If you went to school in Britain, it is very likely that you were briefly taught about the slave trade in your history lessons. It is also very likely that you know who Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and Malcom X are – American Civil Rights campaigners in the 1960s. However, do you know who Paul Stephenson, Altheia Jones LeCointe, Darcus Howe, Jacelyn Barrow, Louis Mahoney and Olive Morris are? They are just a few of the Black British Civil Rights activists in the 1960s-90s who fought for equality in Britain. What did these people do and how come they aren’t talked about in our history lessons? There were many Civil Rights activists in Britain in the 1960s, but there are a few whose stories and impact stand out.
In 1963 Paul Stephenson organised a boycott against a Bristol bus company that refused to employ Black and Asian people. The event, more commonly known as the ‘Bristol Bus Boycott’, lasted for 60 days and got so much support that the bus company was forced to allow the employment of Black and Asian people. This event resembles when Rosa Parks refused to move from her seat in an all-white section of the bus in 1955. The ‘Bristol Bus Boycott’ wasn’t the only publicised racial event Stephenson had to go through. In 1964 a bar owner refused to serve Stephenson and asked him to leave because he was black. Stephenson refused to leave the bar, so the owner called the police, claiming that Stephenson was being aggressive, and he was arrested. The case went to court but was dismissed as several eyewitnesses said Stephenson was not being aggressive.
From this incident and many others, we can see how stereotypes of Black people being aggressive can lead to very harmful circumstances like imprisonment or, in the case of George Floyd, death. When we think of a false account of events by a White person we often think of Emmitt Till. And rightfully so. But how come Britain has been unable to acknowledge that those same patterns of stereotyping and segregation were and still are very present in the UK? With all the recent events in the U.S., Britain’s history of racism has been shielded, and the British press and government don't seem too keen to have these confrontational conversations about the racial discrimination that happened in the '60s and to acknowledge people like Paul Stephenson who were true change makers.
Another person whose legacy deserves to be known is Altheia Jones – LeCointe. A physician from Trinidad, LeCointe joined the Black Panthers in 1960 whilst she was studying in London. In a society where the voices of Black women are often ignored, LeCointe fought for the protection of Black women and girls and made sure anyone who was suspected of inflicting harassment and abuse on them had a proper trial and was punished if they were found guilty. LeCointe protested the repeated police raids at the Mangrove hotel in Notting Hill. She was one of nine people (known as the Mangrove Nine) who got arrested. The Mangrove Nine were found to be innocent. Despite the fact that the protest was attended by around 700 individuals, very few people know about it. This shows how Britain has swept important parts of Black history under the rug and continues to do so.
For Britain to truly move on from its racist past, the British public, press and government need to acknowledge these stories and not shy away from the fact that a lot of work has gone into getting us to this point and a lot of work still needs to be done in order to improve society so that we can come closer to racial equality. It is only by teaching these stories in history lessons, sharing them on the news and putting them on public display in the form of statues or in museums, that we can move forward as a society.
Written by Chiara Folefac
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