The United States of America changed the day Rosa Parks famously refused to give up her seat on a bus in Alabama. Her poignant act of defiance became a pivotal symbol in the Civil Rights Movement that was galvanising the country.
Eight years later, another historical moment of change occurred on the busses of Bristol in the United Kingdom, as the country’s first black-led campaign sought to fight racial discrimination in the workplace. Although not as well-known, the Bristol Bus Boycott of 1963 was a watershed moment in black British history that led to meaningful change in the country's laws.
Many people from the Caribbean served in the British Army during WW2. In the immediate aftermath of the conflict, a great deal chose to settle in the UK. Numbers increased after London Transport and the National Health Service actively sought employees from the Caribbean, with the former even opening a recruitment office in Jamaica.
By 1960, Bristol’s Caribbean community consisted of around 3,000 people. However, discrimination was a constant in their lives as most settled in the deprived area around City Road in St Pauls. It wasn’t uncommon to see signs up on boarding houses declaring, ‘No Irish, no blacks, no dogs’.
The discrimination leached into every facet of life as some shops refused to serve the black community, whilst gangs of Teddy Boys – a youth subculture revolving around rock and roll music – often chased black people and threatened to whip them with bicycle chains.
The Bristol colour bar
Job opportunities were far from abundant for the Caribbean community and the situation was made near impossible by rampant workplace discrimination. In early-mid 1960s Britain, it was entirely legal to racially discriminate against someone. A company was well within its rights to not hire a potential employee just because of the colour of their skin.
By 1963, the state-owned Bristol Omnibus Company was yet to employ a single non-white driver or conductor in its network. The colour bar was clear as day. If someone wasn’t white, they weren't getting hired.
The Transport and General Worker’s Union
For many companies, the colour bar was an open secret, but for the Bristol Omnibus Company, there was even a written policy. Workers of the company belonged to the Transport and General Worker’s Union (TGWU) and in 1955, the local branch of that union passed a resolution that banned non-white people from working as bus conductors and drivers. The Bristol Omnibus Company went along with the resolution.
The racist policy was exposed in a 1961 article in the Bristol Evening Post but since such discrimination was not illegal, company general manager Ian Patey brazenly stood by and defended it, declaring that his staff was unwilling to work alongside people of other races.
West Indian Development Council
Disappointed by the blatant racism and lack of progress in fighting it, four young West Indian men - Roy Hackett, Owen Henry, Audley Evans, and Prince Brown – formed the West Indian Development Council (WIDC). In 1962, Paul Stephenson joined the action group. The son of a West African and a white British mother, the well-educated and articulate Stephenson soon became the spokesperson for the group.
Stephenson was unafraid of rocking the boat and drew inspiration from scenes across the Atlantic. He swiftly set about exposing the ingrained racism of the Bristol Omnibus Company by sending a young man to interview for a job.
The man Stephenson sent for the interview was Guy Bailey, who was the perfect candidate for the job. As a well-spoken, well-qualified, churchgoing cricket player, he ticked all the boxes.
The interview was arranged but Bailey never got the chance to argue his case. As soon as he walked in through the office doors of the bus company his interview was cancelled because he was black. Stephenson predicted this would happen and in response, he called a press conference in April 1963.
The boycott begins
Speaking to local reporters outside his St Pauls flat, Stephenson described what had happened to Bailey and asked for a city-wide boycott of the Bristol Omnibus Company, which would only be lifted after the removal of the company colour bar. In response, Ian Patey continued to repeat his stance on the issue declaring that it remained unchanged.
Support for the boycott soon spread as students from Bristol University held a protest march to the bus station and the local headquarters of the TGWU on 1st May. Local press reported the event drew heckling from bus crews as it passed through the city centre.
It seemed that battle lines had been drawn as newspapers began running letters from members of the public on either side of the bus company’s policy.
The boycott spreads
At that time, newspapers around the world were filled with stories about the fight against apartheid in South Africa and racial segregation in the US. The Bristol Bus Boycott soon found its way into the headlines across the country.
It wasn’t long before high-profile politicians lent their support to the campaign, including Labour Opposition leader, and future prime minister, Harold Wilson. As the summer wore on, local and national pressure continued to grow on the Bristol Omnibus Company until it became too much.
Victory for the campaigners
On 28th August 1963 – the same day Martin Luther King delivered his famous ‘I have a dream’ speech – Ian Patey declared a change in the bus company’s policy. With immediate effect, complete integration of Bristol’s bus crews would be allowed. The campaigners had won the day.
Just under a month later, on 17th September, Sikh graduate Raghbir Singh became the city’s first non-white bus conductor. Others quickly followed suit.
The Bristol Bus Boycott paved the way for the Race Relations Acts of 1965 and 1968, which banned discrimination in employment, housing, and public places. The 1965 Act was the first legislation in the UK to address racial discrimination and it wouldn’t have come when it did if it weren’t for the Bristol Bus Boycott.
For their part in organising the boycott, Stephenson, Bailey, and Hackett were all awarded OBEs. In 2013, Unite (the successor to the TGWU) issued a formal apology stating that its stance at the time was ‘completely unacceptable’.
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