How did the US civil rights movement influence Britain?
While the precise context may have been different, Britain’s own fight for equality drew inspiration from events across the pond
The struggle for civil rights resonated beyond the United States, including in the United Kingdom. But Dr Kennetta Hammond Perry, honorary senior research fellow and founding director of the Stephen Lawrence Research Centre at De Montfort University, stresses that we should always be mindful of the “specificities of the context of disenfranchisement” when looking at echoes of the US movement around the world. Rather than being the result of legally enforced segregation, the British campaign arose during the period when European imperialism was in retreat and postwar British governments were encouraging mass migration from Britain’s colonies.
Indeed, throughout the late 1940s and 1950s, immigrants from across the British empire and Commonwealth were answering the call to fill vacancies in the job market. But this sudden change in Britain’s demographic makeup provoked racial violence and discrimination in major cities like London, Birmingham and Nottingham. Skilled workers from Britain’s overseas territories found their prospects limited by racist attitudes and often had to settle for careers that squandered their experience. And later, when the British economy fell into decline, black workers were disproportionately affected by job losses and unequal pay.
Ready to mobilise
It was a climate that was all-too-readily exploited by far-right movements. Former British Union of Fascists leader Oswald Mosley, for instance, distributed leaflets bearing the message, “Take action now. Protect your jobs. Stop coloured immigration. Houses for white people – not coloured immigrants”. Then, in August 1958, tensions boiled over in London’s Notting Hill district when hundreds of white teenagers began attacking the homes of West Indian residents. The race riots drew widespread condemnation, with the delegates at that year’s Trades Union Congress even going so far as to claim that “elements which propagated racial hatred in Britain and Europe in pre-war days are once more fanning the flames of violence”.
Tragically, more violence was to come, notably when an Antiguan-born carpenter named Kelso Cochrane was murdered by a gang of white youths in west London in May 1959. But the Afro-Caribbean community rallied. As the 1960s dawned, Cochrane’s death was treated by UK civil rights groups such as the Committee of African Organizations and campaigners like Claudia Jones (founder of the West Indian Gazette newspaper) as symbolic of a mortal peril many migrants feared, and set about organising for change. Over the next decade, they would set up sister rallies to mirror those taking place across the Atlantic, and would pioneer the boycott of South African goods to protest that nation’s policy of apartheid. All the while, the British press kept readers informed about the progress of the Civil Rights Movement within the United States.
Among the most famous British protest was the Bristol bus boycott of 1963, triggered by the revelation that the city’s main bus company was refusing to hire black and Asian people. Spearheaded by a young social worker named Paul Stephenson and taking inspiration from the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955–56 (see page 29), the campaigners refused to ride the city’s buses until the firm changed its discriminatory policy. The protest gained national attention, rallying support from politicians and even the former cricketer Learie Constantine, who was by then Trinidad and Tobago’s high commissioner to the United Kingdom.
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After four months of protests, the Bristol Omnibus Company finally agreed to change its racist hiring practices and the boycott ended on 28 August – by coincidence, the exact same day Martin Luther King Jr delivered his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech during the March on Washington. On 17 September, Bristol welcomed its first non-white bus conductor, a Sikh man named Raghbir Singh.
In December 1964, King would venture to Britain himself, stopping in London while en route to Oslo to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. His short but significant visit, which saw him delivering a sermon at St Paul’s Cathedral, would leave a lasting impact on race relations in the UK, inspiring the formation of the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination. The body, founded to agitate for social justice, became a formidable force and was instrumental in securing the passage of the landmark Race Relations Act by Parliament in 1965. For the first time in British history, the state acknowledged the existence of racism within society and made efforts to outlaw discrimination on the “grounds of colour, race, or ethnic or national origins” in public places.
Despite this leap forward, the act left the matter of racial discrimination in housing and employment unsettled. When, in April 1968, an amendment bill was passing through Parliament to redress these concerns, the Conservative MP Enoch Powell chose to deliver his notorious ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. Standing in front of fellow Tories in Birmingham, he denounced mass immigration, prophesying that it would ultimately lead to sectarian violence in Britain. The subsequent political fallout saw Powell ousted from the shadow cabinet, and the amendment became law on 25 October 1968.
King was not the only titan of the US Civil Rights Movement to set foot on British soil, however. In February 1965, the West Midlands town of Smethwick also gained global attention when it was visited by Malcolm X, less than two weeks before his assassination. He had taken up an invitation to promote solidarity between its black and South Asian communities after racist hostility from some of Smethwick’s white inhabitants had escalated as the town became home to a significant immigrant population. During his stay, he denounced the evils of racism in the UK, drawing parallels with the Holocaust and warning against a “fascist element” within the community. In particular, his trip to Smethwick’s Marshall Street – where residents had tried to stop the council from letting houses to non-white families – emphasised the ugliness of the abuse.
