Black liberation organisations in Britain: the 1970s and 1980s

Overview of the array of black liberation organisations active in Britain during the 1970s and 1980s, which included a range of workplace, community and black women's groups as well as bookshops, newspapers, advice centres, supplementary schools and hostels for black unemployed and homeless.

Submitted by Ed on January 28, 2019

The workplace

To combat the problems of black workers, strike committees were formed and conferences were called to highlight the problem of racism at the workplace. Arising from this struggle, the Black Trade Unionists Solidarity Movement was formed. In fact, by 1980 there were some 59 projects and groups involved in the industrial aspects of race relations. More specifically, in the Midlands and Wales area there were 29 ethnic minority organisations concerned with employment in 1982. These groups indicate to a large extent that traditional trade unionism could not deal effectively with the special problems of black workers. Self-help and autonomous organisation was the only response to racial discrimination among employers and trade unions.

The black community

The 1970s and early 1980s have been crucial for the black community in terms of organisation. The cumulative effects of racial disadvantage in all aspects of the black community's life such as police harassment, particularly against black youth; provocation from extremist fascist organisations, and the overall racist (both individual and institutional) violence had served to reinforce black resistance. Throughout the 1970s the harassed black community offered strong resistance. Rebellion, after a long gestation period, eventually came in the early 1980s.

While member organisations within the Black Peoples' Alliance (BPA) were allowed local autonomy in terms of the particular communities and problems, moves at national level and co-ordination of the various campaigns against racism were the task of the BPA. In 1969, the Alliance took to the streets leading a march of over 7000 people to Downing Street to demand the repeal of the Immigration Acts. Feelings ran high as the Black Panther Movement warned: ‘Unless something is done to ensure the protection of our people we will have no alternative but to rise to their defence. And once we are driven to that position, redress will be too late, Detroit and Newark will inevitably become part of the British scene and the Thames foam with blood sooner than Enoch Powell envisaged’. Thus, the racial ball was thrown back into Powell's and his followers' court.

The 1971 Immigration Act was no less damaging in its effects on the black community. This was one more stage in the deepening of state racism. Another strand of continuing associational concern was the serious question of the education of West Indian children. The North London West Indian Association which was set up by West Indian parents and teachers in Haringey, North London, in the 1960s, under the leadership of Jeff Crawford, had aroused interest among black parents in many other areas and became an integral part of the programmes of black political organisations. Clearly the question of ESN schools could not be left to the British authorities. The Caribbean Education Association held a conference on the ESN schools, and soon after, Bernard Coard clarified the problem in his work How the West Indian Child is made Educationally Subnormal.

In the wake of this exposé, a number of black militants and organisations took the initiative by setting up supplementary schools. In London, the activity was particularly intense. Among the schools set up were the Kwame Nkrumah school (Hackney Black Teachers), the Malcolm X Montessori Promgramme (Ahoy Ghose), the George Padmore School (John La Rose, leader of the Black Parents Movement), the South East London Summer School (BUFP: Black Unity and Freedom Party), Headstart (BLF: Black Liberation Front) and the Marcus Garvey school (BLF and others).

Moreover, there was an impressive development of projects to teach skills to black youth. For example, the Mkutano Project, started by the BUFP in 1972, taught typing, photography and Swahili; the Melting Pot set up by Ashton Gibson (formerly of RAAS) organised a workshop for clothes-making; and the Keskidee was organised by Oscar Abrams (formerly of CARD) who taught art and sculpture and encouraged black poets and playwrights.

For older students, Roy Sawh supervised the Free University for Black Studies; for the unemployed and homeless black youth, there were hostels, such as Brother Herman’s Harambee and Vince Hines’ (formerly active in RANS) Dashiki and youth centres and clubs. Furthermore, there were bookshop-cum-advice centres, namely the black people’s information centre; BLF’s Grassroots Storefront and BWM’s (Black Workers’ Movement was the Black Panther’s new name in the 1970s) Unite Bookshop. Among the publications, weekly and monthly newspapers, were Black Voice (BUFP), Grassroots (BLF), Freedom News (Black Panthers), Frontline (Brixton and Croydon Collective), Uhuru (Black People’s Freedom Movement), BPFM Weekly, the BWAC weekly (Black Workers' Action Committee) and the less frequent but more theoretical journal Black Liberator, among a number of other more ephemeral publications.

The question of black women was taken up by some of these publications and the BUFP (following on the UCPA's Black Women's Liberation Movement) had a black women's action committee. Interestingly, after RAAS’s Black House was raided by police and closed down, many of its members helped to organise various self-help projects as mentioned above.

