Be Black, proud and progressive

 Five ways London’s elected Black mayors and councillors made a difference

By Thomas L Blair © 11 April 2016

David Pitt, Leader of the Greater London Council, 1974
David Pitt, Leader of the Greater London Council, 1974

Most voters will agree that Black London lost the dynamism of city leadership decades ago. Yet, the five ways the pathfinders linked Black working class aspirations and city politics sparkle brightly as voters get ready to elect London’s mayor and assembly.

Fraternal working class relations

A hundred years ago, John Archer, Britain’s first Black mayor, gave Black, white and foreign-born workers a new voice in city politics. Elected mayor of Battersea in 1913, he declared:

“My election tonight means a new era. You have made history tonight. For the first time in the history of the English nation a man of colour has been elected as mayor of an English borough”.

Furthermore, said Archer, himself of Barbadian heritage, “My victory will go forth to the coloured nations of the world and they will look at Battersea and say… that it recognises a man for the work he has done”.

Civil rights and justice

The first Black leader of the Greater London Council (in effect the ranking municipal leader) and tireless Labour Party campaigner, David Pitt of Grenadian heritage put civil rights and justice for all on the municipal agenda in 1974. The quiet man of action believed that the Labour party, more so than the Conservatives, represented the best long-term chance for Blacks and ethnic minorities to influence the direction of national policy. On this principle he founded CARD, the innovative, Martin Luther King Jr influenced Committee Against Discrimination. Ennobled as Baron of Hampstead, London and Hampstead, Grenada, Pitt is remembered by voters and leaders as “one of the prominent Blacks in British political life”.

Community organising and service

A decade later, Sam King took office as the first Black mayor of Southwark in 1983. He is honoured for his community work, his campaigning for black and ethnic minority rights and for his service to the people of Southwark”. Jamaican-born an historic Windrush veteran, King helped shepherd the first Notting Hill Carnival, and the first black newspaper, the West Indian Gazette.

International workers unity

Then came, the “African rebel” Guyana-born Bernie Grant, a local councillor and later MP for Tottenham. “Bernie Grant united workers in industries and the public services through the Black Trade Unionist Solidarity Movement. He pulled together the Labour party Black section in pursuing seats in councils and in parliament. And, he improved the bargaining position of agriculture workers in the Caribbean,” said his obituarist Narendra Makanji, of the London Borough of Haringey local council.


Being colour-bind is no virtue

Thus, Black pathfinders revealed that colour-blindness is no virtue in the cut and thrust of London politics. Being Black, proud and progressive is an honourable leadership trait.

Based on the evidence, new enlightened Black political leaders and voters are or certainly can be the reform champions all Londoners need. Especially, to heal a divided city of fractured race-class relations.