Why we need to teach about the Black and Brown history of the UK civil rights movement.

The history of Great Britain and Scotland is and forever will be entwined with the history of Black and Brown people in our communities.  The history of empire and colonialism may seem an issue of the past, yet the colonial footprint and its ideology persists.

Motions about combatting racism come and go every year at trade union conferences, yet in society it seems we are going backwards.  From government ministers to celebrities, they are feeling more and more emboldened to spread hate and misinformation.

The fight for antiracism today has to do more than address nasty words or faceless, gutless online trolls.  We need to shake up the roots of our entire system.  But we cannot understand institutional racism without being aware of its history.

Earlier this year I supported a motion at the STUC annual conference asking for better representation of Black workers in the trade union movement.  In order to do that however, I suggested we needed to value where we’ve come from and how.

In schools we are obsessed by the civil rights movement in America, yet teach barely nothing about the civil rights movement here in the UK.  Children know all about Rosa Parks yet know nothing of Roy Hackett and the Bristol Bus Boycott.  This boycott is considered a milestone in the UK’s civil rights movement, encouraging other campaigns and activism aimed at achieving racial equality.  It demonstrated the power of collective action and non-violent protest in effecting social change, serving as an inspiration for later movements and individuals advocating for equal rights.  Lasting four months in 1963, it directly influenced the creation of the Race Relations Act 1965, the first legislation in the UK to address racial discrimination. This Act made it illegal to refuse public services to individuals based on their race or ethnicity.  Subsequent legislation, including the Race Relations Act 1968 and the Race Relations Act 1976, built upon this foundation, further strengthening protections against racial discrimination in various aspects of public and private life, including employment, housing, and education.

Like many of the laws on workers’ rights we currently enjoy that have been hard fought, the laws on racial equality that we build these kinds of motions on, were also not the result of compassionate leadership but due to the relentless determination and persistent sacrifice of Black and Brown communities in the generations before us.

But who were they?  What were their names?  Do you know them? Sadly, even within the trade union movement their names have faded away.

People like Anwar Ditta in the 1960’s, who took on the Home Office and won the right for her children to join her in the UK and persistently campaigned to highlight racist immigration laws.

Organisations like the Black Parents Movement and Bernaud Coard who fought to highlight and bring about the end of the disgusting practice of placing Black and Brown children into schools for the ‘educationally subnormal’.  A system to segregate these communities out of mainstream schooling until the 1980s and detailed very well in Preeti Dhillon’s recent fantastic book, The Shoulders We Stand On.

Our previous generations suffered and witnessed the murder and assaults on children and families in their own homes all in the name of White Supremacy.  We stand on the shoulders of those giants who rose up against this at huge personal cost.

In the words of Suresh Grover who was a founder member of the Southall Monitoring Group resisting racism in their society, part of the excellent Channel 4 series Defiance, which I’d encourage every trade unionist and teacher to watch, “..we don’t fight racism because we enjoy it, we do it because we have to.”

Lastly, Jayaben Desai, a sari-clad activist in the 1970’s led an epic strike against factory owners who forced Black workers into unpaid overtime.  She said, “…here you are running a zoo.  In a zoo, there are many types of animals.  Some are monkeys who dance on your fingertips, others are lions who can bite your head off.” 

At a time when once again divisions and intolerance are being sewn within our communities, often from what is seen and heard from our mainstream politicians and media outlets, it is vital that these hidden stories are valued and highlighted in our classrooms to help build a more tolerant and understanding society.

Citizenship and human rights are fundamental parts of our curriculum in Scotland, in fact an OECD report in 2021 on Global Competency scored Scotland as one of the best countries in the world, highlighting that our young people are some of the most socially aware across the globe.  We teach about activism through lessons on climate change or the Suffragettes but rarely teach about trade unionism and the impact that workers campaigning in solidarity with one another has had on the rights we enjoy today.  We will actively promote the work of Nelson Mandela fighting against apartheid but are not willing to talk about current conflicts with openness and honesty.  

