“King’s Dream” spurred Black Britons in August 1963

They fought racism on the buses —

but has progress followed?

By Thomas L Blair, 24 August 2013  copyright reserved ©

August marks the fiftieth anniversary of two major events in 1963. As Martin Luther King Jr challenged America with his jobs, equality and freedom dream, Paul Stephenson and his West Indian comrades broke the colour bar on the buses in Bristol, England. The band of dissidents took to the streets with their allies – university students and prominent politicians – and raised hopes for a civil rights movement in Britain.


Paul Stephen and Memoirs
Paul Stephen and Memoirs

“’David’ beats ‘Goliath’ in fight to end bus ban on black staff”, said the daily Bristol Post, applauding this “monumental victory”.

It began when the Bristol Omnibus Company refused to hire Guy Bailey, an 18-year-old jobseeker, because “We don’t employ Black drivers”.

Stephenson, then a youth worker, came to his aid saying, “I decided to take on the bus company because it was a symbol of all that was wrong with Bristol – it advocated racism, defended racism and was the most notorious racist employer in the city”.

However, this was a shock for the older jobseekers. “Most of the immigrants had no idea about racism in England, said Stephenson “They had been taught that this was their Mother Country – the seat of civilisation – and that they would be welcomed, he said. And, when he “saw how the young immigrants who were growing up, or who were born here, were being treated,” Stephenson rallied support.

Fifty years later, Black Bristolians say that progress has stalled. A new generation must press for radical change. Why?

Youth unemployment, particularly in communities of colour,  is at crisis levels. Many teenagers are NEETS, “not in education or employment”.  Traditional manual and semi-skilled jobs are overcrowded. Employers claim there’s no room for them in the city’s booming hi-tech, media and computing, planes and cars, cultural and tourist industries.

Black youth face a lifetime of exclusion that hampers their potential to flourish. This must have been one element in the riots in St Paul’s, a significant Black district, suggests Prof Paul Gilroy in his seminal work There ain’t no Black in the Union Jack.

Britain’s foremost “race relations champion”, Bristol University professor Tariq Modood, confirms the pattern of exclusion in the independent National Equality Panel report of 2010,

“The central problem… – in terms of persistence and scale of inequality – continues to be the unequal levels of unemployment between whites and the minorities”.

In Bristol, as in London and major centres of Black population, the evidence shows “Raci­­­­al divide ‘deeper than ever’, according to the Commission for Racial Equality report, in the BBC News 2007. The report concludes: “There needs to be “equality for all sections of society, interaction between all sections of society and participation by all sections of society”.

“What had once been a low-key local dispute had morphed into a cause célèbre,” said History magazine writer Spencer Mizen.   The bus managers lifted the colour bar the same day King gave his “I have a dream” oration. Stephenson said,  “I never doubted we’d win – purely because of the moral force of our argument”. 

Stephenson, son of a West African father and English mother, challenged city patricians and politicians to overcome Bristol’s central involvement in the Triangular Slave Trade. The evils of which still resonate, unacknowledged.

“Bristol is a fragmented city”, said academics in the How Open is Bristol Study. Researchers discovered that sections of the public [not just Blacks] classed the city as “insular, White, visionless, unimaginative, parochial and apartheid”.


Manacles of Bristol's slave trade
Manacles of Bristol’s slave trade

Progress in British race relations requires constant vigilant action to secure it. Despite the remarkable victory against the ban on non-white bus drivers in 1963, progress remains elusive.

The Bristol Bus Boycott was an important crusade. West Indian workers broke the shackles of defeat. They seemed to be saying, “This is just the beginning”. Many thought job equality would spread to culture and politics and down the generations.

Notably, breaking the bus ban attracted support and sparked Britain’s first race relations law in 1965. However, Stephenson and his band were not espousing a recognisable 1960s-style civil rights movement.

Equality and better race relations was his goal, restated and refined in his Memoirs of a Black Englishman. In addition, he received the Freedom of the City of Bristol in 2008 “in recognition of his work to bring the black and white communities together”.

Guy Bailey has his doubts, however. “Racism isn’t so blatant in 2013 as it was back in 1963 but it still lives,” he told History magazine.

Bailey said, “There are still people who believe that, no matter how poorly qualified a white person is, he is still more suitable for a job than a highly qualified black person. It’s for that very reason that we must remember the events of 1963”.

Undeniably, Bristol Blacks have made modest progress.  Yet, they still face a daily struggle – and the headlines tell why.

“Bristol traffic warden faces regular racism on street”, reported the Bristol Post, Wednesday, November 09, 2011.

The Jamaican-born man — a keen batsman for the Bristol West Indians — has lived in the city for a decade, and took the job to support his son and daughter.

In only his second week, someone called him the “N” word when patrolling, said the paper.

His last angry words measure the chasm that must be bridged: “I don’t think anyone should have to put up with this when they’re doing their job,” he said. “Whether they’re black, white, pink or yellow.”

Memphis garbage and trash collectors are fighting to hold on to jobs that some city leaders want to hand over to a private company — Forty-five years after Martin Luther King Jr. was killed supporting a historic sanitation workers strike in Memphis, 1968. 

Prof Thomas L Blair at tb@thechronicle.demon.co.uk writes on Black urban affairs in Britain and Afro-Europe, see http://www.chronicleworld.org, and Editionsblair.eu

•Racism in Britain, Anti-Racism, Black Britain, in categories: Society, Welfare, Justice & the State, Anti-Racism, Black, Asian & Other Diasporas.

How Open is Bristol Study. http://www.coe.int/t/dg4/cultureheritage/culture/cities/Publication/HowOpenBristol.pdf

Paul Stephenson and Lilleith Morrison (2011), Memoirs of a Black Englishman, Tangent Books

Spencer Mizen (2013), The Great British civil rights Scandal, History, August 2013, pp 32-34

Paul Gilroy, Paul Gilroy speaks on the riots, August 2011, Tottenham, North London, Tuesday, August 16, 2011 http://dreamofsafety.blogspot.co.uk/2011/08/paul-gilroy-speaks-on-riots-august-2011.html?spref=fb

Paul Gilroy (1987), There Ain’t No Black In the Union Jack: The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation, London: Hutchinson

Madge Dresser (1986). Black and White On the Buses. Bristol: Bristol Broadsides. pp. 47–50.

The Bristol Post  http://www.thisisbristol.co.uk/Bristol-traffic-warden-faces-regular-racism/storyx

Racial divide deeper than ever, BBC News http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/7001371.stm

Decades after Martin Luther King’s death, Memphis jobs at risk, by Adrian Sainz, Associated Press | April 3, 2013 at 11:27 AM [from The Grio.com]