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A Brief History of the Civil Rights Movement in the UK

What do you think of when you hear the words ‘Civil Rights Movement’? Probably Martin Luther King Jr’s civil rights marches? The Montgomery Bus Boycotts and Rosa Parks? I would guess that what you think of – and what you have learnt at school – took place in the United States. Robin Bunce and Paul Field’s biography of Darcus Howe argues that in the history we learn in the UK, the narrative is that “Britain is the utopia of fair play” and therefore the civil rights struggle in the UK are dismissed in the school curriculum as it does not fit into this vision.

What do you think of when you hear the words ‘Civil Rights Movement’? Probably Martin Luther King Jr’s civil rights marches? The Montgomery Bus Boycotts and Rosa Parks? I would guess that what you think of – and what you have learnt at school – took place in the United States. Robin Bunce and Paul Field’s biography of Darcus Howe argues that in the history we learn in the UK, the narrative is that “Britain is the utopia of fair play” and therefore the civil rights struggle in the UK are dismissed in the school curriculum as it does not fit into this vision.

To assume that there was no civil rights movement in the UK is not just untrue, it does a disservice to our black history, leaving gaping holes where the story of progress should be.

Reni Eddo-Lodge

My grandparents came from Bangladesh in the 1970s and so I knew there was definitely racism then; my granddad’s university colleagues called him ‘George’, because apparently Muhammed was too difficult to pronounce. Driving past the Altab Ali Park in Whitechapel, I knew that Britain had a violent past when it came to racism. What I had never heard of though – or admittedly, even thought about – until recently was the civil rights movements that took place in the UK and changed British society.

I have tried to keep this article concise so that it is accessible to all who wish to learn, but there are many important people, places and events I have not included. I’ve started writing from times when the US Civil Rights Movement is most well known (the 1950s onward) and have chosen to write about events which are in some way similar to the US struggle so that what we understand as a civil rights movement is somewhat uniform – and therefore have undoubtedly missed out a lot. Please continue to educate yourself on our history and if you find out about any important events I’ve missed out, please share links in the comments! I hope this article is useful as an inspiration for your research.

The London Caribbean Carnival – 1959

It’s arguable whether this was a part of the civil rights movement, but it was in response to race riots and promoted greater unity between races in London and led to positive change. The Notting Hill Carnival continues to this day, and it is important that we know the origins of the celebration.

In August 1958, members of the Teddy Boys (a white nationalist youth group) witnessed an argument between a mixed-race couple: the Swedish Majbritt Morrison and Jamaican Raymond Morrison) and verbally abused them.

The following night, white men marked and then attacked the homes of black people around Notting Hill with homemade bombs. The violent attacks lasted from the 30th of August to the 5th of September and yet racism, perpetuated even by politicians such as Oswald Mosley, continued against the West Indian community in Notting Hill.

Notting Hill Carnival Steel Pan
Steel band playing at the Notting Hill Carnival

To promote unity and stand against the violence in Notting Hill, Claudia Jones (a Trinidadian) set up the London Caribbean Festival which was even televised by the BBC. Jones set up the first Black newspaper in Britain and one of her writers, Donald Hinds, remembers that Jones sought to “wash the taste of Notting Hill out of our mouths” following the riots through the carnival, which continued until her death in 1964.

In 1966, Rhaune Laslett re-birthed the Notting Hill Carnival to promote the same values that Jones had sought to – to celebrate the diversity in Notting Hill and London. The impromptu carnival celebrated the resilience of the West Indian spirit in Notting Hill by encouraging the community to come together.

The Bristol Bus Boycott – 1963

When we think of a bus boycott, we immediately think of Rosa Parks and her refusal to give up a seat for a white person on the bus. What many of us haven’t heard of, however, was the Bristol Bus Boycott in 1963, just ten years after the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

In her book ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race’, Reni Eddo-Lodge describes how in 1963, Guy Bailey (originally from Jamaica) was refused a job as a bus driver for the Bristol Omnibus Company, despite having the appropriate qualifications. When Bailey arrived for his interview, he was refused an interview and later to the BBC he recalled how the receptionist ‘stood and went to the manager’s office, [he] heard her call through his door: “Your two o’clock appointment is here, and he’s black”, and how the manager informed him; “We don’t employ black people.”