More and more schools will now observe Black History Month but often these are also dominated by figures far away from home, although important, but this continues to uphold this underlying message that racism and activism against racism has not been part of our history, when in fact they have been fundamental to our society’s development.

In these times, where once again we hear rhetoric that is false and harmful, instil fear within communities of each other, we need to do better calling it out.

We are those lions and will not be silenced!


Comments (18)

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  1. WT says:

    Great informative article. So glad that someone else hates this conflation of American history and issues with those of the UK particularly in this context. Thanks for this

  2. 240621 says:

    Yep; there are events that the academic establishment has relegated to the margins of our social history that need to be mainstreamed in the struggle against racism and other forms of oppression. That’s part of the work of decolonisation.

    I’m also interested in the European idea of ‘race’ and its history. It seems to have first appeared in France in the second half of the 16th century, whence it spread first to Italy, Spain, and Portugal and then to the Germanic languages of Northen Europe. Originally denoting a class of people allied by a common ancestry, it was moralised (into ‘white’ and ‘black’, ‘good’ and ‘evil’, ‘enlightened’ and ‘benighted’) from the 18th century onward, and fatally biologised in the late 19th/early 20th centuries.

    The point is that ‘race’ is a social construct rather than a natural phenomenon and therefore has no objective validity. The idea is itself a tool of discrimination and oppression, which has served through conquest and settlement to globally extend the hegemony of European ‘enlightenment’ thinking over non-European cultures. Decolonisation is the movement to break that cultural hegemony through its own immanent tendency to deconstruct.

    Mainstreaming the Black and Brown history of the civil rights movement in Britain contributes to the deconstruction of ‘race’ and racism and the subsequent liberation of both the agents and victims of its oppression.

    1. John Learmonth says:

      Time to deconolise your mind from the theories of decolonisation, which after all are theories manufactured by white academics in western universities, but as in your worldview white people don’t exist (it’s all a western/white construct) what’s the point?

      1. 240622 says:

        Decolonisation theory isn’t a product of western universities; it springs from the work of Caribbean writers like Aimé Césaire, Marcus Garvey, and Frantz Fanon, and its most important theorists remain primary African, Latin American, and Middle Eastern writers like Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Fausto Reinaga, and the so-called ‘ideologue of the Islamic Revolution’, Ali Shariati Mazinan. My route to it came in 1986, right at the end of my philosophical apprenticeship, when I read Ngũgĩ’s influential book, Decolonising the Mind, which explores the cultural and linguistic legacies of colonialism in East Africa.

        And ‘white’ people do exist. They’re anyone who believes themselves to be ‘righteous’/’enlightened’/’pure’, in contrast to those ‘sinful’/’benighted’/’impure’ others whom they demonise (and who subsequently come to see themselves) as ‘black’. Decolonisation is a process by which ‘black’ people seek to free themselves from that mental slavery, which keeps them in oppression and submission.

        My current reading is the Argentine semiotician, Walter Mignolo, who has published extensively on semiotics and literary theory and worked on different aspects of the modern and colonial world, and who explores concepts such as decoloniality, global coloniality, the geopolitics of knowledge, transmodernity, border thinking, and pluriversality. I’m currently wading through his 2018 book on Decoloniality: Concept, Analytics, Praxis, which he co-authored with the Ecuadorean writer, Catherine Walsh (whose Rising Up, Living On: Re-Existences, Sowings, and Decolonial Cracks is also worth a gander).

        1. John Learmonth says:

          Virtually all the writers you mention studied and published their works whilst employed at Western Universities.
          Mignolo (the only one left alive) teaches at Duke University (USA).
          Ergo ‘decolonisation’ is a theory of the west just as much as the theories of Hume, Mill and Marx

          1. 240624 says:

            Decolonisation isn’t a theory; it’s the movement that seeks to undo colonialism, i.e. the processes by which Europe physically and culturally occupies the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Oceania. And, yes; activists from those colonised parts of the world use western ideas ‘deconstructively’, by turning them against western ideology itself through what’s called ‘immanent critique’.

