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.
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