Morris, Olive Elaine 1952-1979

Olive Morris

A short biography of south London based anti-racist community organiser Olive Morris who worked tirelessly as a feminist, black and squatting activist throughout the late 60s and 70s.

Morris, Olive Elaine, activist (1952-1979) was born on 26th June 1952 in Harewood, St Catherine’s, Jamaica. When she was nine years old, she, and her brother, Basil, left their maternal grandmother and joined her mother and father in Lavender Hill, south London. There were four further siblings. Olive’s father became a forklift operator and her mother, Doris, was a factory shop steward. Olive attended Heathbrook Primary school and then Lavender Hill Girls’ Secondary school and later Tulse Hill Secondary School. She left school without any qualifications and later went on to study at the London College of Printing.

The late Sixties and Seventies were a particularly challenging time for Britain’s post-war African, African- Caribbean and Asian communities: there was increased tension between police and the community, (epitomised by the “sus” laws) and attacks by fascist groups such as the National Front, as well as discrimination around housing and employment. Olive became a tireless organiser and fighter against racism, sexism and other forms of oppression.

One early example of Olive’s political activism was when she intervened into the arrest of a Nigerian diplomat for a parking offence in Brixton in November 1969. She was physically assaulted and racially abused by the police and was arrested, along with six other people, fined £10 and given a three month suspended sentence for two years. The charge was assault on the police, threatening behaviour and possessing dangerous weapons.

Olive became a member of the youth section of the Black Panther Movement (later the Black Workers Movement), along with others such as Linton Kwesi Johnson, Clovis Reid and Farrukh Dhondy. Olive was also a founding member of the Brixton Black Women’s Group. Many political organisations were based in and around Brixton, which was an important area for counter-culture political activity.

She visited Germany in 1971. In August 1972, Olive and her friend and comrade, Liz Obi, planned to visit US Black Panther leader, Eldridge Cleaver, who was in exile in Algeria; they became stranded in Morocco.

Olive was also a squatter and squatted 121 Railton Road, in Brixton with Liz in 1973. The squat became an organising centre for community groups such as BASH (Black people Against State Harassment) as well as housing Sabarr Bookshop, which was one of the first Black community bookshops. There are photographs of Olive confronting the police in Squatting News Bulletin, July 1975 and scaling a wall on the cover of the Squatter’s Handbook, June 1979. (121 Railton Road was a social centre and a centre for the squatting movement until it was closed in 1999).

Olive revisited Jamaica in July 1974 for six weeks. In 1975, she moved to Manchester to study a degree in Economics and Social Sciences. She was a member of the National Coordinating Committee of Overseas Students, which campaigned for the abolition of fees for overseas students; off–campus, she was involved in the work of the Manchester Black Women’s Cooperative and the Black Women’s Mutual Aid Group.

Olive visited Italy and Northern Ireland in 1976. In 1977, she visited China and wrote a piece entitled “A sister’s visit to China” which explored the role of China in anti-imperialist struggles. It was published in Speak Out! The Brixton Black Women’s Group newsletter.

Olive, along with Stella Dadzie and other women, founded the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent (OWAAD) in February 1978. OWAAD held its first conference at the Abeng centre on Gresham Road in Brixton. (The Abeng Centre was a centre that Olive helped to establish along with Elaine Holness and other members of the community; it is now renamed the Karibu Centre).

Olive graduated in 1978 and returned to Brixton, working in the juvenile department of the Brixton Community Law Centre where she was involved in the campaign to scrap the SUS laws. She lived at 2 Talma Road, Brixton.

She was also a burgeoning writer. She co-wrote a piece on the Anti-Nazi League with her partner, Mike McColgan. “Has the Anti-Nazi League got it right on racism?” was published in a flyer for the Brixton Ad-hoc Committee against Police Repression in 1978 and criticised the strategy of focusing on fighting fascism, while largely ignoring the impact of what might be called institutionalised racism on the lives of Black people: the role of the police, educational system, etc.

Olive became ill during a trip to Spain in 1978. On her return to London, she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkinson's lymphoma and underwent treatment. She died on July 12th 1979 at St Thomas’ Hospital at the age of 27, as a result of her illness. She is buried in Streatham Vale Cemetery.

Her premature death was a shock to the community. A Lambeth council building, 18 Brixton Hill, was named after her in March 1986. There is a community garden and play area named after her in the Myatt’s Fields area. In 2009, Olive was chosen by popular vote as one of the historical figures to feature on a local currency, the Brixton Pound.

©2011 Emma Allotey All rights reserved.