By 1971 the repressiveness of the system had also led to the break-up of the UCPA. The hard core of the membership went on to form the BUFP. In the previous two years, the UCPA, RAAS, the Black Panthers and other black organisations had been increasingly concerned with police brutality and fascist violence. But as Sivanandan argued:

The success of Black Power had brought down on its head the wrath of the system. Its leaders were persecuted, its meetings disrupted, its places of work destroyed. But it had gone on gaining momentum and strength: it was not a party, but a movement, gathering to its concerns all the strands of capitalist oppression, gathering to its programme all the problems of oppressed peoples. There was hardly a black in the country that did not identify with it and, through it, to all the non-whites of the world, in one way or another. And as for the British-born youth, who had been schooled in white racism, the movement was the cradle of their consciousness. Vietnam, GuineaBissau, Zimbabwe, Azania were all their battle lines, China and Cuba were exemplars. The establishment was scared. The media voiced its fears. There were rumours that Black Power was about to take over Manchester City Council.

Blacks had to fight simultaneously both as a people and as a class (for instance as Blacks and as workers, their struggle against racism was a struggle for the class). They were engaged in a number of strikes in the early 1970s in the textile and allied industries of the East Midlands and in factories in London.

In the 1972 strike at Crepe Sizes in Nottingham involving Pakistani workers, with no support from the TGWU, they formed a Solidarity Committee composed of wives and the families of the strikers, of other Asian workers, community organisations and the Nottingham-based BPFM, which put pressure on the union to act.

Time and again, black workers confronted trade union racism. The NCTUAR called on trade unions and trade unionists to back workers' official strike action against racial discrimination. Moreover, they leafletted the TUC Annual Conference in Blackpool. A clear pattern had again emerged: all the black political organisations (the London-based BUFP, BCC, BWCC and the BWM, and the East Midlands-based BWAC and the BPFM) gave support to the strikers. Further, the BWAC informed the Non-Aligned Conference in Algiers of the international operations of ITT, the multinational company involved.

By the time of the Imperial Typewriters strike in 1974, there was virtually a standing conference of black strike committees in the Midlands, a network of community associations and groups, and a number of black political organisations, all in support of the strikers. In fact, financial support came from a number of sources such as the Southall IWA, the Birmingham Sikh temple, a Women's Conference in Edinburgh, the Birmingham Anti-Racist Committee and the European Workers’ Action Committee.

The Community Relations Commissions (CRC) which emerged as the successor to the NCCI under the Race Relations Act of 1968 was merged (through the 1976 Race Relations Act) with the Race Relations Board to form the new Commission for Racial Equality. The CRE, armed with a few more powers to deal with discrimination, was to develop ‘a class of collaborators who would manage racism and its social and political fall-out. At the same time, it would hand out massive sums of money from its Urban Aid programme to key black self-help groups and so stamp out the breeding-grounds of resistance’.

The murder on 4 June 1976 of an Asian youth in Southall stunned the community. The old-style traditional forms of organisation proved inadequate in the circumstances; new radical forces in the community emerged in the form of the Southall Youth Movement. This initiative led to the formation of a number of other Asian Youth movements; organisations which were largely concerned with defence in the face of fascist attacks. As racist attacks and murders increased, Asian youth organisations and defence committees were formed in London (Brick Lane, Hackney and Newham), Manchester, Leicester and Bradford. And in the same community spirit of the strike committees, formed earlier, these youth groups, supported each other and joined and worked together with West Indian youth groups, occasionally on an organisational basis (SYM and Peoples Unite, Bradford Blacks and Bradford Asian Youth Movement) and, at times, as individuals participating in political groups, such as the Hackney Black Peoples' Defence Organisation and Bradford's United Black Youth League.

Political groups were also formed involving radical Afro-Caribbeans, Asians and Africans disenchanted by the white left because they neglected the black experience. And characteristically, as all black political organisations have historically done (beginning with the Pan-Africanists), they focused not only on the black condition in Britain, but also on Blacks internationally. In belief and approach they were anti-racist and anti-imperialist; both were acted out as a lived experience in their communities. Their concern to politicise black people was reflected in their publications: Samaj in ’a Babylon (in Urdu and English), Black Struggle and Mukti.

Following these organisational developments, the Black Socialist Alliance moved on to 'campaigning material'. Blacks Against State Harassment (BASH) concentrated on state racism. Many other papers, journals, news sheets and newsletters were published, but short-lived. Indeed, they represented various stages of black struggle. Nevertheless, the movement was always in one direction: against the police, the government and racism.

