The great British civil rights scandal: the Bristol bus boycott
As Martin Luther King pursued his dream in America, a campaign for racial equality was making waves across the Atlantic. Three leading figures in 1963's Bristol bus boycott tell Spencer Mizen how their crusade changed the face of civil rights in Britain
Bristol, early 1963. A young man walks into an office to attend a job interview. He introduces himself to the receptionist, takes a seat and waits to be called through to meet his interrogator.
Nothing unusual in that, you might think. But this was no ordinary interview. For the young job seeker, 18-year-old Guy Bailey, was black, and the organisation with which he was seeking work, the Bristol Omnibus Company, was about to find itself in the centre of one of the biggest storms in the history of British race relations.
The late 1950s and early 60s had witnessed a significant influx of young West Indians into Britain’s major cities – many of them, like Guy Bailey, searching for work. Yet, as Guy and others were soon discovering, not all of Britain’s employers were willing to play ball. And, as much of the country would soon become aware, one of those employers was the Bristol Omnibus Company.
Fuelled by workers’ concerns that a new source of labour would drive wages down – and, so it’s since been alleged, fanned by management fears that female staff would be molested by black colleagues – the Bristol Omnibus Company was steadfastly refusing to employ black or Asian drivers. And, despite its policy being exposed in the local press and a cause of growing disquiet among Bristol’s black community, the company had been operating this colour bar with relative impunity. Yet all that was to change the moment Guy Bailey took a seat in its offices.
“We’d put a call into the Bristol Omnibus Company just an hour before the interview to confirm there were still drivers’ jobs available, and they’d said ‘Yes, there are’,” recalls Bailey, talking in his Bristol home 50 years later. “It was only when I arrived, and people in the office realised that I was black, that things started to go wrong.
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“When I told the receptionist that I was there for an interview, she said ‘No, I don’t think so’. I then overheard her telling her manager in the back office that I was black, and him replying to her, ‘Tell him there are no jobs left’.”
As far as the manager was concerned, that was the end of the matter. But what he didn’t know was that Bailey had applied for the job at the behest of local black youth worker Paul Stephenson. And Stephenson wasn’t about to take the company’s rebuttal lying down.
Paul Stephenson was born to a British mother and West African father in Rochford, Essex in 1937. He was well educated, articulate and, above all, determined to confront the racism he’d encountered both as a youngster growing up in east London, and since arriving in Bristol as a community development officer in 1962.
Stephenson had sent Bailey to the interview as a test case to establish beyond all doubt that the Bristol Omnibus Company’s colour bar was more than mere rumour. Now he had his proof, it was time to act.
“This was naked racism – a sign we had to take action,” the softly spoken Stephenson tells me. “If you were a young black person living in Britain, you couldn’t be a policeman, an ambulanceman or fireman. You couldn’t go into pubs, hotels, swimming pools, and now you couldn’t drive on the buses. I had been watching the amazing things that Martin Luther King had been achieving in America, and now I thought something had to be done here too.”
If you were a young black person living in Britain, you couldn’t be a policeman, an ambulanceman or fireman. You couldn’t go into pubs, hotels, swimming pools, and now you couldn’t drive on the buses
That something took the form of a boycott of Bristol’s buses. Within days, Stephenson had held a series of press conferences and speaking engagements to promote the cause, and persuaded a network of fellow civil rights activists to blockade bus routes across the city. As one of those activists, Jamaican-born Roy Hackett, remembers, the protests were soon gathering momentum.
“My role was to blockade the buses coming into the city through the Fishponds area of Bristol,” says Roy, who arrived in the South West after taking a job at Hinckley Point power station in Somerset in 1957. “At first, there were no more than 10 of us standing by the road. But gradually more and more people started to join us – many of them women, both black and white, on their way back from dropping their children off at school. Things just seemed to snowball from there.
“The drivers didn’t like our protests, of course,” he adds. “But what could they do? They couldn’t run us over. So the buses just piled up.”
While the protest picked up pace on the ground, it was also beginning to register in the national consciousness – thanks, in no small part, to Paul Stephenson’s tenacity. Within a matter of weeks, he had persuaded Bristol University students to march through the city in support of the boycott and secured the backing of a range of political heavy-hitters, including Trinidadian high commissioner and cricket legend Learie Constantine, and Tony Benn, MP for Bristol South East. But surely his most significant coup was to win the support of Harold Wilson, then leader of the opposition, who told Stephenson that, should the Labour party return to government, it would introduce a law against racial discrimination.
What had once been a low-key local dispute had morphed into a cause célèbre – and, under the harsh glare of a spotlight cast by the nation’s press – the Bristol Omnibus Company’s previously implacable opposition to revoking the ban began to crumble. Its defeat was confirmed on 28 August 1963 when – on the very day that Martin Luther King delivered his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech in Washington – the Bristol Evening Post announced that the Bristol Omnibus Company was to lift the colour bar.
- Read more | “I have a dream”: the story of Martin Luther King’s struggle for civil rights in America
“I never doubted we’d win – purely because of the moral force of our argument,” says Paul Stephenson. “I was obviously elated but my chief emotion was relief – relief that we’d delivered this victory for Bristol’s black community. You’ve got to remember that the boycott made a lot of black people very nervous. They were concerned that it might make their job prospects worse. They were telling me that this is a white man’s country and you can’t tell the white man what to do. To prove to them that we could confront racism, and win, was a great achievement.”
Within a few weeks of the victory, Raghbir Singh became Bristol’s first ever non-white bus conductor. Yet the Bristol bus boycott’s crowning achievement arguably arrived two years later when Harold Wilson’s government passed the 1965 Race Relations Act, outlawing discrimination on the “grounds of colour, race, or ethnic or national origins”.
“It still brings joy to my heart today to think that people of all colours have a chance of getting the job they want without being discriminated against,” says Roy Hackett.
Guy Bailey agrees, but sounds a note of caution. “Racism isn’t so blatant in 2013 as it was in 1963 but it still lives on,” he says. “There are still people who believe that, no matter how poorly qualified a white person is, he is still more suitable for a job than a highly qualified black person. It’s for that very reason that we must remember the events of 1963 today.”
This article was first published in the August 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine
Spencer is production editor of BBC History Magazine
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