By Daniel Holland
Newcastle has appointed the city’s first ever non-white Lord Mayor in the top civic job’s 800-year history.
Habib Rahman became Newcastle’s first citizen on Wednesday afternoon, breaking new ground as the only BAME person ever to occupy the ceremonial position, which dates back to the 1200s.
The Elswick councillor moved to Tyneside with his mother and six brothers from Bangladesh in 1985 at the age of 12, unable to speak a word of English.
Coun Rahman, whose appointment to succeed David Cook as mayor was delayed by a year because of Covid-19, was formally elected to the post at Newcastle City Council’s annual general meeting.
The Labour councillor, who has served two years as Sheriff and Deputy Mayor of Newcastle, gave a deeply emotional speech in which he paid tribute to his “inspirational” mother and directly addressed his late father, Azizur.
In 1977, Azizur had moved to the city in search of a better life – but was killed just 10 days later, stabbed in the Wallsend restaurant where he worked by a white customer who was unhappy about the size of a takeaway curry.
Coun Rahman told colleagues that his childhood in Newcastle had also been marred by “brutal racism” and that the experience had made him determined to defeat the evils of discrimination.
The 47-year-old, whose background is as a youth worker, described his appointment as “one of the proudest moments of my life” and pledged to use his year in office to promote respect, tolerance, and equality.
After the ceremony, the father-of-three said: “This is history in the making. History should have been made a long time ago, but it sets a challenge for us now to make sure our city remains free and open to people of all faiths, colour, ethnicity, and gender. I will make sure that I promote that and that I challenge and condemn hate crime and racism of every form.”
Newcastle has had a mayor since Daniel, son of Nicholas, in 1216 but the office of Lord Mayor was not created until 1906, when King Edward VII granted the decree.
Asked why he wanted to speak directly to his father during his acceptance speech, Coun Rahman added: “I wanted to make the point that he has been deeply missed by all of us and to send him the message that Newcastle is not the racist city that he saw in 1977.
“This is a safe, tolerant city now thanks to the work that has been done from institutions and individuals. Perhaps some of that started from the death of my father.
“I wanted to say to him that he should not feel scared for us now, this city is a lot better than when he left it.”
Coun Rahman was described as a key member of anti-racism groups such as Show Racism the Red Card (SRTRC) and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Former Newcastle United star and SRTRC founding patron, John Beresford joined him at Wednesday’s ceremony and was named among a diverse group of mayoral companions.
He said: “Habib Rahman has been an outstanding supporter of SRTRC since 1998 and helped us to develop into the UK’s leading anti-racism education charity. We will be discussing some exciting new initiatives for fundraising with Habib in his new role as Lord Mayor of Newcastle Upon Tyne.”
Fellow Toon legend Shaka Hislop, president of SRTRC, added: “It is with real pride that I watched Habib Rahman’s rise in politics. Always driven, and always leading by example, Habib continually gives of himself in supporting those who need it most. I got to know Habib through his work with Show Racism The Red Card, and bear witness this history being made, in a city we both love, with a sense of honor and optimism that comes with knowing our new Lord Mayor as I do.”
Fellow Labour councillor Irim Ali, who formally nominated Coun Rahman for the post, was tearful as she spoke of an “extremely proud and emotional moment” for Newcastle.
Coun Nick Forbes, the city’s Labour leader, said that Coun Rahman’s appointment sent a “powerful message about Newcastle and our values” and that the traditional mayoral chains had now become a “symbol of our diverse communities bound together in friendship and pride”.
The Sheriff and Deputy Mayor role will now pass to long-serving Lib Dem councillor Anita Lower, the former leader of the council’s opposition group.