The Bristol Omnibus Company (which was state-owned and run by the local council) had a “colour bar” which at the time was entirely legal – there was no Race Relations Act. There were no laws about equality in employment, despite the established presence of roughly 3,000 Caribbeans in Bristol in the 1960s and that some of them, Bailey included, had been through the British education system. Further to this, in London, it was a common sight to see Black and ‘coloured’ bus drivers.

A Black London bus driver at the wheel in the late 1950s

Paul Stephenson, who taught Guy Bailey in his evening school, had suspected Bailey’s rejection on the basis of his skin colour and purposefully sent him to the interview to test this theory. Inspired by Martin Luther King Jr, Stephenson decided to take action.

Stephenson invited the press to let them know what had happened and then encouraged a bus boycott. The boycott quickly gained popularity and politicians including Bristol South East MP Tony Benn declared that he would “stay off the buses, even if [he had] to find a bike”. Labour leader Harold Wilson said that he was “glad that so many Bristolians [were] supporting the [boycott] campaign… we wish them every success”.

UK Black civil rights history

The campaigners remained non-violent, and unlike the Alabama Bus Boycotts which were largely successful because such a large proportion of those who used the buses were black and participating in the boycott, the boycott in Bristol gained attention because the authorities were ashamed – it disrupted the “utopian” image in Britain. The movement became more popular, with white women even joining in as they took their children to school.

On August 28th 1963, Martin Luther King Jr gave his “I have a Dream” speech and the night before 500 bus workers in Bristol had voted in favour for “the employment of suitable coloured workers as bus crews” – the bus boycott had succeeded.

The Mangrove Nine – 1970

The trials of the ‘Mangrove Nine’ were the first time a judge admitted “evidence of racial hatred” in the Metropolitan police.

The Mangrove Nine
Protests against the police’s activity in ‘The Mangrove’

In the late 1960s, Frank Crichlow’s restaurant ‘The Mangrove’ was one of the most important cultural centers for Notting Hill’s West Indian community. ‘The heavy mob’, a group of almost colonial-era officers in the area, campaigned to have the restaurant shut down, claiming it was used as a drugs den despite no evidence to suggest so and repeated raids (twelve times between January 1969 and July 1970).

Darcus Howe, who worked at ‘The Mangrove’ encouraged Crichlow to gather the community together for support against the police’s repeated raids, organising a campaign for the police to “get their hands off The Mangrove”. On the 9th of August 1970, together with Britain’s Black Panther movement, 150 people marched against the police. Violence erupted after heavy-handed policing and the government, at a loss of what to charge the protesters for, charged them for ‘incitement to riot’ (they found they could not deport Howe, nor could they charge them under the Race Relations Act, for fear of the protesters being seen as martyrs).

The magistrate dropped charges against ‘The Nine’ who were charged as the police’s statements equated the protests with criminality, yet ‘The Nine’ were arrested once again during dawn raids when the authorities reinstated charges.

The ‘Mangrove Nine’ ensured they could have the trial on their own terms, with two of the nine choosing to defend themselves and then requesting an all-black jury, as the Magna Carta states that people can be tried in a ‘jury of peers’ – Howe studied law. When this was rejected for not being the norm at the time, each of the Nine used their ability to reject up to seven members of the jury until they had an all-black jury.

The Mangrove Nine
Eight members of The Mangrove Nine

The police claimed that ‘The Mangrove’ was “a haunt of criminals” but eventually the jury believed ‘The Nine’ and rejected the police’s statements – one police officer was even seen signalling to the witnesses as they gave evidence and was asked to leave. The judge ruled that there was ‘evidence of racial hatred on both sides” of the trial which caused an outcry. The judge declared that institutional racism was present in the Metropolitan Police, which as can be imagined, was not expected in the 1970s. The Met’s assistant commissioner asked for the judge’s statement to be retracted, but it never was.

Whilst this can be seen as an almost perfect story with a perfect ending, it is important to note that it exposed the institutional racism in the police. At a time when many of us are only just discovering more about police brutality against Black people in the UK and around the world, institutional racism has always existed – and been known about – in the police structure since its conception, yet many of us are only finding out the reality of what this means now.

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