BHM 2021: The Bristol Bus Boycott

30 April 1963 marked the Bristol Bus Boycott, which arose from the refusal of the Bristol Omnibus Company to employ Black or Asian bus crews in the city of Bristol. To understand why the Bristol Bus Boycott happened, it’s important to understand the history in the UK at the time. In the late 40s and throughout the 50s, mainland Britain faced a labour shortage after World War II, and looked to its Caribbean colonies to help fill the gap. Thousands of people, known now as the Windrush Generation, answered the call and arrived in Britain between 1948 and 1971. By 1963, there were an estimated 3,000 people of Caribbean origin living in Bristol. Many experienced racial discrimination, were violently attacked, denied housing, and, despite labour shortages, were refused jobs because of the colour of their skin.

In 1955, the Transport and General Worker’s Union passed a resolution that banned people of colour from working as bus drivers or conductors, and the Bristol Omnibus Company did nothing to dispute this. In response, a Jamaican man, Roy Hackett, helped set up the Commonwealth Coordinated Committee (CCC) in 1962, with the purpose of uniting the Caribbean community and supporting any Black person who was facing discrimination. Another Black-led organisation at the time was the West Indian Development Committee (WIDC), run by Paul Stephenson, Bristol’s first Black youth officer. Together, the CCC and the WIDC campaigned against racial injustices and their biggest fight was in 1963 against the Bristol Omnibus Company.

A plaque at Bristol Bus Station commemorating the boycott

Paul Stephenson brought the company’s racist policy to public attention. He put forward a well-qualified man named Guy Bailey for a vacancy as a bus conductor with the Bristol Omnibus Company, but when the employers realised Guy was a Black Jamaican, the interview was cancelled. In response to this, there was public outcry and, inspired by Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the CCC and WIDC called for a boycott of Bristol’s buses.

The boycott soon attracted national and international attention, with an array of big names lending their support to the campaign, including Prime Minister Harold Wilson, local Labour politician Tony Benn, and famous West Indian cricketer and diplomat Sir Learie Constantine. With pressure growing on the Bristol Omnibus Company, it was finally forced to end its ban in August 1963. 

A significant milestone in achieving racial equality, the boycott resulted in the employment of the first conductor of colour on 17 September 1963, Raghbir Singh. This demonstration ultimately influenced the passing of the Race Relations Act 1965, making “racial discrimination in public places” unlawful, and subsequently the Race Relations Act 1968, which extended protection from racial discrimination to employment and housing.

To find out more about the Bristol Bus Boycott, listen to the The History Hotline’s episode – available on Spotify and Apple Podcasts.

“Paul Stephenson’s life, as readers of this book will see, offers living proof that history is made by the people who make the effort.”

Read Paul Stephenson OBE’s autobiography, which details his hugely influential life and his role in the UK’s Civil Rights movement. Available from the Bristol Museums website.

BHM 2021: Tilbury Docks, Essex & HMT Empire Windrush

Taken from Germany by the British government as reparations at the end of WWII, the Empire Windrush began her life as a troopship and became an emblem of something much greater; the UK government’s systematic failing of a generation. On 21st June 1948, the Empire Windrush landed at Tilbury Docks in Essex. Over 800 of her 1,027 passengers gave their last place of residence as somewhere in the Caribbean. Most had embarked in Jamaica, but some had also joined the vessel in Trinidad, Bermuda and Guyana. They had been beckoned to Britain by the promise of job opportunities created by the UK’s post-war labour shortage. 

Many passengers ended their journeys in London, settling in places like Brixton and Clapham, while others continued north to Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester, to work in the staff-starved NHS and transport systems. Those who landed at Tilbury Docks may have been the first passengers to arrive from the Caribbean under this scheme, but they were not the last. The British Nationality Act of 1948 gave the right of settlement in the UK to any person who had been born in a British colony, and between 1948 and 1973, it is estimated that almost half a million people moved from the Caribbean to the UK. 

Windrush scandal protests in 2017

Those who arrived during this time—dubbed the ‘Windrush generation’—were not given any documentation on arrival, because as citizens of British colonies that were not independent, they had the right to permanently work and live in the UK. However, in 2012, Prime Minister Theresa May introduced the ‘Hostile Environment’ legislation, designed to make the UK ‘unliveable’ for undocumented migrants. Stories began to surface of members of the Windrush generation being unlawfully detained, deported and denied access to public resources, including the NHS, bank accounts and driving licenses unless they could prove their right to remain. 

