I’ll action for the Windrush bearing – their analysis has been base | David Harewood

These past few days I have been thinking a lot about the Windrush generation – the migrants who arrived in Britain, at the invitation of the UK government, in the early postwar years. I flew home to London last Friday for my grandmother Mazie Wilkinson’s funeral, amid headlines about people who had been raised in Britain, and lived and worked here all their adult lives, being denied rights to healthcare and even threatened with deportation.

Mazie was the towering matriarch of our family and the only woman I knew who could terrify me and make me howl with laughter all in a single phone call. I thought her funeral was going to be a sad occasion but to my surprise it was the most wonderful day, with as much laughter as tears as members of my family from America to the Caribbean gathered to pay respects.

As I gave the eulogy I was struck by the range of people in the church, young and old, white and black: we were all one, all there to say goodbye and wish Mazie well on the journey. As the priest urged us to sing her favourite hymns I was particularly struck by the sound coming from the older West Indians in the church. They knew every word of every hymn and they sang heartily, grey now many of them, with walking sticks and in wheelchairs, but you would never have guessed that age had any effect of them as they belted out How Great Thou Art and Mazie’s other favourites.

Hardly any of the “youngsters” like me knew the words – we were a different generation. It was the older ones here leading us. On the way to the graveyard on west London’s Harrow Road, past the million-pound houses of Notting Hill that were once the broken-down homes of the West Indian community in those early years, it struck me how much things had changed and how much we have lost.

'National day of shame': David Lammy criticises treatment of Windrush generation – video

I wondered what the older generation, now crammed into cars heading to bury Mazie, thought of all this change. I wondered if they remembered the unwelcome signs that greeted them on arriving in London: “No blacks, no Irish, no dogs”. I wondered if they remembered the job rejections, being spat at in the street and all the other examples of their welcome to this new land that they were trying to make their home. My God, I thought, we owe them so much respect, for their bravery and for their courage. So when I learned, that very same day, that many of these pioneers and their children were still having to fight for their rightful place in Britain – and in some cases have already been deported because they didn’t have the documentation that proved their right to be here – I was angry and appalled. I haven’t been as angry about anything for a while and I feel I have to stand up for this proud generation in any way I can, because they deserve my support and respect.

Since Friday I have been tweeting and urging everybody who will listen to consider the outrageous position of the British government to deny them the same respect – and instead to deport, detain and threaten them, to withdraw NHS services for them, to sack them, and basically ask them to prove their right to be here when the government itself has not kept the records to prove their case.

I thought, not only has this generation suffered the awful racism of the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s: they were still fighting for respect in Britain, and it made me sad and angry. These people and their mothers and fathers were invited here – some, ironically enough, by Enoch Powell, who as health secretary between 1960 and 1963 recruited West Indian nurses. Exactly 50 years ago, he delivered the hate-filled “rivers of blood” speech.

The Windrush migrants didn’t need documentation: they were deemed to be British citizens. So to treat them like this, in the sunset of their lives, seems to me an awful way to pay them the respect they deserve after years of hardship. They have struggled against racism to settle and start families. Their offspring have helped to build up the country’s public services and businesses. Others now win medals for Britain on the sporting field, are noted across the world for their excellence on stage and screen, or sing songs adored by millions of people.

I for one will do everything in my power to make sure this wrong is put right. I can take being called a nigger, I can take being told to go back home, but to take it from the elected government of the day sticks in my throat and makes me want to stand and fight. We owe this generation so much, and they deserve our respect.

David Harewood is an actor