Flexibility within the black movement was vital. There had been a qualitative change in the relationship between the organisers and organisations. In 1969, the educated middle-class leadership in Moss Side, for example, and later in Easton, either evaded leadership positions or did so as authoritarian figures. By the mid-1970s, however, after consecutive struggles, at various levels, some organisers who had hitherto led as charismatic accommodationist, liberal individuals, could no longer do so.

State racism and racial discrimination increasingly engendered black community demands for representation that reflected these basic issues. Indeed the stage was reached when ‘the educated gave of their skills to the community and the community grounded them in the realities of political struggle’.

The black women's movement in the 1970s

The strikes involving black workers in the 1970s saw a new phenomenon on the British industrial relations scene: Asian women ‘womanning’ the picket lines, with an unusual commitment. In their various industrial struggles, they were consistently supported by women's groups. As their experience deepened and their particular problems loomed large, a 'black women' movement emerged.

Black feminist groups

Between 1977 and 1980, the provocative daubings, meetings and marches of the National Front in areas of large black communities heightened black resistance which led to new types of struggles and new leaderships in the form of a black women's movement; a movement encompassing all the struggles and adding its own perspective to the black resistance in the late 1970s. For at least a decade previously a few Afro-Caribbean women's groups, pursuing legitimate issues, germane to black women, were isolated in their efforts since neither the black political groups nor the white women's liberation movement showed real concern.

Through contact at the point of common industrial struggles, Asian women began to support their Afro-Caribbean sisters at Grunwick and at Heathrow Airport. By 1978, awareness of their social, economic and political position, in the black community and in white society generally, increased dramatically. A number of black women's groups came into being and formed a national body, the Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent. OWAAD published its own paper FOWAAD. And recognising the organisational complexities, to be effective it allowed its constituent groups local autonomy. Moreover, it held national conferences and significantly worked in conjunction with other black national groups. This crucial development, long overdue, was able to highlight and orchestrate the different experiences of Asian and Afro-Caribbean women. In developing particular strands of struggles, they supported each other's campaigns and, through this process, benefited and -strengthened the black community as a whole.

Their struggles relating to households and children's welfare reflected the very essence of black community life. Thus, this new leadership confronted simultaneously the issues of discrimination against class, race and gender. Asian and Afro-Caribbean women combined forces to tackle a number of on-going problems specific to the black community. Moreover, Asian women joined the campaigns against 'Sin-bins' (special 'adjustment units' which replaced ESN schooling for West Indian children) and the Brixton Black Women's Group organised the first black women's centre in 1979.

Black women as a whole recognised their problem as a common racism, as endemic in the social, educational and welfare services of the entire community. Health care was particularly germane: in Brent there were campaigns against sickle-cell anaemia (among West Indians) and Vitamin D deficiencies causing rickets (among Asians). The fertility and mental health of black women were also matters of serious concern to both communities.

Certain aspects of immigration had disturbing effects on Asian women which the male-oriented IWA had neglected, woefully. Asian women began to put this right as AWAZ and Southall Black Sisters (formed after the police violence on 23 April 1979) led the protest against the virginity testing and X-raying of immigrants. The IWA followed this lead. Following Asian youth groups, these women joined the community campaigns over specific immigration cases.

By the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s, black women were again actively involved in industrial struggles at Futters (March-May 1979) and at Chix (1979-80). They also worked in local self-defence groups and in the BSA and BASH national campaigns. Significantly, in June 1979, their work jointly with IWA and BASH, resulted in the first black national demonstration against state brutality. During this march, Jagmohan Joshi, one of the longest serving, militant black organisers in Britain, died of a heart attack. This was a fitting epitaph for a man who had not only initiated black working class and community movements in the early years of struggle, but also ‘clarified for us all the lines of race/class struggle’.

Historically then, the black working-class organisers and organisations spent much time resisting the British government's ideology of racism and repression. Consistently, their practices and policies have been anti-working class, anti-women, and anti-youth. In pursuit of the ideology of repression, the state relied heavily on the police and policing. Increasingly (particularly during the 1970s) police brutality and police harassment of black youth and the black community came to a head as an ‘accumulation of blunders’ resulted in the Bristol ‘riot’ in 1980 and the national summer ‘riots’ of 1981.

