A Black pioneer has joined his ancestors: one of Britain’s most celebrated civil right activists, Roy Hackett, has passed away. The whole country should know his name and be taught the extraordinary story of one of the most powerful organised resistance movements against racial discrimination in 20th-century Britain. It is a story of community determination, collaboration and hope.
I met Hackett when I was a PhD student working on the links between the city of Bristol and the transatlantic slave trade. He emphatically congratulated me on tackling a subject that was bound to make many feel uncomfortable but that could also lead to a form of healing. He believed that it was important for younger generations of people of African, Caribbean and Asian descent to actively participate in the writing of the history of the city and of the UK. Following in the footsteps of US pioneers such as Charlie Brady Hauser (who was the father of the first Black female lord-lieutenant of Bristol, Peaches Golding) and Rosa Parks, Hackett knew that you could not fight against what is now known as institutionalised racism without careful planning.
Britain, and Bristol in particular, was a very difficult place for people of African and Asian descent in the 1950s and 1960s. It was common for members of those communities to be denied access to hostels, boarding houses, pubs and so on. Physical violence from racist gangs was also a threat. Many from those communities had been invited to help build the mother country, and yet they faced dehumanising discrimination.
While other cities had started to hire people from African-Caribbean and Asian communities in various roles, the Bristol Omnibus Company, supported by the council, openly refused to do so. So, in the early 1960s, Hackett, Guy Bailey and many other activists got together and canvassed the support of Bristol’s wider Black community in St Paul’s, where most of them lived. In 1963, Hackett, Audley Evans, Owen Henry, Prince Brown and Paul Stephenson set up the West Indian Development Council: its aim was to raise awareness about employment discrimination and conduct series of targeted actions. In the same year, they launched a city-wide boycott of the Omnibus Company’s buses. Trinidad and Tobago’s high commissioner, Learie Constantine, and British politicians such as Tony Benn supported it. As the fight made local and national news, more and more people wanted to get involved. After months of boycott, the company announced there would be no more discrimination in employing bus crews.
Hackett (who was also instrumental in setting up St Paul’s Carnival in Bristol) and his companions did not achieve their goals and end that form of segregation by simply wishing it to happen. They organised sit-ins, pickets, galvanised crowds and publicised their stories. It was done in the spirit of non-violence that inspired Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s journey. They constantly sought the support of people from all backgrounds. A fierce leader, Roy Hackett embodied the spirit of radical resilience and hope. His story needs to be widely known and taught to current and future generations.
Olivette Otele is distinguished professor of the legacies and memory of slavery at Soas University of London
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