Black Lives Matter Education History Politics Social Justice

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.

The Murder of Altab Ali – 1978

If you live in East London and have driven in Whitechapel, it’s very likely that you’ve seen the Altab Ali Park, previously called St Mary’s Park but renamed in 1998 after Altab Ali who was murdered in 1978 by a group of three teenagers.

Altab Ali Park
The Altab Ali Park in Whitechapel

Altab Ali was a 24 year old Bangladeshi textile worker who was brutally stabbed and murdered by three teenagers in a racist attack on the 4th of May 1978 on his way home from work. The murder was racially motivated and when one of the 16-year old culprits who murdered Ali was questioned, he said there was “no reason at all” – it was entirely random.

Murder of Ali Altab

Ali’s death united the many ethnic minorities in East London who were also afraid for their lives and ten days after his death, a march of 7,000 people took place, with people chanting “black and white, unite and fight” and Ali’s coffin was marched all the way to Downing Street. A month later another South Asian man – Ishaque Ali – was murdered in the area – change was slow.

The National Front moved their headquarters very close to St Mary’s park and to prevent them from distributing their media in the area, anti-racism protesters would camp in the area overnight: it ensured the National Front could not use the space.

Although now East London is one of the most diverse areas in the UK, it took time for Ali’s murder to be properly commemorated in the area. The park was renamed after Ali in 1998 and he is commemorated through the park’s design:

“The entrance to the park is an arch created by David Petersen… developed as a memorial to Altab Ali and other victims of racist attacks. The arch incorporates a complex Bengali-style pattern, meant to show the merging of different cultures in East London. Along the path down the centre of the park are letters spelling out “The shade of my tree is offered to those who come and go fleetingly” – a fragment of a poem by Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore. The Shaheed Minar which commemorates the Bengali Language Movement stands in the southwest corner of Altab Ali Park. The monument is a smaller replica of the one in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and symbolises a mother and her martyred sons.”

Tower Hamlets Council
Ali Altab Memorial
A plaque commemorating Altab Ali in the park

The Black People’s Day of Action – 1981

On January 18th 1981, a fire broke out during a birthday party in New Cross, South East London, which killed 13 young black people and led to the suicide of a 14th a few years later.

The Black community felt that the British government had not shown that ‘Black lives matter’ – the police was accused of not doing enough to investigate the cause of the fire and the government had stayed silent on what had happened. Many Black people believed that the fire was a racist attack – witnesses claimed having seen a man who fled the scene in a white van, yet the exact cause of the fire still remains unknown. In previous years, there had been multiple places that had been firebombed in racist attacks.

The Black People's Day of Action
The victims of the fire, aged between 15-22

On the 2nd of March, Darcus Howe, with others, organised the Black People’s Day of Action. People came from as far as France, as well as coachloads of people coming from areas like Manchester and Birmingham to London to take part. Children left school in the middle of the day, as the march passed their schools, to join in – 20,000 people took part in the protests – the biggest demonstration ever by Black people in Britain. Protesters chanted “13 dead, Nothing Said” and carried banners to commemorate the young people that had lost their lives.

The march was purposefully organised to be different to others and to disrupt – Leila Hassan Howe, the wife of Darcus Howe, recalls how they didn’t want to just “have a rally, on a Saturday, in Trafalgar Square with speakers and then everybody goes home” – the demonstration was held on a weekday. Whilst the route was agreed with police, it quickly grew larger with people joining in as the march passed them.

The protest passed Fleet Street, where many of London’s newspapers were based and many were shocked at the coverage of the largely peaceful protest – the Sun reported on the “Day the Blacks Ran Riot in London” and the “Black Day on Blackfriars”, whilst the National Front’s own paper described “Britain Enters the Era of the Great Terror!”. The only clashes that took part were due to the police trying to change the agreed route as the protest grew rapidly in size, to avoid disruption.

The Great Terror
The National Front’s newspaper reporting on the Day

Many of those who were alive at the time or partook in the march recall the day with pride, for the day that London was held to a standstill, showing that Black people would not tolerate the racism they were continually experiencing in Britain. One protester described how ‘The Black People’s Day of Action’ made visible for the first time the quiet rage of a community better known for Carnival and church at its treatment by the authorities” – some have even drawn comparisons between what happened to the Grenfell Tower fire – where ethnic minorities were largely the ones who suffered, yet little has been done to attain justice.

Black Lives Matter protests across the UK – Present

Created by Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi and Patrisse Cullor, the #BlackLivesMatter Movement, was formally established in the year of 2013 following the murder of Trayvon Martin who was gunned down by George Zimmerman in claim of ‘self-defence’’[1] The hashtag went viral on Twitter that same year when Zimmerman was acquitted; this ultimately gave a name to a movement that has previously existed in support of Black lives. The hashtag resurfaced not too long after when Michael Brown was shot by police officer Darren Wilson, this time focusing on the increasing rate of deaths of African Americans at the hands of police. 

Filsan Hussein, “Black Lives Matter is a Movement, Not a Moment”

More recently, following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, protests have taken place throughout the UK (and worldwide) despite the coronavirus lock-down, and a movement has begun – or I would argue, been given new life – to ensure racial equality across the world, stop police brutality, educate ourselves about the history of slavery and colonialism, and end institutional racism.

The current protests have encouraged us to examine the UK’s role in slavery. Statues of slave traders and politicians with a racist past such as Edward Colston and Winston Churchill have been torn down and damaged. Petitions have been set up to re-open cases of those whose cases were dismissed arguably due to institutional racism in the UK, like that of Shukri Abdi’s. Schools and universities are being forced to confront their histories with slave traders.

Edward Colston Black Lives Matter
The toppled statue of Edward Colston

There is still so much that needs to be done in the UK. Justice is still being sought for those who died due to police brutality and racism in the UK, while companies, organisations and the government need to examine racism in their institutions. Perhaps the most important thing for us to remember is that Black Lives Matter – and anti-racism movements more broadly – is a work in progress, seeking to advocate for a better future.

Black Lives Matter
John Boyega at the Black Lives Matter protest in Hyde Park


Here are a few resources that I’ve found particularly useful on the UK movement and I hope you would too:

I hope that this article has been useful as a starting point for your own research – as I mentioned before, there is so much more than what I’ve included here so please continue to read around the civil rights movement in the UK!

Written by Nusaybah Mannan

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