the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939, a then 18-year-old Sam responded to a Royal Air Force advertisement in The Gleaner newspaper for volunteers in 1944. Before leaving Jamaica, an elder in his village, called Soca, said to him: “God lives higher, but God sees low.” This had a powerful impact on Sam regarding how he should conduct himself, and ensure he would not to be caught in anything deemed immoral or illegal in England. Sam was based in various RAF bases as a ground engineer in England. His faith was also a driving force; whereas servicemen would use their free time drinking and dancing, Sam would either find a local church or end up doing kitchen duty. It was this determination and tenacity of holding on to his faith which played an important role later in life, when he became a Councillor in Southwark in 1984 and also the first Black Mayor.
After the War, he was demobbed and returned back to Jamaica. A few years later, Sam decided to come back to England on the historic SS Empire Windrush ship, which docked at Tilbury on 22nd June 1948. Sam saw the aspirations of migrants on the Empire Windrush – and its subsequent impact on British society – as the equivalent of the ‘Mayflower’ ship in America and the creation of the ‘American Dream’. Sadly, this dream did not materialise here in Britain with the ‘colour bar’, and the five-year plan of returning home became an illusion for many. Faith, however, became an increasing source of inspiration for surviving a cold and unwelcoming Britain. During the 1940s and 50s, African and Caribbean Christians had to use their homes to have fellowship and prayer meetings, as they encountered discrimination in mainstream church denominations. Sam and his first wife, Mae, moved to Herne Hill in south London in 1958. They got a frosty reception in at the local Baptist church. They never went back, even though they allowed their children, Michael and Althea, to attend Sunday school, as this was nearest church to their home. Years later, when Sam became Mayor of Southwark, he was invited as a guest to the church, and he insisted that he was addressed as ‘Your Worship’. Sam also wore his full regalia as Mayor; this was ‘poetic justice’, with the church giving Sam due respect and recognition. After the death of Mae, he remarried and moved to Bexley with his new wife, Myrtle, where he attended the local Baptist church for over 25 years until he moved to Brixton to live with his granddaughter, Dionne. He regularly attended the Church of the First Born in Brixton until the time of his death.
The experience of discrimination in many ways led to the rise and development of the Black Majority Church movement in the UK, which after 50 years is now being recognised as an important part of society and a key legacy of the Windrush Pioneers. For instance, in 2013 in Wolverhampton, a Blue Plaque was awarded to the late Rev Dr Oliver Lyseight, founder of the New Testament Church of God, which was the first Black Majority Church to be established in 1953 in Britain.
Sam had many achievements, being involved in the early days working closely with Claudia Jones to help establish the Notting Hill Carnival and the West Indian Gazette. In his later years, he was co-founder (with Arthur Torrington) of the Windrush Foundation and The Equiano Society, with the objective of keeping alive the memories of the young men and women who were among the first wave of post-war settlers in England. In 1998, as part of the 50th anniversary of the Windrush, he received his MBE. Also, in 1998, Sam published his autobiography, ‘Climbing up the Rough Side of the Mountain‘.
However, one of the key achievements, which many people may not be aware of, was his role in promoting the Gospel during the 1980s as an elected representative. Sam used his role as Mayor of Southwark to promote gospel music. During the 1980s, there were a number of pirate radio stations playing gospel music. Sam believed that this should be part of the mainstream, and thus he played an active role in supporting a number of applications for a community gospel radio station. This was eventually rejected by the Home Secretary, Leon Brittan, but this did not deter Sam and others and, in many ways, laid the foundation years later for Premier Christian Radio to be awarded a licence. Sam, along with Diane Louise Jordan, helped to organise the first ever gospel-inspired BBC ‘Songs of Praise‘ at Southwark Cathedral in April 1985, when the British public experienced gospel music and Pentecostal fellowship on a BBC flagship national show. The programme was a further launchpad for Basil Meade and the London Gospel Community Choir in getting national exposure. Such was the success of the event that the BBC started to programme more gospel music in their various shows. Another important contribution that Sam made, in his role as a local councillor, was to present a number of motions to the British Council of Churches to allow Black Majority Churches to rent or buy church venues where buildings were derelict or underutilised. The motion was an important catalyst in the growth of Black-led church buildings and places of worship.
His role in the promotion of Christianity is reflected in the Blue Plaque that was awarded for his former home in Herne Hill in 2010 with the inscription the ‘Christian Advocate’. Sam’s favourite Scripture in the Bible was Psalm 91, and the music that he would regularly like to sing throughout his Christian life was ‘Here is love, vast as the ocean’.
Michael King talks passionately of his father’s achievements in public life and of his work at the Post Office, where he worked for 34 years. Michael states:
“Our father’s faith was an important part of his life. He would always quote various proverbs and quotes throughout our childhood and also as adults, which gave the whole generations of Kings a solid foundation. He would say: ‘Do good, and good will follow you’ or ‘Call on my God every day, but you have to walk with Him.’
Dionne McDonald, granddaughter of Sam, said:
“Throughout his life, his faith was important in determining his values and lifestyle. He always had time to listen and give advice. I can remember the times when we would engage with young Black men in Brixton, always focusing on the positive attitude and empowerment in helping them to make the right choices about their lives. My grandfather was unselfish and always saw himself as a servant to the people.”
Sam King, often called ‘Mr Windrush’, optimised the values and traditions of this generation in overcoming racism and creating the foundations for Black Britons: hard work, respect, tolerance, self-help, strength, spirituality and serving the community. We often debate about the lack of intergenerational dialogue, demise of traditional values and decline in Black self-resilience.
Michael believes that his father’s contribution should be recognised with a bust in Windrush Square in Brixton, and also that the campaign for 22nd June to be made a public holiday called Windrush Day, to celebrate the contribution of the Windrush Generation and the wider contribution of all migrants since WW2, should supported by the government.
Sadly, in a period when the United Kingdom is leaving the European Union, there is a growing climate of fear and hatred, similar to those experienced by the Windrush Pioneers and which led to the various race riots in Nottingham, Notting Hill and the bus boycott in Bristol.
It feels that with the passing of Sam King we need a national oral history programme to capture all the experiences of the BAME elders, who migrated here between 1948 to 1960s so we learn about their lives as part of a permanent archive for future prosperity – otherwise we will regret this as a nation and a community.
Patrick Vernon OBE
Founder of 100 Great Black Britons and Every Generation Media