Sources
Remembering Olive Collective, Do you remember Olive Morris? (2009)
Beverley Bryan, Stella Dadzie & Suzanne Scafe ed. Heart of the Race: Black Women’s Lives in Britain (1985, Virago,).
Reference IV/279, Lambeth Archives, Minet Library, Lambeth, London

Comments

Jacques Roux
Nov 22 2017 13:52

There are some particular points of Morris' history which I found interesting surrounding her disillusionment with the 'traditional left' she encountered during her lifetime.

At university she was able to pursue her interest in socialism - research into her writing at the time shows that her education coupled with her organising in south London led to her becoming increasingly frustrated with the British left having “more in common with the ruling class and royalty than with fellow workers”. This was highlighted by Lizzie Cocker in an article published in the Morning Star of all places:

Quote:
Morris saw echoes of her own life in Trinidadian activist Claudia Jones who was not supported by the Communist Party because of her gender and ethnicity and Grunwick striker Jayaben Desai who was shunned by trade unions. Instead Morris argued that “the British working class is faced with a choice either to defend the ‘national interest’ or throw their lot in with the opressred people of the Third World” by supporting those people in the UK. She became disillusioned by the established institutions of the white working class which she argued “we have used the great british tradition of trade unionism to try and further our cause for equality and justice, but on countless occasions we have found that the movement does one thing for white workers and another for black workers.”

“White workers have time and time again refused to give our unions recognition, they have crossed our picket lines for racist reasons, they have organised against our organisation in the trade unions.
“Take for instance STC (Standard Telephones and Cables Ltd) where white trade unionists and union officials – with exception of a few – put skin colour before the overall interest of the proletariat and often resorted to physical violence against their black fellow workers.”

Morris was exasperated by what she saw as an inherent self-interest that blocked mainly white apparently progressive groups from seeing where the real battles needed to be fought. She lambasted the Anti Nazi League “trendies” for busying themselves with “shouting their empty phrase of ‘black and white unite and fight’.” Empty, she said, “because there was no sound basis on which such unity could be built.” The ANL, she continued, has “become one big carnival jamboree of political confusion for the middle class. “It doesn’t raise the political questions. It buries them in the name of ‘broadness’.”

Morris highlighted that the National Front, which the ANL directed all its enthusiasm into fighting, was merely a symptom and not a cause of the racist ideologies and practices which prevailed in every sector of society.

As the black groups Morris worked with organised to fight oppression on all levels – running supplementary schools, clubs and recreational facilities, clubbing together to buy houses, striking, organising pickets and circulating petitions – she urged people truly dedicated to fighting racism to confront the issues which affect black people’s lives on a daily basis in schools, the police, local government and even trade unions.

“Not a single problem associated with racialism, unemployment, police violence and homelessness can be settled by ‘rocking’ against the fascists, the police or the army,” she said. “The fight against racism and fascism is completely bound up with the fight to overthrow capitalism, the system that breeds both.”

The symptomatic BNP and other far-right organisations are rearing their ugly heads above the fertile ground laid by a political framework which has perpetuated the criminalisation, social immobility and isolation of black and ethnic minorities. But black history has a lesson for the left.

As long as support is only forthcoming when racism is so visible that it can no longer be ignored rather than being part of the daily battles against all discrimination that permeates society, the struggle to create equal conditions for everyone will keep taking one step forward and 10 steps back.

Jacques Roux
Nov 22 2017 13:56

For anyone wanting to know more on Olive Morris' life the excellent Do you remember Olive Morris? project is the place to look:

Quote:
It began with the empassioned vision of London-based Uruguyan artist Ana Laura Lopez de la Torre who, in conjunction Liz Obi – a prominent community activist and friend of Morris’, created a project that will encompass the creation of public archive, training for volunteers and public events that celebrate Morris’ life and the significance that remembering figures like her has for contemporary Black feminism in the United Kingdom. Obi holds the only living archive of memorabilia and historical artefacts that document Morris’s activist work in the UK.

Quote from Olive would have told me to shut up and do something.

Steven.
Nov 26 2017 12:27

Just got round to reading this, fantastic, it's great to have more stuff about Olive Morris online because there is almost no information about her on the internet.

Also interesting follow-up comments. I have never heard about this before, I would love to know more:

“Take for instance STC (Standard Telephones and Cables Ltd) where white trade unionists and union officials – with exception of a few – put skin colour before the overall interest of the proletariat and often resorted to physical violence against their black fellow workers.”

Anyone know anything?

Serge Forward
Nov 26 2017 12:50

Remember Oliver Morris webpage: https://rememberolivemorris.wordpress.com/

Mike Harman
Nov 26 2017 22:32
Steven. wrote:

“Take for instance STC (Standard Telephones and Cables Ltd) where white trade unionists and union officials – with exception of a few – put skin colour before the overall interest of the proletariat and often resorted to physical violence against their black fellow workers.”