            But while decolonisation as a movement may draw on them, it’s not motivated by those ideas. It’s motivated rather by the desire among colonised people to liberate themselves from physical oppression and mental slavery.

            And no doubt I will one day overcome my current ideology as it deconstructs through immanent critique, which derives the standards it employs from the object criticised rather than from some supposed transcendent authority or ‘truth’. “…it’s the only way I ken/ To dodge the curst conceit o’ being’ richt/ That damns the vast majority o’ men.”

          2. We did a series on decolonisation that you might have missed:


          3. 240624 says:

            Yes, Mike; I remember contributing extensively to those discussions.

        2. John Learmonth says:

          I don’t see a great movement of the peoples of Africa/Asia/America to ‘free themselves of mental slavery’
          What I do see is a bunch of over privileged academics making a very nice living talking bollocks.
          But that’s my opinion which just like everybody else I’m perfectly entitled to thanks to the Scottish enlightenment, which in my humble opinion represents the greatest advance in human thought in history. But heh, I’m just a ‘white’ bloke taking advantage of my colonial heritage even though my ancestors were agricultural labourers.

          1. 240624 says:

            “I don’t see a great movement of the peoples of Africa/Asia/America to ‘free themselves of mental slavery’.”

            Really? Don’t you read the news?

            “What I do see is a bunch of over privileged academics making a very nice living talking bollocks.”

            Yes; that was my experience of academia too. I couldn’t wait until I’d served my time and could be shot of it.

            As David Hume said, ‘Every man is entitled to his opinion, but not every opinion is worth having.’

            The Scottish Enlightenment was indeed an epochal moment in world history. It was the birthplace of modernity, with which we successfully colonised the world. It’s failure culminated in the rise of fascism, Stalinism, the culture industry, and mass consumer capitalism. Rather than liberating humanity, as its progenitors had hoped, it resulted in its opposite: totalitarianism and new forms of barbarity and social domination.

      2. SleepingDog says:

        @John Learmonth, Graeber and Wengrow trace the Indigenous Critique back at least as far as Kandiaronk:
        Unless you think black and brown people cannot come up with such objections to colonisation on their own?

        1. John Learmonth says:

          Graeber and Wengrow are both ‘white’ academics employed by US universities.
          For some reason the indigenous Americans never got round to establishing higher education.
          Maybe if we hadn’t ‘colonised’ them they would have established the Ivy league universities on their own?
          What do you think?

          1. 240624 says:

            David Wengrow is a British archaeologist and Professor of Comparative Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London.

            David Graeber’s deid. But, afore he dee’d, the British social theorist was Professor of Anthropology at London School of Economics. But, granted; he was American until 2005.

            The reason indigenous Americans didn’t have universities prior to European colonisation is precisely because they hadn’t yet been colonised by that particular guild-system of knowledge formation and regulation; they formulated and regulated their knowledge in other ways, as archaeologists and anthropologists like Wengrow and Graeber have discovered through their field studies.

          2. SleepingDog says:

            @John Learmonth, how do you know that “indigenous Americans never got round to establishing higher education”? What about the rigorous political training for the Council of Tlaxcala, for example? Some of the other examples in Dawn of Everything sound very like training via philosophy tutorials or professional diplomatic schools.

            Of course, you miss the point. Kandiaronk (active until around 1700) may well have been Wendat ambassador to France, as suggested in fictionalised form in French nobleman Lahontan’s account. Apparently the Iroquois sent ambassadors to France to conduct diplomatic missions, and they apparently attended centres of higher learning there. These people formed their own impressions of the French (and other Europeans) and were able to knowledgeably critique European colonialism. This is history, not academic ‘theories’.

            Both Kandiaronk and the fictionalised version written by Lahontan (and like others) are said to have romanticised their own culture when criticising the French, possibly to make philosophical points or for diplomatic reasons to reject French overtures. However, their reported criticisms seem sound, if embellished: dim views of Europeans, their laws, religion, hierarchy, misery, property, money, family life, deceit, violence, coercion, obsequious subjection to king, and slavery.

