The UK’s Black History Month is October, and we are using this month to recognise 2 black people who fought for civil rights here in the UK.
Too often in October, we hear the well known and fantastic stories of Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. These were incredible people but this is not the month to tell their stories, October is the month for us to find out the untold stories of people who changed the UK, who fought for civil rights here and laid the foundations for a better society. Yes, in the TogetherintheUK video for Black History Month, we hear the argument that it’s a shame that we need to have a dedicated month to it because the stories are not well known. This is true but until we all know the stories; we need the month.
Personally, I love Black History Month because I learn so much, I hear stories that I should know but I don’t. There are so many stories and people who we could choose to recognise in this blog. People like Paul Boateng, Bernie Grant and Diane Abbott, the 3 first black MPs, elected in 1987 but I have decided to focus on 2 people who fought for civil rights. Civil rights in the UK did not just happen, they came about because of the courage of people who thought that the country could be fairer and that they were the people who could change it. This is quite something when you take a moment to think about it, people who had not seen people like them in public life who could see the world differently and organise people to make it happen. I once heard the great Angela Davis speak and she talked of the importance of organising but living with the fact that the results are uncertain. In these two stories, one did not live to see the results of his campaigns, the other did.
The first person I want to write about is William Cuffay. This is a story from the 19th century, Cuffay was the grandson of a slave, his father was a cook and he became a tailor. The fascinating thing about Cuffay is his political activism. He was tiny, just under 5 ft and a radical trade unionist. He helped found the Metropolitan Tailors’ Union and led a strike for better pay and a ten-hour day for tailors. He paid a heavy price for this, losing his job. Importantly, he was also involved in the campaign for every man to have the vote, a movement known as the Chartists, where he organised a march on Kennington Common. Eventually, he was accused of ‘conspiring to levy war against Queen Victoria’. At his trial, he demanded that he was tried by his peers, fellow journeymen. He was found guilty, sentenced to transportation to Tasmania where, once pardoned, he continued his activism until his death aged 82. He was sufficiently influential to be mocked in Punch and The Times and he appeared as a character in several well- known novels of the times. His picture now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. We need to pay tribute to people who fought for the vote and better conditions – they may not have succeeded in their day but we all have a reason to be grateful to them now.
Moving on to a story from the 20th century, it is my belief that we should all know the name, Paul Stephenson. Paul Stephenson was a key figure in the Bristol Bus Boycott. This was a critical event that led to the first race relations act. In 1963 the Bristol Bus Company would not employ anyone who was black or Asian. They came up with reasons which seem totally extraordinary today, ‘white people wouldn’t want to travel on buses where the conductor was black’. The Union said that if they did the result would be lower wages. Paul Stephenson with Prince Brown, Guy Bailie, Owen Henry, Audley Evans organised a boycott of the buses. This was inspired by Rosa Parks. The boycott attracted international interest. The Labour Opposition were supportive of the boycott, which brought the discrimination faced by ethnic minorities to public attention. Harold Wilson, the leader at that time, promised Paul Stephenson that if he was elected, he would make racial discrimination illegal. When he won the election, the following year, he did, and the UK had its first anti-racist law in 1965, the Race Relations Act. This story seems to have a good ending, many years later, Unite the Union, the successor to the Transport and General Workers Union apologised and Paul was awarded an OBE in 2009. More importantly, the legislation that begun in 1965 has been steadily improved and we now have the 2010 Equality Act.
These stories are just the tip of the fascinating topic of the far too hidden Black British History. For more stories, go to: