The 1950s marked the beginning of a new wave of protest and resistance in the campaign for civil rights, brought on by poverty, political injustice and a recognition of the lack of equality. Building on the Black academics that inspired Black people the 50s exposed and brought a widespread need to fight for equality. Institutionalised racial segregation, the separation between races was at the heart of everyday life in America.
Cuba experienced a revolution led by Fidel Castro, Raul Castro and Ché Guevara, in a campaign that lasted from 26 July 1953 until 1 January 1959 against Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. After many years of guerrilla warfare, Fidel Castro became president. Initially positioned as a nationalist, he shifted towards communism, establishing links with the Soviet Union. With international impact, the Cuban revolution inspired insurrectionists in Nicaragua, Chile, Uruguay and Angola.
Although the lived realities of many African Americans did not change much during the 1950s, there was momentum for change. In 1954, the United States Supreme Court made segregation illegal in public schools. But it was in 1957, when nine Black students attempted to attend the formerly segregated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas that national attention was dedicated to the issue. The ‘Little Rock Nine’ had to be escorted to and from class by federal troops, amidst mobs, treats and harassment.
In 1955, a significant protest began in response to the practice of segregation of buses in Montgomery, Alabama. In March 1955, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin refused to give up her seat to a white passenger making her the first person to be arrested for challenging the policy. In December 1955, Rosa Park, the secretary of a local chapter of the NAACP was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white person, sparking the Montgomery Bus Boycott. A leaflet was printed by the Women’s Political Council and circulated to Montgomery’s Black community that encouraged a boycott. On 5 December, at a mass meeting held at Holt Street Baptist Church Martin Luther King Jr., at the time a young pastor, led the initiative which lasted until 20 December 1956. In November 1956, the Supreme Court declared the segregationist laws of the state of Alabama unconstitutional.
This remarkable period of change and rights in Black history, also saw the People’s Party Convention under the leadership of Kwame Nkrumah obtaining Ghana’s internal autonomy (in 1954) and then full independence on 6 March 1957. The name Ghana, which means “king warrior” was chosen in reference to the ancient and powerful Ghanaian Empire. Becoming the amongst first African states to regain autonomy (with the exception of Ethiopia and Liberia).
Britain’s growing Black community equally began to push back against racism and injustice and tensions began to rise. In August 1958, there were a number of violent attacks again Black people in Notting Hill, London. On 23 August, Majbritt Morrison argued with her husband Raymond, outside of Latimer Road tube station. Majbritt, was Swedish and Raymond, Jamaican. The following day, a gang of white young men recognised her, and began shouting abuse which escalated into the gang firebombing the houses of Black residents. The civil unrest lasted for weeks, with growing mistrust of the police. Residents were concerned that no effort was being made to address the racially aggravated motive behind the attacks.
Against the backdrop of growing tensions, community activists, including Claudia Jones sought to respond with a showcase of cultural wealth. Claudia Jones, who founded the one of Britain’s first Black Newspapers, The West Indian Gazette in 1958, organised the first London Caribbean Carnival in St Pancras Town Hall on 30 January 1959. Considered a forerunner to the Notting Hill Carnival, the event was a cabaret style interpretation of carnival, held indoors and televised by the BBC. The 1950s also coincided with an increasing consciousness and emergence of a Black British identity, informed in part by a growing influx of African American culture and influence of civil rights movements internationally.
Across Britain pockets of British West Indian communities were being established and with them came new issues around employment, housing and mixed relationships. Mirroring the riots that took place in London, on the 23 August 1958, a race riot broke occurred in St Ann, Nottingham. In response to this, Eric Irons, former RAF pilot from Jamaica, helped Nottingham City Council tackle issues highlighted by the riots. Eric Irons, campaigned for better employment opportunities for Black workers, including lifting an embargo on employment of Black workers by city transport, establishing the Colonial Social and Sports Club. In 1962, Eric Irons made history when he was appointed Britain’s first Black magistrate, serving on the Nottingham bench for 29 years.
During the 1950s, promoters began organising tours by leading African American artists. In 1956, Granby Halls, Leicester welcomed Louis Armstrong and his All Stars. The performance was attended by nearly 6,000 jazz enthusiasts, potentially one of the highest ever attendances at the venue. Louis Armstrong returned to the city in 1959, when he performed at De Montfort Hall. These tours coincided with a growing respect and interest in African American culture, and campaigns for equality.
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Perry, K.H., (2016), London is the Place for Me: Black Britons, Citizenship and the Politics of Race, 1st ed., Oxford: Oxford University Press
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St Ann’s riot: The changing face of race relations, 60 years on. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-nottinghamshire-45207246 (Accessed on: 24 July 2019)
The Notting Hill Race Riots, 1958. Available at: https://britishpathe.wordpress.com/2013/08/20/the-notting-hill-race-riots-1958/ (Accessed on: 24 July 2019)
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The Cuban Revolution. Available at https://www.thoughtco.com/the-cuban-revolution-2136372
(Accessed on: 29 September 2019)