Two years later, Stokely Carmichael, whose oration had led to the formation of the Black Panther Party in the US gave a similarly powerful speech at the Camden Roundhouse, north London. As with his activism in the US, Carmichael’s words inspired the launch of several new British campaign groups, which advocated everything from the trenchant defence of black communities to the total overthrow of the British state. The most influential were undoubtedly the British Black Panthers, led by Altheia Jones-LeCointe, who focused on community organisation, running campaigns against discrimination and promoting education. Within five years, they had around 3,000 members, mostly drawn from the Notting Hill and Brixton areas of London, where many Caribbean, African and South Asian immigrants lived.
According to 1971 statistics, the UK was home to around 1.4 million non-white residents, with one-third of those having been born in Britain. However, before long, the British government started limiting immigration, and by 1972, only allowed new arrivals to settle if they held a work permit or had British-born parents or grandparents – a stipulation that disproportionately affected non-white people. Against this backdrop, one famous court case served to underline just how far the cause of civil rights and equality in Britain had yet to travel.
An ongoing battle
Mass migration to the UK from its colonies redefined the meaning of ‘nationality’
The 1948 British Nationality Act established unified citizenship for the United Kingdom and its overseas territories. It granted entry and residency rights in Britain to individuals born in the British empire or Commonwealth. However, these criteria were not amended despite the end of formal empire in the subsequent decades. The 1971 Immigration Act introduced the concept of ‘patrials’, only granting entry and residency rights to those with ancestral connections to the British Isles on the basis of documentary evidence, and thus set the scene for the Windrush scandal in 2017, in which hundreds of men and women who had come to the country legally were wrongly detained or deported.
Despite the 1948 law, newcomers to Britain from its colonies soon felt like second-class citizens, facing discrimination in the housing and job markets, as well as racism from pockets of the white population. By the mid-1960s, the enshrinement of civil rights in the United States and the United Nations’ adoption of the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination in 1963, served to put international pressure on Britain to conform. Although the UK’s Race Relations Act (1965) made it a criminal offence to discriminate on racial grounds in public places, some criticised it for not doing enough to address the ways in which the state itself promoted a hostile racial environment.
Opened in 1968, the Mangrove – a Caribbean restaurant based in Notting Hill – was run by Frank Crichlow, a Trinidadian man who had come to the UK in the early 1950s. The establishment soon attracted a high-profile clientele, including Jimi Hendrix, Diana Ross and Bob Marley. Despite this, the Mangrove soon became the target of regular police raids, which claimed to be searching for drugs, despite none ever being found on the premises. As such, some people believed the true motive was racism, possibly driven by a hatred of Crichlow’s success as a black businessman, and the fact that he had a white partner. As time went on, the Mangrove became a hub for black activists to organise against police intimidation and racism.
The febrile situation came to a head on 9 August 1970, when a peaceful protest march beginning at the restaurant turned violent, resulting in injuries to 24 police officers and the arrest of 19 demonstrators. Shortly before the march, activists had issued an open letter to UK prime minister Edward Heath, castigating the Home Office’s indifference to the police’s actions and defending the protest as “necessary”, as all other methods had “failed to bring about any change in the manner the police have chosen to deal with black people”.
Although the initial charges had been dropped due to contradictory police statements, nine of those detained at the original protest – Barbara Beese, Rupert Boyce, Frank Crichlow, Rhodan Gordon, Darcus Howe, Anthony Innis, Altheia Jones-LeCointe, Rothwell Kentish and Godfrey Millett – were rearrested and charged with incitement to riot. During their subsequent Old Bailey trial, it was alleged that the group had displayed banners bearing the slogan ‘Kill the Pigs’, inspired by their US comrades in the Black Power Movement.
Two months later, five of the so-called ‘Mangrove Nine’ were acquitted, with the remaining defendants receiving suspended sentences for lesser offences. The affair was an embarrassment for the authorities, with the presiding judge, Edward Clarke QC, stating that it had “shown evidence of racial hatred on both sides” – a verdict the Metropolitan Police were unsuccessful in getting retracted. The case was a major milestone in the fight for civil rights in Britain and inspired other marginalised groups facing bigotry.
As highlighted by Dr Kennetta Hammond Perry, there is an irony in that much of what we know about British civil rights organisations comes from intelligence gathered by the state; many groups, like the Mangrove Nine, were seen as “something to be watched”. And although much has been achieved in the decades since, campaigns for racial justice continue in Britain today – again inspired by events across the pond. Indeed, the 2020 murder of George Floyd and the outpouring of anger that followed on both sides of the Atlantic shows the impact that American-led movements continue to have on discussions surrounding equality.
This article was first published in the September 2023 issue of BBC History Revealed
Danny Bird is the Staff Writer at BBC History Revealed, responsible for researching and producing the magazine’s features
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