            This ‘indigenous critique’ fed into European Enlightenment discussions (which I know from my study of philosophy). It is interesting to read philosopher Susan Neiman, an avowed defender of the European Enlightenment, in Learning from the Germans, p377:
            “It was the philosophers of the Enlightenment, however, who were the first to condemn Eurocentrism.” Montesquieu, Christian Wolff, Diderot, Kant, Rousseau: their writings may have been ignorant, treatments of the topic overly brief, sexist, racist and in some senses appalling, “but they were on the right track” and starting to address prejudices.

  3. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    Thanks, as always, to Bella Caledonia for publishing articles and reviews such as this which shine lights into aspects of our history and culture which are terra incognito for large numbers of us.

    Such stories were known to some people but mainly in oral form, although there are sometimes some local newspaper articles or documentation, such letters, diaries, photographs taken by people at the time. However, the mainstream media often ignored these matters or, presented it in adverse ways, which presented the victims as the perpetrators. Often there was little in the way of organisations with political nous and educational and archival facilities to record such things as resources for information and debate.

    Although the writer and the book reviewed are about the experiences of black and brown people in Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom, there are other groups in society for whom similarly oppressive experiences are largely unrecorded or, where it exists denied wider publicity. Travelling people, Gaels, religious groups, local communities, Irish immigrants, people with disabilities, women, etc all have experienced atrocities and discrimination over the years and some continues.

    Rather than pointing the finger of blame at the wider population for not being aware of such things, it is important that we recognise that such information is coming into the wider public realm and can inform the political discourse.

    1. Meg Macleod says:

      We are still experiencing great difficulty in getting at the truth of events ongoing,ever more so with the powerful lobbying and ownership of media outlets and the censorship of ‘discussion’…in 50 years time will the TRUTH emerge in relation to our current upheavals?irs a long time to wait.

      1. 240621 says:

        Well, future historians will develop various interpretations of the whys and wherefores of our current social, political, cultural, and demographic upheavals. Which (if any) of those interpretations is ‘true’ will, as always, be ultimately undecidable.

  4. SleepingDog says:

    Yes, a modern Doctor Who episode featured Rosa Parks (as others noted, better done by Horrible Histories anyway) but declined to use the Bristol Bus Boycott example despite Modern Who being largely set in London and Cardiff and despite Doctor Who revisiting England 1963 in a recent episode (London and the Beatles were the main interest). When another episode ended with a strong hint of (future non-Earth planet, oddly unexplained) anti-Black racism against the current Doctor, I thought we might at least see a follow-up episode where the origins of British anti-Black racism was explored, but instead we got a Bridgerton fantasy. With Doctor Who’s purpose these days seemingly to whitewash British history, it is perhaps not surprisingly that youngsters may be deprived of historical perspective.

    However, just as I learnt on courses on the women’s struggle for political equality that trade unionists often opposed this (printers in Edinburgh come to mind), so I’ve learnt that trade unionists were often racistly opposed to equal treatment of labour. Despite that, I can appreciate Cornel West’s tribute to the communists who integrated before the Christian churches.

    As a final thought, I had no idea how internationally interconnected black and brown civil rights and nationalist movements were within the British Empire until quite recently, thanks to historians like Priyamvada Gopal (Insurgent Empire), while the debt the (often Conservative) European Enlightenment owes to its critique by the rest of the world has been plausibly argued by Graeber and Wengrow (Dawn of Everything).

    If philosopher Susan Neiman is right (Learning from the Germans), people generally respond better to tales of agency than of victims, which would bode well for this narrative of UK black and brown civil rights activists. Just as long as we don’t fall into the trap of lionising them too much. After all, the British disease of primitive ancestor-worship should be cured not spread. Too much veneration of civil rights activists is a bad thing. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/article/2024/jun/21/arundhati-roy-india-bjp-elections-booker-prize

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