Obituary: Ron Phillips

Hal Austin
Monday 09 November 1998 01:02

RON PHILLIPS was one of the most powerful orators black Britain has ever produced. He was one of the first West Indians in Britain to understand the significance of and translate the political, cultural and organisational importance of black self-awareness to that generation of young black men - and they were mainly men - in the late 1960s and 1970s who were suffering, en masse, for the first time the pressures of living in a racist society.

Phillips was born in Georgetown, Guyana, in 1935, the eldest of three brothers - Mike is a detective thriller writer and journalist and Trevor is a television executive and broadcaster. He was educated at the prestigious Queens College, the colony's elite secondary school based on the principles of the British public-school system.

His parents had moved to England in 1950 (his father to work for the Post Office) and he joined them in Islington, north London, in 1952. The following year he joined the British army and was stationed in the north of England, where he remained on discharge. He studied for a degree in Civil Engineering at Sheffield University in the mid-Fifties and shortly after went to Moscow, where a course in politics at the Patrice Lumumba University focused his political views.

On returning to England, he settled in Moss Side in Manchester and there, in the late Sixties, became deeply involved in the life of the black community, particularly with the growing number of homeless and jobless teenage boys. He was one of the founders of the Hideaway youth centre and, along with Gus John, his partner (and later his wife) Ada Lock, and militant students from the city's university, founded George Jackson House in Witherington Road, a halfway house for homeless teenage boys, which became known throughout the entire black British community and beyond.

Phillips had enormous political understanding but he was not perfect. When he became involved in the founding and running of the Abasimdi Cooperative, one of the first black women's organisations in the country, his insistence on being the figurehead led to its closure. With the wisdom of hindsight, this marked a significant setback for the growth and self-determination of black women's groups in the city which has left some people still bitter and angry.

Phillips was a militant campaigner in cases of injustice. When a Nigerian student, David Oluwale, was found dead in Leeds in the early 1970s, Phillips rightly suspected the police had a direct hand in his death and spearheaded the campaign for justice. The campaign led, for the first time, to criminal charges and conviction in what is now called a race-hate crime.

He was also one of the leading campaigners against Manchester City Council's vandalism of Moss Side - a policy that has now gone full circle - attacking their policy of rehousing families on isolated and bleak estates. It was because many of the boys and a few girls refused to join their parents on these gulag estates, preferring to remain with friends in the familiar surroundings of Moss Side, that the homeless problem arose.

Phillips was a tireless activist and wrote prolifically, from a Marxist- Leninist stance, for black publications such as Race Today (the journal of the Institute of Race Relations) and The Black Liberator.

He was by far the best public orator of his generation in the black British community, mesmerising, almost evangelical.

Many people still recall two of his speeches on public platforms in the 1970s. He spoke at a meeting at Central Hall, Westminster, in support of George Jackson, shortly after he came out of Stafford Prison, where he had been sentenced for breaking a court injunction not to enter Manchester Cathedral, the result of a direct action campaign for church property to be used as a nursery for hard-up single mothers.

Phillips spoke with force about his experiences in prison with a conviction which remains part of the living memory of that period. He was not only a moving force behind the campaign to free George Jackson from Soledad prison's death row, but played a central role in the campaign to free Angela Davis after she became a victim of the American criminal justice system.

He was, too, enormously proud of the part he played in drawing to the public attention the horrors of the savage apartheid system in southern Africa.

In the late 1970s Phillips surprised many when he returned to his native Guyana to work with the Forbes Burnham government. Following the inevitable disagreement with Burnham, he moved to the United States, where he resumed his career as an engineer, later joining the faculty at Delaware State University. Earlier this year he retired and set up his own consultancy.

Ron Phillips would never have been seen dead at cocktail parties with luvvies and fair-weather liberal friends. He could be wrong-headed and stubborn, but his commitment to the aspirations of the black community was unquestioned.

Ivor Ronald Phillips, engineer and activist: born Georgetown, Guyana 26 October 1935; twice married (three sons, two daughters); died Wilmington, Delaware 31 October 1998.

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