During these riots the police resorted to ‘dispensing justice on the streets, to arbitrary arrests and in some cases mass arrest’. By Tuesday 14 July, according to the press, 1000 people had been arrested. This figure, according to the Home Office, had risen to 3000 by 20 August 1981. After the 'riots', committees were set up to defend and campaign for those arrested, and to expose the official version of events. In Brixton, the black community organisations were headed by the Brixton Defence Campaign.

The BDC called for a total boycott of the state's inquiry into the Brixton Uprising of 10-13 April 1981, set up under Lord Scarman's chairmanship, with the terms of reference: ‘To inquire urgently into the serious disorders in Brixton on 10-12 April and to report, with the power to make recommendations.’

The BDC argued that there was no escaping the fact that the Scarman inquiry (particularly Phase I) 'very seriously prejudices the legal position and therefore endangers the liberty of all defendants yet to be tried'. The three main arguments against this Phase were firstly, that Scarman himself had positively to agree that Phase I will 'prejudice the rights of fair trial to those who have yet to come before the courts'; secondly, the question that must be asked was: what were the 'immediate causes' into which Scarman was going to investigate so urgently in Phase I. (They argued that the immediate causes of what happened in Brixton were already well understood); and thirdly, instead of looking at the real 'immediate cause' of the uprising, they feared that Scarman would 'give subtle legitimacy to the totally racist view (so dramatically put by Margaret Thatcher) that the Brixton uprising was simply a confrontation between, on the one hand, fundamentally blameless forces of law and order and, on the other, mainly black criminals!'

Thus, the BDC was satisfied that Lord Scarman was disposed to be used by the state to provide it with a basis for re-writing the Riot Act and to provide justification for dramatically increasing repressiveness in policing methods which were already massively racist, lawless and brutal as well as substantially uncontrolled. Why, the BDC asked, was there no response by the state to the repeated requests for a public inquiry into police brutality and malpractice during the previous five years.

On Phase II of the Scarman inquiry, it argued that for the black community there were no benefits to be derived for three reasons. Firstly, it was not aware that Scarman had any expertise in the field ofsocial policy and was not satisfied that even were he to have both the necessary expertise and sympathy that these would be sufficient, given the other factors which apply. Secondly, that there were no good reasons to hold that ignorance on the part of the state was a major cause/force determining the present direction of its policies in the field of housing, employment, education, etc. Thirdly, that the BDC was satisfied particularly that where the black communities' grievances over the racist, brutal, lawless and uncontrolled policing methods used against them were concerned, the state had no basis for even claiming to be ignorant. 'A mountain of evidence', the Campaign argued, had been 'submitted and ignored'.

The Liverpool 8 Defence Committee, the Liverpool Black Organisation and the Liverpool Trades Council, called for the dismissal of the Chief Constable of Merseyside, Kenneth Oxford. All three organisations were firmly convinced that he was the prime obstacle in the way of any constructive dialogue between the police and the community. The Committee's specific reasons were, given that the responsibility for the fair and proper policing of any community was the responsibility of the Chief Constable, Oxford's own racism, combined with his belief that tough and repressive policing methods were the best way of establishing order, had resulted in excessive police harassment, especially of black people which stretched back many years; that Oxford was well-known for making racist remarks about the Liverpool 8 Community; that Oxford had shown himself to be incompetent; that the treatment of those arrested during and since the 'riots' was appalling; that three weeks after the 'riots' young people had been stopped and searched for no reason at all, racially abused and frequently questioned about their movements during the weekend of the riots; and that Oxford had, as a last ditch attempt to gain credibility within the community, invited representatives of the community groups to meet with him.

The Liverpool 8 Defence Committee wondered why Oxford had waited to engage in dialogue with a community which had been harassed by his police for many years, and towards which he had shown himself to be racist. Thus, the Liverpool 8 Defence Committee, the Liverpool Black Organisation and the Charles Wootton Centre declared that they would boycott the meeting and called upon other community organisations to do the same. Also caught in the struggle were the outspoken Hackney Legal Defence Committee and the United Black Youth League in Bradford.

Indeed in the aftermath of the 'riots', black organisers and organisations in the various black communities nationally had rallied round to support their victimised youths, as they alerted each other to their common need and common oppression. Before the 1980 and 1981 'riots', the black working class fought in isolation. Now through an historical progression of struggle (having shifted and reformed, through new types of struggles and new leaderships) they have attained a hard-won national black class consciousness. And in this process, they were joined, if only fleetingly, by white youth, militant white women and gays. But how did this black consciousness develop?

Originally from Ron Ramdin's excellent book, 'The Making of the Black Working Class in Britain'.