Black History Month is celebrated in October in the UK.
For many young Black people in Britain, one would argue that it is very easy for them to recall the names of US Civil Rights icons, better than any standout Black UK Civil Rights activists who fought the struggle .Generally more is known about the Civil rights struggle in the United States than any contributions over that same period of the involvement of black Britons in the assertion of their own equality in Britain.
Even a narrow focus on any decade in recent British history like the 1980s brings to light a varied and complicated history of struggles for civil rights and justice to be respected in terms of family rights, immigration, employment, defence of communities from racist attacks and policing that was as vibrant and heroic as its American counterpart.
We also had a Black power and Black Panther movement in Britain, and this was the first such branch outside of the US. And how well known are Olive Morris (1952 –1979) a founding member of the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent (OWAAD) in London and established the Brixton Black Women’s Group and Darcus Howe (1943 –2017) broadcaster, writer and civil liberties campaigner. There are books on Rosa Park and students study the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 but know nothing about Paul Stephenson and the bus boycott that took place in Bristol in 1963? He also went to trial for refusing to leave a pub until he was served beer, knowing that it was common practice for some pubs to show signs stating “No blacks, no Irish, no dogs”. Likewise the famous and lauded March on Washington in 1963, a people mobilised like the Black Peoples Day of Action when up 20,000 people marched from New Cross to Central London in protest at the burning to death of 13 black teenagers at a party in New Cross.
A lot of October’s black history seems to revolve around American and African history, why isn’t black British history as readily available. There is a rich vein to explore and acknowledge with the self-organisation of communities, their political awareness, active democracy or even active involvement against the racism of state and society, raising the demands for equality and justice.
Throughout the 1980s there were a whole spate of campaigns in response, not to the individual racist or right-wing provocations ,as in Lewisham in 1977, but to what was seen as ‘racist state attacks’ upon the minority communities and its life. The mushrooming of opposition and solidarity in London alone that involved a number of Black community based groups and empathic defence campaigns such as the Black Action Group, Black Liberation Front, Black People’s Campaign for Justice, Cherry Groce Family Support and Community Defence Campaign, the Cynthia Jarrett Campaign, Newham 7, Southall Rights, Bangledesh Divided Families Campaign, Roach Family Support Campaign, the Wilson Silcott campaign, Broad Water Farm Defence Campaign, the Tottenham Three campaign.
There were various local community based initiatives, such as the Hackney Anti-Deportation Campaign ,and mobilisation that had a national reach such as the Anwar Ditta Family Campaign, now used as teaching material in citizenship classes. Coverage to such citizen participation was given in the minority press, in campaign literature and in publications like “Race Today” and “Race & Class” still produced by the Institute of Race Relations.
Such ephemeral activism was outside of the established political structures where there was a push for the creation within the Labour Party for a Black members Section as a pressure group throughout the late 1980s. That group split when four members of the Black section who were prospective Parliamentary candidates – Paul Boateng, Diane Abbott, Russell Profitt and Bernie Grant – condemned fellow prominent member, Sharon Atkins for publically stating that “it was more important to represent the interest of Black people than to win a seat for Labour.”. The four Black parliamentary candidate issued a statement endorsing the disciplinary action taken against Atkin, “our overriding interests [is] getting Labour into Government…nothing can be allowed to get in the way of this.”
However that historical legacy remains in library archives, a neglected aspect of modern British society subject to an amnesic indifference that smothers different voices. The curriculum currently evades the contributions that Black Britons made towards the Civil Rights movement in Britain .The book, “Black Star, Britain’s Asian Youth Movements” is an exception, providing the historical narrative of one of those trends in society that often receive scant coverage in more mainstream and educational history books. It traces the birth of the Asian-based youth movement engaged in community self-defence and involved in the trial of the Bradford 12, acquitted when offering a community self-defence plea to charges of preparing petrol bombs.
The combination of welfare and campaigning work by organisations like the Indian Workers’ Association (established 1938) reflected its Punjabi roots and it remained concerned with political and social developments in India. The IWA (GB) campaigned against the repression of political opponents, particularly Indira Gandhi’s government imposition of a State of Emergency between 1975 and 1977, in the Alliance Against Fascist Dictatorship for People’s Democratic India.
The attempt to build militant broad campaigning organisation was seen in the early 1960s Joshi initiated the formation of the Coordinating Committee Against Racial Discrimination (CCARD), a broad based campaigning committee of 26 organisations fronted by Victor Yates, MP for Ladywood. It was formed to oppose the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Bill. The IWA, in conjunction with other bodies such as the West Indian Standing Conference, and the Standing Conference of Pakistan, fought hard against this legislation, putting together a pamphlet entitled Victims Speak and posting it to each Member of Parliament. Unsuccessful in this campaign, the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination (CARD) inaugurated in February 1965. In April 1968 IWA leader Jagmohan Joshi (1936-79) convened the Black People’s Alliance, attracting 50 delegates representing 20 Indian, Caribbean, Pakistanis and African organisations throughout Britain.
Throughout the 1970s Joshi’s IWA continued to challenge state racism through participation in the Campaign Against Racist Laws (CARL) and the Campaign Against Racism and Fascism. They campaigned on many fronts supporting a strike by Asian workers in 1965 at Courtauld’s Red Scar textile mill in Preston and, in May 1974, Asian workers at the Imperial Typewriter Company in Leicester on strike over unequal bonus payments and discrimination in promotion. Later involved in landmark struggles in support of the Asian women workers at Grunwick photo processing plant in north west London.
Organisation like South Asia Solidarity Group, Newham Monitoring Project, Pakistan Workers’ Association all point to the lesser known histories that contribute to modern British society. These largely unacknowledged contribution that provide both legacies and lessons that can enrich the experience of Black History Month.