Yesterday I woke to the sun painting the sky above our beautiful city a peachy pink and it was glorious. As I drove along the bay towards the Guildhall the view literally took my breath away. I wanted to park up and just drink it all in, but I couldn’t stop because I had an important job to do. I was on my way to ‘The George Hall’ to host a very special event for the city of Swansea, special for Wales and the UK. People had gathered from all walks of life to sign a ‘Statement of Intent’ to become A ‘Human Rights City, the first in Wales.
10th December is ‘Human Rights Day’ and it is celebrated all around the world. That date marks the day that The United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.
Growing up in Swansea I took the fact that I had human rights as easily as I accepted the sun would rise in the morning, as free as the air that I breathe. As I drove along the bay I was reminded of my first real experience of learning what it is like to grow up without human rights.
I was born and brought up in Swansea and after living in Cambridge, London and Cardiff I chose to return to make this my family home. I think the reason I love the place so much is that I have had the advantage of travelling around the world with my music and broadcasting and that has given me a perspective about what makes this a special place.
It was back around the turn of the Century that I started travelling back and fore to the Deep South. It started with a TV programme about gospel music, but it soon turned into an annual pilgrimage to judge the Song writing competition in Tupelo, the birthplace of Elvis Presley. Every time I went I would try to find an excuse to meet up with Rev Samuel Billy Kyles. The Reverend Kyles was Pastor of the Monumental Baptist Church in Memphis and it was he who invited Dr Martin Luther King to Memphis to support the Garbage Workers strike in 1968.
Every time I met him he would tell me another story. How Dr King spoke the night before his assassination telling the crowd like Moses he might not get to the Promised Land but one day they would be free. How he spent that last afternoon with Dr King in the Lorraine Motel, how he covered the body of his dying friend with a blanket.
As I drove along the bay I was reminded of the story he told me of how as a young Pastor he had organised a protest about the Memphis Transportation rules that black people had to sit at the back of the bus. The driver asked him to go to the back, he refused. Even the people at the back of the bus shouted that they would be late for work if he didn’t sit down with them. He turned to them and said, ‘If we can’t sit at the front of the bus, we’ll never get to drive this bus’.
Eventually the police arrived and arrested him, and they certainly expressed their feelings about his protest with their kicks, punches and with their spitting.
Where people now enjoy Human Rights, you can be pretty sure that they have been won at a price and yet we take them so much for granted.
Jose Cifuentes was born in Chile. He came to Swansea in 1973 a Chilean Political refugee. Like so many young people growing up in the 60’s he thought that they could change the world. But the Pinochet regime fought back and eventually Jose left Chile with his young family. Yesterday, Jose was joined by Otis, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Like Jose he has fled oppression in the country of his birth but had found a home and a welcome in Swansea. Yes, they like the bay and the beach, but they loved the people who had welcomed them and shown them kindness.
I hope that is something that continues in our city. It’s something that has marked out this region in the past. Recently I was listening to a BBC World Service programme about the Kindertransport. In Nazi Germany some Jewish families foresaw the dangers that were coming from the Nazi regime and made the heart-breaking decision to send their children to Britain hoping that one day they would be reunited.
One small boy was Heinz Lichtwitz from Berlin. In 1939 he got on a train and ended up in Swansea where he was taken in by Mr & Mrs Foner. He expected to return to Germany one day but most of his family were murdered in Auschwitz. Heinz never returned. He took on the name of the family who gave him a home and now lives in Israel as Henry Foner. The thing that really stood out for me was when Heinz described how the Foners treated him the same as their own son and also the kindness and welcome he received from the people of Swansea.
Today we have that example to live up to.
During the event a number of films were shown including one made with the Pupils of Pentrehafod School. As I listened to the kids talking I couldn’t help but think it is amazing that children get this ‘Human Right’s thing but somehow not all adults do. It reminded me of the saying from Nelson Mandela
“No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
Now the cynic might say it’s all nonsense, signing a statement of intent, just words on a piece of paper. You’re right, this could be just a tick box exercise, make everyone feel good about this city…
But the Leader of the Council Cllr Rob Stewart said this journey was only just starting. The intent to put human rights at the centre of the decisions made by the council would bring challenges. It wouldn’t be easy, and they wouldn’t always get it right but there was always the statement to go back to, to check how well they were doing.
In the USA the Founding Fathers decided that they would write everything down in a Constitution so that there was a set of guidelines for the future that people could look to when they need help in finding a way forward. Of course, the constitution declared that ‘All men are created Equal’. As the Rev Billy Kyles had shown that part wasn’t always the case and people had to lay down their lives to give those words effect, but the words were important because it gave the Civil Rights a standard by which their government could be judged.
Yesterday was the start of a journey. The words of the Statement are important, and they must be the ideals we judge ourselves by in the future to make sure we really are a Human Rights City.