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Birmingham politician James Hunte who lured Muhammad Ali to the city dies aged 72

A former Birmingham politician who lured boxing legend Muhammad Ali to the city has died aged 72.

James Hunte
James Hunte

A former Birmingham politician who lured boxing legend Muhammad Ali to the city has died aged 72.

James Hunte and his wife Sharon reduced the ex-world heavyweight champion to tears when they flew to America to outline their vision for a centre in his name.

Ali promised to open the venue and, true to his word, he came to Birmingham to perform the honours on August 9, 1983, as more than a thousand people scrambled to see him.

It was among the highlights of Hunte’s eventful career in Midland politics.

He stood as an independent candidate in a 1977 by-election in Ladywood after Labour MP Brian Walden stood down to concentrate on a career in broadcasting.

He was also a member of the old West Midlands County Council and became renowned for campaigning against pyramid selling scams, prompting a change in the law.

But he courted controversy, too, and was accused of abusing his position as vice chairman of the authority’s race relations committee to help black community groups, acting – as one councillor claimed in a May 1991 interview – as “some kind of patron giving out money according to people he liked”.

Hunte and Sharon – a former city council member who represented Handsworth for Labour during the 1981 riots – moved to Barbados in 1987 when he was offered a senior security job at an airport in Bridgetown.

He died on May 23 after suffering from blood-thinning problems following a clot detected last December. The couple were married for almost 36 years. Paying tribute to her husband, Sharon, 54, said: “He fought through all the allegations and controversy. We were on the outside for many years but no-one was treated differently. Everyone with a problem was dealt with fairly.

“More black people came forward because they were the ones who were suffering.

“James was a great husband and loyal to his friends. He did everything without regret and I know he would have done exactly the same again.”

Hunte, who was also a member of the Police Authority, arrived in Britain from the Caribbean in the early 1960s and joined the Army before launching his political career.

At times of tension between communities and authority, he was prepared to blame “inflammatory police actions” when he felt it justified but was a key conduit for liaison with the police.

In his book Policing The Rainbow, retired Handsworth police superintendent David Webb wrote: “James and I disagreed over many things. He had gained his reputation among his followers from his skill at tweaking the tail of the white man, and mine.

“On the matter of community policing, however, we were in absolute agreement, working on many joint ventures.”

Commenting on “a leader who saw the whole picture and got things done”, Webb added when told of Hunte’s death: “He worked hard in the community. I always had a great deal of respect for him.”

Lord Scarman, as part of his inquiry into London’s Brixton riots, sought Hunte’s views on a visit to Birmingham.

Hunte and Sharon vowed to bring Ali to Britain as Hunte was national director of the Midland Community Growth and Support Association, the driving force behind the Birmingham community centre.

Speaking from Barbados, Sharon said the boxing legend “cried like a baby” when she and her husband met him in America and revealed they were to name the venue in his honour. And there was pandemonium when he proved as good as his word. The doors of the centre had to be barricaded as fans swarmed over the building, some even trying to climb onto the roof and in through skylights.

Sharon recalled: “Ali said: ‘I was born here and they haven’t named as much as a road after me’. It was overwhelming when he came in 1983. People climbed onto the roofs of buildings to catch a glimpse of him. I will never forget it.”

She said she was “saddened” by the now-sorry state of the Hockley venue, which has been closed for more than a decade, and planned to press city council leader Sir Albert Bore for action during a visit to the UK.

Six organisations came forward to resurrect the centre earlier this year amid possible plans for a community asset transfer which may see it reopened.

She said: “I would love to see the centre refurbished. I want to speak to Albert to see what the possibilities are. I’ll help in whatever way I’m able.”

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