I want you to take a moment if you can and think back to your history lessons during high school, be it during key stage 3 or if you took it any further during your GSCE’s or A-level history. Can you recall the name, Paul Stephenson? The Bristol Bus Boycott in 1963? (yes there were boycotts in England) Or the origins of the now extremely popular Notting Hill Carnival? There is a bout of historical amnesia that permeates the English national curriculum, particularly concerning fundamental parts of black British history. I am aware as University History student that every single nook and cranny of the British memory cannot be taught in the curriculum; it is extremely vast. However, on close observation the fact that there are missing chunks of Black British history that is not taught in our schools is troubling. Troubling because a key period that helped frame race relations and British institutions today has been left out. Knowledge of the Black civil rights movement in Britain is incredibly fundamental. It aids in the understanding of why British institutions, legislation and structures are shaped in the way they are. Drawing on figures and groups, who campaigned for racial equality, can help us today when considering what we can do to build and reshape our system, which despite some improvements, continues to discriminate against black people.
Please do not be under the illusion as many so often are that there was no conscious effort in Britain to manifest or build a black civil rights movement in the 20th century. Many assume that because there was not a black civil rights or power movement attached to Britain as there was in the United States that racism did not pervade all levels of society as it did in America. This was certainly not the case. Racism in Britain was underpinned against a different backdrop altogether. Whilst it was certainly as complex as it was in America, racism in Britain entailed nuances that have given way to the illusion that the black civil rights struggle in Britain did not exist.
Let’s take it back, not as far back as colonialism- we all aware of the slave trade- no matter how they want to dress it up in school (that’s another piece for another time- yes colonial amnesia exists heavily in Britain). Following the Second World War, with a depleted workforce, Britain still a colonial power invited workers from the Caribbean to help rejuvenate post-war Britain. With workers came their families, and as immigration began to rise, so did racial discrimination and violence. It echoed the racism in America, however it took place on a smaller scale. As Dr Bikhu Parekh a Labour member of the House of Lords noted, “English racism was calm, arrogant, secure in its self-righteousness and self-confidence.” White, predominantly working-class Teddy Boys spurred on by far-right organisations such as Osawald Mosely’s Union Movement and the White Defence League led the charge of racial animosity in a bid to “Keep Britain White”. It is no surprise then that the racial tension culminated in the 1958 Notting Hill Riots. Following the assault of a Swedish woman, Maibritt Morrison married at the time to a Jamaican man Raymond Morrison by a gang of young white people. From the riots came an increased tension between the Metropolitan police and the Caribbean community who recognised the police failings to take their reports seriously, thereby exposing to many a racial dynamic of this powerful British institution. What also emerged more positively from the Notting Hill Riots and is still celebrated today in January 1959 was the precursor of the Notting Hill Carnival by Claudia Jones a “Caribbean Carnival.”
Along with community figures Claudia Jones came those such as Paul Stephenson, who a decade later fought against discrimination that not only occurred in his home Bristol but was widespread across British cities. Direct racism in the form of “Coloured bars” that halted the employment of ‘coloured’ people and affected housing led to the systemic discrimination of people of colour in Britain. Paul Stephenson was a youth worker and a member of the West Indian Development council who led a successful boycott against the Bristol Omnibus Company. The previously nationalised company despite a labour shortage denied prospective black employees work; with the Transport and General Worker’s Union at the time stating “if one black man steps on the platform as a conductor, every wheel will stop.” The four-month long boycott was a success and the company overturned the colour bar. The infamous boycott drew national attention to racial discrimination and was an influential force on the passing of the Race Relations Act in 1965. Although the act was extended in 1968 and amended by the Race Relations Amendment Act in 2000, it codified in law a marked shift in British attitudes towards race, requiring equal treatment and access to employment, private and public services regardless of race.
Those are just two key events amongst many that made up the Black British civil rights movement. Others included the trial of “The Mangrove Nine,” where Frank Crichlow a community activist and others were arrested for ‘riot and affray’ after protesting police harassment in 1970. After their acquittal, as Crichlow said “put on trial the attitudes of the police, the Home Office, of everyone towards the black community.” Another notable series of events were the street disturbances in 1981 that stormed major cities in England-Brixton, Birmingham, Leeds and Liverpool due to police tensions between communities of colour. Thus, the Scarman report was drawn up leading to a new code for police behaviour as set in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. As well as the establishment of an Independent Police Complaints Authority in 1985.
The Black British Civil Rights movement, although small, was incredibly influential and rich with lessons we can learn from today. Understanding occurrences like the events that led to the Notting Hill Riots in 1958 and the street disturbances of 1981 would have left us better equipped for the riots that occurred in 2010 following the police shooting of Mark Duggan. Being made aware of the campaigns that led to the changes in attitudes, and the introduction of new British legislation decades ago is of key importance to the constant calls for further changes to level the playing field for black people in Britain today. Campaigners and events should be celebrated and recognised across the country. Paul Stephenson’s name should be as recognisable as Marin Luther King Jr’s. Even though the British fight for equality was fought on a smaller scale in comparison to America’s it certainly did not mean it did not happen nor was it of any importance.
It is easy to recognise there is a pattern in the historical curriculum not to dwell on the mistakes and roles Britain played in history. Not only should there be a demand for a revision of British Black history but a revision in the delivery and teaching or lack of it in our schools. Black British history is vital, it should be taught to a greater extent in our schools, mistakes should be learnt from.
Written by Jasmine Botchey