There’s no denying it: in school history lessons, we tend to focus on the civil rights movement in 20th century America only, rather than any here in the UK – even at GCSE level.
Because so much of our attention is on America, there is a tendency to think that Britain didn’t have its own civil rights and black power movements in the 20th century – but this couldn’t be further from the truth. As we prepare to celebrate Black History Month, spend some time learning about the struggle for civil rights here in Britain. Here are some key dates to get you started:
Joe Clough arrived in Britain from Jamaica in the winter of 1906. Joe drove his employer, Dr. White, around London in his coach and horses, but Dr. White was keen to try out the new motorcars that were becoming popular in the city. Joe soon learned to drive and, in 1910, applied for a job at the London General Omnibus Company. Joe passed his bus driving test and became first a spare driver, before landing his own route between Liverpool Street and Wormwood Scrubs.
Back in 1963, racial discrimination in industry was perfectly legal. It was known as the “colour bar” and it gave employers the right to legally refuse employment to ethnic minorities. The Bristol Omnibus Company used the colour bar in the spring of 1963 to dismiss Guy Bailey, a black man, from the premises before his interview. In response, local activists organised a four-month bus boycott across the city of Bristol, an event which paved the way for the Race Relations Act of 1965.
Under this legislation, it became illegal to discriminate on the grounds of “colour, race, or ethnic or national origins.” Although this only applied to public places, it was the first time that the issue of racism had been publicly addressed. In 1968, this Act was extended to include housing, employment and public services.
Born in Jamaica, Sislin Fay Allen was working as a nurse in the Queen’s Hospital, Croydon, when she saw a recruitment poster for the Metropolitan Police in 1968. Fay’s application was successful, and she became the first female black police constable in the April of that year. Fay stayed with the Met until 1972 when she and her family returned to Jamaica where she continued to work as a policewoman.
On January 18th 1981, a fire broke out in a house in London, killing 13 young black people The indifference of the police and national media to this tragedy prompted activists to organise the Black People’s Day of Action in which 20,000 Londoners marched in protest. Black communities across the country, including Manchester and Birmingham, hosted their own marches in solidarity. Historians remember this day as one of the most important political demonstrations of the 20th century.
Kaye Jones is a teacher and freelance writer, with a passion for history and education.