In the Shadows: the Black Women Behind the Civil Rights Movement in Britain

Olive Morris, one of the Black British Women behind the civil rights movement

Often, when we think of Civil Rights Activists we picture revered activists; people such as Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali. Whilst we acknowledge the sacrifices they made, we often overlook the Black British Women who spearheaded the civil rights movement here, in Britain. 

The Civil Rights Movement saw people of African and Caribbean descent fighting against the plight of police brutality, discriminatory competition for housing, unemployment, high rates of poverty and the notorious sus laws.

Having witnessed and experienced the marginalisation and racial injustice Jocelyn Barrow, Civil Rights Activist, lobbied for race relations legislation in the UK between 1964-1967. Barrow, was a founding member, general secretary and later vice-chair of Campaign Against Racial Discrimination (CARD). CARD was responsible for the Race Relations Act of 1968 – legislation which made it illegal to refuse housing, employment, or public services to a person on the grounds of colour, race, ethnic or national origins in Great Britain (with the exception of NI at the time).

Dame Jocelyn Barrow, one of the Black British Women behind the civil rights movement
Dame Jocelyn Barrow in 1964. Photograph: The Guardian

Barrow’s actions were instrumental to the betterment of the livelihoods of black people in the UK. Though the Race Relations Act was now recognised in the UK in 1968, people of African and Caribbean descent were still facing systemic and systematic racism in the form the Sus Law (based on the 1824 Vagrancy Act: suspected person). Sus law was used by police to stop, search, arrest, detain, and assault young black men in suspicion of criminal activity, often leaving black men discriminated against and singled out.

With growing concern for the safety of black men in the community, Mavis Best and a group of black women from Lewisham lobbied the police and the government to scrap the sus law. This took numerous demonstrations and meetings with Government officials and was finally abolished within three years.

Mavis Best, one of the Black British Women behind the civil rights movement
Mavis Best. Photograph: Media Diversity UK.

This was a momentous chapter in the Black British fight for civil rights. Mavis once said:

“We used to scan the papers daily and if there was anything inaccurate about our community, we would immediately respond with a rebuttal or story from our perspective. If we don’t do that, then people tend to believe what they hear

Mavis Best, Leader of the Scrap Sus Campaign 1981

Finally, yet just as importantly, there is Olive Morris. In the 27 years she was alive, Olive Morris campaigned for racial and gender equality, housing, and squatters’ rights. Morris led protests and demonstrations and founded the Brixton Black Women’s Group in 1973, one of Britain’s first networks for black women.

Olive Morris. Photograph: Lambeth Archives.

The women mentioned above – along with many others not mentioned – sacrificed their freedom and livelihood for the betterment of Black lives, but unfortunately their names and contributions are often erased from history. Their mark is often invisible and their names unrecognisable.

I believe it is our duty to document and archive the voices of the women who saw it too damaging to remain silent in the fight for equity.

As Jocelyn Barrow, in an interview,  once said:

I also believe that it’s part of our own responsibility as communities, as parents, as elders in our communities to ensure we learn our own history.”

— Dame Jocelyn Barrow (15 April 1929 – 9 April 2020)

Simangaliso Angela Mpofu is Enterprise and Innovation Officer at SOAS.

This blog is part of our Black History Month 2020 series, which celebrates black voices and achievements over time, and across the globe. The series features contributions from SOAS alumni, academics, and students.

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