Anyone know anything?

I've only seen it listed in a sentence next to Imperial Typewriters, never anything in depth. Had a look and found these:

Apparently Spare Rib issue 17 has an article on it. Gets a one-line mention in https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=JK80DwAAQBAJ&pg=PA174&lpg=PA174&dq=standard+telephone+cables+strike+spare+rib&source=bl&ots=jxf-XfNSkd&sig=BjbhPrYF9C2Cx15Ifx_rYvnXiPA&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjr2vb4pN3XAhUCD8AKHVETC7oQ6AEINjAG#v=onepage&q=standard%20telephone%20cables%20strike%20spare%20rib&f=false, but Spare Rib is only available via JISC.

http://mrc-catalogue.warwick.ac.uk/records/TGI/2 also mentions it.

And government investigation here, not digitised though: http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C10917138

Steven.
Nov 26 2017 23:21
Mike Harman wrote:
Steven. wrote:

“Take for instance STC (Standard Telephones and Cables Ltd) where white trade unionists and union officials – with exception of a few – put skin colour before the overall interest of the proletariat and often resorted to physical violence against their black fellow workers.”

Anyone know anything?

I've only seen it listed in a sentence next to Imperial Typewriters, never anything in depth. Had a look and found these:

Apparently Spare Rib issue 17 has an article on it. Gets a one-line mention in … but Spare Rib is only available via JISC.

that's great, I see issue 17 is here in the collection: https://data.journalarchives.jisc.ac.uk/britishlibrary/sparerib/view?volumeIssue=33313337323334343737%2333383234353738313239$%233137&journal=33313337323334343737%2333383234353738313239

however I'm having a problem in that I don't seem to be able to view most of the pages, so can't find the article. Anyone else having a problem?

Mike Harman
Nov 27 2017 10:14

They've only got a few pages available to the general public, it's not a full collection of the contents.

Jacques Roux
Nov 27 2017 22:37

Steven / Mike - that JISC link works fine, just a bit slow to load because big files I think - the article is on page 21, I have screen grabbed here incase you can't get it to load (afaik the whole lot of Spare Rib is online free to access):

https://anonimag.es/image/JT9zMB5
https://anonimag.es/image/JT9zMBG

Steven.
Nov 28 2017 12:29
Jacques Roux wrote:
Steven / Mike - that JISC link works fine, just a bit slow to load because big files I think - the article is on page 21, I have screen grabbed here incase you can't get it to load (afaik the whole lot of Spare Rib is online free to access):

https://anonimag.es/image/JT9zMB5
https://anonimag.es/image/JT9zMBG

yeah thanks for that. I remember reading an announcement about Spare Rib all been digitised for the public domain a couple of years ago. But yes those pages wouldn't load for me so thanks very much for taking a screenshot. Would be great to have that article up in our history section actually. There is almost no information online (at least that I have been able to find) about racism in the British workers' movement, other than the dockers marching for Enoch Powell and the Bristol bus boycott stuff we have digitised.

Mike Harman
Nov 28 2017 13:22

I've typed the article out from those screenshots and uploaded it here: https://libcom.org/library/standard-telephone-cables-strike-1973 (could probably use a proof-read).

https://libcom.org/history/unity-grunwick-40-years-imperial-typewriters-strike-evan-smith has a couple of paragraphs about Standard Telephones and Cables too.

Mike Harman
Nov 28 2017 13:54
Steven. wrote:
There is almost no information online (at least that I have been able to find) about racism in the British workers' movement, other than the dockers marching for Enoch Powell and the Bristol bus boycott stuff we have digitised.

I think most of the writing on this came out of the IRR under Sivanandan in Race and Class, and Darcus Howe's Race Today. Race Today as far as I can tell hasn't been digitised at all. Race and Class is online at Sage Publications but is paywalled.

While looking for those I did find this archive http://www.tandana.org/Search.html (if you put 'strike' in there, there's a tonne of results).

Jacques Roux
Nov 28 2017 20:18
Steven. wrote:
There is almost no information online (at least that I have been able to find) about racism in the British workers' movement, other than the dockers marching for Enoch Powell and the Bristol bus boycott stuff we have digitised.

Would be an interesting series.

Some more info on Racism in British Trade Union Movement here:
https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=ur_n_kjoeE8C&pg=PA37&lpg=PA37&dq=Standard+Telephones+and+Cables+strike+1973&source=bl&ots=XpwmwuyIhE&sig=13nrPR5-kmFlJBCntpCDRVQGuVw&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwidpZiukeLXAhUJuRoKHX4NA-QQ6AEIWDAL#v=onepage&q=Standard%20Telephones%20and%20Cables%20strike%201973&f=false