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Claudia Jones

Saluting Our Sisters: 7 female Black British activists 

Image: Claudia Jones | Public Domain

In this guest article, Tony Warner, the founder of Black History Walks and author of Black History Walks Volume 1, highlights seven female activists whose contributions changed the way Black people were seen and treated in the United Kingdom.

1. Una Marson

Una Marson, a Jamaican, was the first Black female producer at the BBC. In the 1940s, she hosted a World War II radio programme called West Indies Calling. She was also an active member and secretary of the League of Coloured Peoples, a Black British Civil Rights organisation in the 1930s headed by Dr Harold Moody.

2. Mavis Best

In the 1980s, the Sus Law was used by British police to detain, assault, criminalise, and imprison tens of thousands of young Black men. The Sus Law, based on the 1824 Vagrancy Act, meant that a police officer could stop, search and arrest people on suspicion that they might commit a crime in the future. Boys as young as 11 in school uniform were arrested for standing at a bus stop waiting to go home. Evidence was often planted, and many teenagers got unwarranted convictions which affected their job prospects.

Mavis Best, a young Black mother from Lewisham, Southeast London, went into police stations to rescue the detained boys. Mrs Best reported that when she challenged police over the detention of children, she was threatened with arrest herself to which she replied, ‘Arrest me then!’

Mrs Best was one of the leaders of the Black female-initiated, ‘Scrap Sus’ campaign. The group raised funds, lobbied, protested, collected evidence, did interviews, wrote articles, met officials and debated police officers as well as Home Office ministers. The campaign succeeded in getting the policy scrapped within three years of commencement.

3. Linda Bellos OBE

Revolutionary feminist, Linda Bellos, has been a long-standing campaigner for race equality and diversity. She was an architect of the original Black History Month in 1987 when she led the London Strategic Policy Unit. As such, she enabled the vision of Akyaaba Addai-Sebo (the Godfather of Black History Month) to become a reality by endorsing and supporting his idea of having a whole month to celebrate African/Caribbean history. At this time, the concept was seen as a bit radical but is now an accepted part of the national British cultural calendar.

In 1981, she became the first Black woman to join the iconic Spare Rib magazine. She was also vice chair of the Labour Party Black Sections. This pressure group directly resulted in four politically Black MPs being elected in 1987.

As the leader of Lambeth Council from 1986 to 1988, she was only the second Black woman to lead a local authority (Merle Amory in Brent was the first in 1986). She endured harassment, abuse and threats of violence from far-right groups and right-wing newspapers.

4. Dame Jocelyn Barrow

Dame Jocelyn Barrow founded the Campaign against Racial Discrimination (CARD) in 1964 after meeting Martin Luther King when he passed through London on his way to Oslo to pick up his Nobel Peace Prize. CARD campaigned against the colour bar in retail and leisure. It was also pivotal in lobbying for and ushering through the 1968 Race Relations Act. This was only the second law to make certain types of racist behaviour illegal.

Not content with making the law happen she sought out test cases to apply it. She found one in the colour bar that was rampant in Oxford Street and Regent Street shops. The unofficial bar meant that Black people could only get jobs behind the scenes but not public-facing roles. It was felt that white people would not be comfortable with Black people handling personal items.

Dame Jocelyn lobbied for a meeting with Lord Sieff who was the head of Marks & Spencer. She convinced him to agree to employ some ‘pretty Black girls’, thereby breaking the colour bar. The threat of legal action from the new law convinced many other shops to follow.

5. Claudia Jones

Jones was a Trinidadian woman who spent her life fighting for equality. She was active in the US civil rights movement and helped to organise rent strikes in Harlem, New York. Rent strikes were arranged to stop racist landlords overcharging Black people for inferior accommodation; she was so effective the government imprisoned her and deported her to Britain in 1955. Once she got to London, she joined the West Indian Workers and Students Association. In 1958, she set up a newspaper called the West Indian Gazette.

At this time, white newspapers rarely featured stories about the Black community and if they did, they tended to be negative or sensational. The Black community could not get information on issues that were important to them and there was no platform for their voices to be heard.

In the 1950s and 1960s, print media was how they would find out about jobs, accommodation, parties, cultural, political, or educational news. Printed information was also a way to communicate stories of injustices, and successes and arrange or publicise campaigns for equal treatment. The West Indian Gazette was popular within the Black community but the office in Brixton, South London received numerous racially abusive letters and was physically attacked by the British Klu Klux Klan.

Jones was a natural leader and successfully lobbied for Black people to get jobs in senior positions on London transport, in banks and other institutions where there was a colour bar. She also campaigned against racist immigration controls such as the 1962 Commonwealth Immigration Act. This act restricted migration from Black commonwealth countries like Jamaica but placed no restrictions on white commonwealth countries like Canada.

6. Amy Ashwood Garvey

Amy was the first wife of Marcus Garvey who led an international movement of six million Black people in the 1920s. She wrote speeches, books and took over his work when he died in 1940. She was also a leader and publisher in her own right. She lived in Ladbroke Grove and used her home as a hostel and meeting place for various civil rights groups.

She co-founded and led the Committee of African Organisations and the Inter-Racial Friendship Co-ordinating Council set up with her best friend, Claudia Jones, as the Vice Chair. They arranged meetings with the Home Office and lobbied for laws to ban incitement to racial hatred.

After Kelso Cochrane’s murder in 1959, she wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Macmillan comparing Kelso’s killing to a Deep South lynching in the USA.

7. Dr Altheia Jones-Lecointe

Presently a Consultant Haematologist and Pathologist in Trinidad, Dr Altheia Jones-Lecointe started life as an activist at University College London. When she enrolled there in the late 1960s, she discovered the university had separate lists to accommodate Black and white students and successfully campaigned to end the racist policy.

She later became a leading figure in the Black People’s Movement and the Black Panther Party. She campaigned against police brutality and helped to organise the demonstration against the police harassment of Frank Chrichlow’s Mangrove restaurant in Notting Hill.

Apart from serving great food which attracted people like Muhammad Ali, Diana Ross, Nina Simone and Bob Marley, the venue was used as a meeting place for a variety of anti-racist groups. The powers-that-be did not approve of this activism. Police raided the venue almost monthly looking for drugs that were never found.

Jones-Lecointe, Darcus Howe and others arranged a demonstration for 9th August 1970 to protest the unfair treatment. They were arrested alongside seven others who then became known as the Mangrove 9. Charged with serious crimes such as incitement to riot for merely demonstrating, the purpose of the trial was to decapitate the Black Power leadership in the west.

Darcus Howe and Althea Jones-Lecointe chose to defend themselves at the Old Bailey against a bench of formidable QCs. While Howe had trained as a lawyer, Jones-Lecointe was studying for her PhD in biochemistry and was eight months pregnant. Their unconventional tactics won the case and the Mangrove 9 trial went down in history as part of the Black British Civil Rights struggle.

A Nubian Jak blue plaque sponsored by Black History Walks will be unveiled in her honour on 5th October 2023 (the anniversary of the start of the trial) in the Finsbury Park area.