40 years on, due credit for civil rights pioneer

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The Independent Online

Paul Stephenson, a young black teacher from Bristol, led a victorious boycott against a racist bus company in 1963 that paved the way for the country's first race laws 40 years ago. His stand earned him comparisons with Rosa Parks, the woman who inspired the civil rights movement of America by her refusal to give up her seat on a bus to a white man in segregated Alabama in 1955.

Tonight, Trevor Phillips, head of the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE), will finally give Mr Stephenson, 67, the credit he deserves when he invites him to address a celebration of four decades of anti-discrimination legislation.

In an exclusive interview with The Independent, Mr Stephenson said he was directly inspired by Ms Parks' own protest eight years earlier: "You couldn't help but be impressed by Martin Luther King and what he was doing in America. But without Rosa Parks I'm not sure whether we would have embarked on our boycott. She was a huge influence on me. I thought if she could protest by not giving up her seat on a bus we could start a bus boycott."

The Bristol bus company had enforced a strict a colour bar by refusing to employ blacks or Asians. The company claimed white women would refuse to ride on buses driven by black men or would feel unsafe if they employed black bus conductors. It was an act of blatant racism and provoked Mr Stephenson, then a 26-year-old teacher and community officer working in St Pauls in Bristol, to lead a 60-day boycott of the city's buses.

His protest was supported by thousands of local people who shunned the buses to show their disgust for the treatment of ethic minorities in the city. News of the protest quickly spread beyond Bristol.

On 28 August the company finally capitulated and agreed to lift the bar. It was the same day that Martin Luther King delivered his "I have a dream" speech.

News of the "bus boycott" spread and Mr Stephenson was invited to Virginia by some of the black civil rights leaders of America.

The Labour MP Tony Benn and West Indian cricketer Learie Constantine, later Lord Constantine, came to Bristol to join the protest. Harold Wilson, then the leader of the opposition, wrote to Mr Stephenson offering his encouragement.

Mr Stephenson, whose grandmother was a famous Victorian actress, was born in Rochford, Essex, and lived his early years in almost exclusively white communities. "I was treated [as] more of a novelty than anything else because most black and Asian people tended to live in the cities."

Mr Stephenson later became a cause celebre in his own right when he refused to leave a Bristol pub until he was served half a pint of bitter. When he stood trial on a charge of failing to leave a licensed premises his case attracted national publicity. The Daily Express put the story on the front page and entitled it "The man who refused to say please for his beer".

The Bristol bus boycott and Mr Stephenson's own case helped to thrust race into the national limelight and change public opinion about the treatment of blacks and Asians living in Britain. Few doubt that without Mr Stephenson's efforts it would have been difficult for Harold Wilson's Labour government to bring in Britain's first anti-discrimination laws.

Mr Phillips said: "Everybody forgets that the 1965 law came about because bus companies would not employ black conductors and drivers because white passengers, particularly women, complained they could not get on a bus with a black conductor. At the time it was perfectly reasonable for a bus company to give that as a reason for not employing someone black. Paul Stephenson led a boycott and people don't give him enough credit for his actions." For the CRE, the issue of Britian's attitude towards race relations is still critical. Mr Phillips himself has tried to reset the race agenda by warning that the country is "sleepwalking into segregation".

Mr Stephenson, who is married and still lives in Bristol, has continued his work on race issues.

He says that while treatment of ethnic minorities in Britain has greatly improved in the past 40 years, the issue of race has not gone away.

How much progress has been made?

* LEE JASPER, Secretary of the National Assembly Against Racism

"In the last 40 years we made slow progress in tackling racism ...The Government plans to abolish the Commission for Racial Equality and replace it with a single Commission on Equalities and Human Rights. Any progress made in the last 40 years and any hope of delivering racial equality in my or my children's lifetime will be lost."

* SADIQ KHAN, Labour MP for Tooting

"When my father came to this country from Pakistan in the 1960s, there were signs up saying: 'No blacks, no Irish, no dogs.' That attitude led to clusters of various ethnicities living together because of safety in numbers, which is worth remembering when people start lecturing the ethnic minorities about segregation. In the last 40 years the situation has improved."

* DIANE ABBOT, Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington

"My parents were brought up in rural Jamaica, left school at 14 and came to Britain in the early 1950s. They lived to see their daughter become a British Member of Parliament. That is a measure of how far we have come. And it is remarkable, not that there are tensions, but how well ethnic minorities do manage to get along."

* TREVOR PHILLIPS, Chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality

"We are now moving into the territory where patterns of racial bias are emerging in spite of everybody doing the right thing. We have to address this more sensibly and address the real issues. The first thing is to recognise that there's a physical basis for separation but that doesn't mean people never have to meet each other."