On the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's death, remember that the UK had a black civil rights movement too

To assume that there was no civil rights movement in the UK is not just untrue, it does a disservice to our black history, leaving gaping holes where the story of progress should be

Reni Eddo-Lodge
Wednesday 04 April 2018 15:56 BST
Dr Paul Stephenson, Guy Bailey and Roy Hackett stand in front of a plaque serving as a permanent celebration and reminder of the non-violent campaign to change the Bristol Omnibus Company’s employment laws.
Dr Paul Stephenson, Guy Bailey and Roy Hackett stand in front of a plaque serving as a permanent celebration and reminder of the non-violent campaign to change the Bristol Omnibus Company’s employment laws. (Flickr)

On 7 March 1965, African Americans were beaten bloody on a civil rights march led by Martin Luther King Jr. They were demanding their constitutional right to vote. Two years before that now iconic day, in the west of England, 19-year-old Jamaican Guy Bailey made his way to a job interview with Bristol Omnibus Company, the city’s bus service. Paul Stephenson, a local youth worker, had arranged the interview for Guy, first ensuring that there were jobs available, and that Guy had the qualifications to do the work. But when Guy turned up to his interview, he found that it had been cancelled. Recounting his interview to the BBC 50 years later, Guy recalled the exact moment he was rejected by the receptionist. “She said to the manager: ‘Your two o’clock appointment is here. But he’s black.’ And the manager said: ‘Tell him we have no vacancies here, all vacancies are filled.’”

That Guy was turned down was not a surprise to Bristol’s 3,000-strong black community, the majority of whom had settled in Britain from the Caribbean after the Second World War. For them, racism in the bus service was a long-held suspicion; many had interviewed with Bristol Omnibus Company only to be turned down. Everyone who worked at the bus company was white.

But Guy Bailey’s interview wasn’t a coincidence. It had been set up by a small group of young men: Roy Hackett, Owen Henry, Audley Evans and Prince Brown. The group called themselves the West Indian Development Council. They asked Paul Stephenson to work with them on their plan, and he agreed. Paul already knew Guy, who was a student at the night school he taught at. Guy was a good interview prospect. He was clean cut, already employed, studying part-time, and active in a Christian youth organisation.

Martin Luther King Jr's iconic I Have A Dream speech

As soon as Guy was refused an interview, the group arranged a press conference. Local reporters crowded into Paul’s flat to hear exactly what had happened. A photoshoot was arranged, with Owen echoing Rosa Parks by sitting at the back of a bus. As both local and national press reported on the case, pressure mounted on the bus service’s general manager, Ian Patey. When the Bristol Evening Post pressed him, he said: “You won’t get a white man in London to admit it, but which of them will join a service where they may find themselves working under a coloured foreman?”

Paul and the West Indian Development Council won the support of local students, saw speeches in favour of their cause from politicians, and earned sympathetic editorials in the local press. But Paul was also repeatedly ignored by the bus company and the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU). Though often divided by work disputes, both management and the trade union found themselves united by racism. They had an agreement, the kind that lent itself well to discrimination: the bus company was not to hire anyone not already approved by the local TGWU branch. Even though Ian Patey’s comments were on histories the record, Bristol Omnibus Company deflected accountability, instead passing it along to the union. Racism had infected worker solidarity, with a union representative at the time insisting that more black workers would be taking away jobs for prospective white employees, and that employing them would mean reduced hours for current employees.

As the campaign continued, Paul was harshly criticised. Ron Nethercott, South-west regional secretary of the union, wrote an article in a national newspaper calling Paul “dishonest” and “irresponsible”. For his critics, it was his activism that was the root of the problem, not the colour bar. Some of these statements led to a libel case, which Paul won. Meanwhile, every single one of the city’s West Indian residents were boycotting the bus service. One campaign leader told the local newspaper: “Although it is hard to tell, many white people are supporting us.” The campaign drew support from Trinidad’s high commissioner, Sir Learie Constantine.

More than 100 university students marched in support, and everyone boycotting the bus service either walked or cycled to get around the city. The day before Martin Luther King Jr told an audience of 250,000 that he had a dream, a meeting of 500 bus employees met and agreed to discontinue Bristol Omnibus Company’s unofficial colour bar. The day after, general manager Ian Patey committed to ending it for good. Speaking at a press conference, he announced “the only criterion will be the person’s suitability for the job”. But it is important to note that, to date, Bristol Omnibus, now merged with other companies and eventually renamed First Somerset and Avon, has never apologised for its actions. Neither has the Bristol branch of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, since merged with Unite the Union.

I first learnt of the Bristol bus boycott as a graduate in 2013, when I was working at race equality think tank the Runnymede Trust. A small team of us travelled to Bristol to launch a campaign. As well as running a pop-up, “come and talk about racism” shop, we also held evening events around the city centre. One of those events was with Paul Stephenson. By then, he was in his late seventies. Upstairs in the event space of Foyles bookshop, Paul, his voice withered by age and activism and righteous rage, commanded the attention of the whole room. I felt like I was listening to history.

That I had to go looking for significant moments in black British history suggests to me that I had been kept ignorant. While the black British story is starved of oxygen, the US struggle against racism is globalised into the story of the struggle against racism that we should look to for inspiration – eclipsing the black British story so much that we convince ourselves that Britain has never had a problem with race. We need to stop lying to ourselves, and we need to stop lying to each other. To assume that there was no civil rights movement in the UK is not just untrue, it does a disservice to our black history, leaving gaping holes where the story of progress should be. Black Britain deserves a context.

Speaking to the Radio Times, actor David Oyelowo highlighted the lack of historical British films about black people, saying: “We make period dramas [in Britain], but there are almost never black people in them, even though we’ve been on these shores for hundreds of years. I remember taking a historical drama with a black figure at its centre to a British executive with green light power, and what they said was that if it’s not Jane Austen or Dickens, the audience don’t understand. And I thought, ‘OK – you are stopping people having a context for the country they live in and you are marginalising me. I can’t live with that. So I’ve got to get out.’” Faced with a collective forgetting, we must fight to remember.

I know that there is so much more history out there about people of colour in Britain, if you’re willing to put in the effort to find it. After Britain voted to leave the European Union in June 2016, we were told reported hate crimes drastically grew in number, and that racism was on the rise in Britain again. But looking at our history shows racism does not erupt from nothing, rather it is embedded in British society. It’s in the very core of how the state is set up. It’s not external. It’s in the system.

This is an extract from Reni Eddo-Lodge’s book ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race’, now available in paperback £8.99, published by Bloomsbury

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