Proving this was an impossible feat for many; especially those who had arrived as children on their parents’ passports. The Home Office—who in 2010 destroyed the landing cards which proved many people’s settled status—demanded one official document for every year they had lived in the UK; an unfeasible burden placed on the backs of those who had done nothing wrong. 

The Windrush Scandal is far from over. In 2020, an independent enquiry into the scandal found that it was “foreseeable and avoidable”, and a compensation scheme was announced. But there are a huge number of cases that have not been resolved, thousands of people awaiting compensation, and the policy which allowed this to happen in the first place—Theresa May’s ‘Hostile Environment’ legislation—is still in place today. 

Watch & Read

To find out more about the Windrush Scandal, watch Sitting in Limbo, a BBC drama which focuses on the life of Anthony Bryan, a Jamaican-born British man who was a victim of the government’s ‘Hostile Environment’ legislation. Bryan had lived in the UK for 50 years when the government’s policy identified him as an “illegal immigrant”.

“How do you pack for a one-way journey back to a country you left when you were eleven and have not visited for fifty years?”

Read Amelia Gentleman’s book ‘The Windrush Betrayal: Exposing the Hostile Environment’, an exposé of the Windrush scandal that shocked the nation, and led to the resignation of Amber Rudd as Home Secretary.

DiverSE: Pride month 2021 – History

As part of Pride month 2021 activities, we are sending a weekly email about a different period in LGBTQ+ history, starting with the gay liberation of the 1960s and the Stonewall Riots.

Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera

As part of this month’s Pride activities, we’ll be sending a weekly email about a different period in LGBTQ+ history, starting with the gay liberation of the 1960s and the Stonewall Riots.

The fight for LGBTQ+ rights is often split into two categories: before Stonewall, and after. But contrary to popular belief, the LGBTQ+ rights movement was alive and kicking well before the Stonewall Riots. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, LGBTQ+ people risked psychiatric treatment and jail time for publicly expressing their sexuality, and it wasn’t until the mid-1960s that protests began to force world governments to reexamine the laws which held same-sex relationships as illegal.

The gay liberation movement was a social and political catalyst that urged LGBTQ+ people to fight against prejudice with ‘gay pride’. Prior to the Stonewall Riots of 1969, momentum for this movement was already gaining power across the world. In cities across the US, police raids on gay bars were common, sparking protests and pickets. One such event was the Compton’s Cafeteria riots in San Francisco, whose crowd of drag queens and transgender women finally had enough and stood up for their rights.

Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera
Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera

And then came the 28th June, 1969. Gay bars are and have always been a place of refuge for LGBTQ+ people, where they can go without fear of public harassment. The Stonewall Inn, in New York’s Greenwich Village, is a well-known gathering place for LGBTQ+ people, and was frequently subjected to police harassment. At the time, there was a statute that authorised the arrest of any person not wearing at least three items of gender-appropriate clothing, and thus, when the cops arrived, the arrests began. But the bar’s patrons didn’t scatter, and this routine raid ignited three nights of unrest, where New York’s LGBTQ+ community began to fight back. Some of the key activists in the riots were lesbian and transgender woman of colour, who are remembered today as mothers of the LGBTQ+ rights movement: Stormé DeLarverie, Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera and Miss Major Griffin-Gracy.

Why is Stonewall so well-remembered, when it was only one of many protests? Because it was the first to be commemorated. On the one-year anniversary of the riots in 1970, thousands of people marched on the streets of Manhattan to commemorate what was then – and still is in Germany and Switzerland – called the Christopher Street Liberation Day. This was the USA’s first pride parade, and every year since, growing in numbers each time, cities across the world come together to celebrate Pride every June.

Next week we’ll be talking about the 1970s and 1980s, the AIDS epidemic, and more.

Want to carry on learning?

Watch – Before Stonewall: this 1984 documentary chronicles the fight for LGBTQ+ rights (you guessed it) before Stonewall – available on Amazon Prime.

Listen – Making Gay History: a podcast that reveals the hidden histories of the LGBTQ+ rights movement through archival interviews with key players, including Sylvia Rivera and Bayard Rustin. Click here to listen.

Read – ‘The riot that changed America’s gay rights movement forever’: A Guardian article for a more in-depth understanding of the Stonewall Riots. Read here.