October is Black History Month in the UK
worked as a feminist, anti-racist community organiser and squatting activist throughout the late 60s and 70s in south London . This short biography of south London based anti-racist community organiser Olive Morris throughout the late 1960s and 70s was adapted from Emma Allotey’s original piece.
Olive Morris was born in Jamaica in 1952
- She lived in South London from the age of nine
- Olive was a member of the British Black Panthers
- She was central to the squatter campaigns of the 1970s
- She left Tulse Hill Secondary School without any qualifications and later went on to study at the London College of Printing and at Manchester University.
- During her student years in Manchester (1975-78), Olive also became involved in the community struggles in Moss Side, contributing to the formation of the Black Women’s Mutual Aid and the Manchester Black Women’s Co-op.
- She helped to set up various women’s groups, including the Brixton Black Women’s Group and the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent
In 1979 Olive Morris died of non Hodkin’s lymphoma aged 27 at St Thomas’ Hospital. She is buried in Streatham Vale Cemetery.
One early example of Olive’s political activism was when she intervened into the arrest of a Nigerian diplomat for a parking offence in Brixton in November 1969. She was physically assaulted and racially abused by the police and was arrested, along with six other people, fined £10 and given a three month suspended sentence for two years. The charge was assault on the police, threatening behaviour and possessing dangerous weapons.
Olive became a member of the youth section of the Black Panther Movement (later the Black Workers Movement). The Brixton Panthers had their headquarters at Shakespeare Road in a house that was bought with money donated by John Berger when he won the Bookers Prize. Members of the Brixton Black Panthers included:
Althea Jones – medical doctor
Farukh Dhondi – broadcaster and writer
David Udah – church minister
Darcus Howe – broadcaster
Keith Spencer – community activist
Leila Hussain – community activist
Olive Morris – community activist
Liz Turnbull – community activist
Mala Sen – author
Beverly Bryan – academic and writer
Linton Kwesi Johnson – writer and musician
Neil Kenlock – photographer and founder of Choice FM London
Olive was also a founding member of the Brixton Black Women’s Group. Many political organisations were based in and around Brixton, which was a venue for counter-culture political activity.
Olive was also a squatter and squatted 121 Railton Road, in Brixton in 1973. She was photographed scaling a wall on the cover of the Squatter’s Handbook. The squat became an organising centre, until closed in 1999, for community groups such as BASH (Black people Against State Harassment) as well as housing Sabarr Bookshop, which was one of the first Black community bookshops.
In 1975, Olive moved to Manchester to study a degree in Economics and Social Sciences. She was a member of the National Coordinating Committee of Overseas Students, which campaigned for the abolition of fees for overseas students; off–campus, she was involved in the work of the Manchester Black Women’s Cooperative and the Black Women’s Mutual Aid Group.
Olive visited Italy and Northern Ireland in 1976. In 1977, she visited China and wrote a piece entitled “A sister’s visit to China” which explored the role of China in anti-imperialist struggles. It was published in Speak Out! The Brixton Black Women’s Group newsletter.
Olive, along with Stella Dadzie and others, founded the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent (OWAAD) in February 1978. OWAAD held its first conference at the Abeng centre on Gresham Road in Brixton. (The Abeng Centre was a centre that Olive helped to establish along with Elaine Holness and other members of the community; it is now renamed the Karibu Centre).
After University Olive returned to Brixton, working in the juvenile department of the Brixton Community Law Centre where she was involved in the campaign to scrap the SUS laws.
She criticised the strategy of the Anti-Nazi League focusing on fighting the far right, while largely ignoring the impact of institutionalised racism on the lives of Black people: the role of the police, educational system, etc.
Don Lett, a member of the Movement explains in an interview by Greg Whitfield, that
“It all seems so easy now, the very word just rolls off your tongue, “Black British”, but for awhile back there, it wasn’t so simple you know? Fundamentally the Black British and the Black American experience was different, right from source. Black Americans were dragged, screaming and kicking, from the shores of Africa to an utterly hostile America, whilst my parents, they bought a ticket on the ‘The Windrush’ bound for London! So, right off, you have it there, a major fundamental difference. So even though I attended the Black Panther meetings, proudly wearing my Angela Davis badge, read “Soul on Ice”, there was still so much more that we needed to do. It’s true that we became aware, became conscious in many respects and that was partly due to those Panther ideologies, but the total relevance of that movement just didn’t translate into the Black British experience.”