‘I Know a Change Gonna Come’: The Bristol Bus Boycott and the strength of collective action

Immortalising the legacy of the March on Washington, Martin Luther King Jr stood at the steps of the Lincoln memorial on 28 August 1963 to tell his dream of equal rights, freedoms and opportunities for all Americans (King, Jr., Quoted in NAACP, no date).  On the same day, more than 3,500 miles away, Ian Patey announced the end to Bristol Omnibus Company’s ‘colour bar’ after four months of boycotts from the local West Indian community.

 

The Bristol Bus Boycott has been hailed as a major influence in the creation of the Race Relations Act of 1965, making racial discrimination in employment a punishable offence.  So why do so few of us know about it?  You could argue all sorts of things: it was in the midst of the American civil rights movement, it did not have global coverage, technology was not advanced enough for people around the UK to hear about something happening in Bristol.  We all know the real answer: it did not fit into the easy narrative that it was America that had the ‘race’ problem (Saini, 2023).  America was the land of segregation while Britain was the land of equal rights and opportunities for all in its Commonwealth.

 

But if a boycott occurs outside Washington, did it really happen?  Of course!  We should be taking extra steps to understand Black British activism, its historical legacies and what it reveals about collective action against racial injustice.

 

The story of post-war migration is well-known by now.  The 1948 British Nationality Act offered an ‘open door’ to members of the British Commonwealth to travel freely to the Motherland, leading to the historical landing of the HMT Empire Windrush at Tilbury Docks of the same year.  In the South West, following the passing of this act, Afro-Caribbeans moving to Bristol sought housing in the central area of St. Pauls, where severe damage from the war kept the rent lower.  By the 1960s, the city of Bristol had approximately 3,000 residents of West Indian heritage, with most of them living in the de-facto segregated St. Paul’s area (Jones, 2022).  As we see today with ‘illegal immigrants’, Britons feared for their jobs and by the 1960s the resentment towards Afro-Caribbean and Asian workers was slowly bubbling to the surface.

 

In the transport industry, despite the communities of people coming specifically to fill roles left empty after the war, the ‘colour bar’ in the Bristol Omnibus Company prevented integration in its workforce.  The company denied and refused them until an article written in the Bristol Evening Post in November 1961 revealed that they only employed Black workers for cleaning jobs, and that the outcome of hiring them as bus conductors would only cause them to ‘lose [just] as many whites’ (Patey, Quoted in Smith, 1961).  Enter Guy Bailey, a young man who had moved from Jamaica in 1961.  By 1963, at the age of 18, he phoned for a job in the Evening Post to become a bus conductor and was asked on the spot to attend an interview – only to be turned down once the company saw him in person.  The excuse: all jobs were filled.  What propelled this outrage into action was the fateful meeting between Bailey and the members of the Commonwealth Coordinated Committee (CCC)- later known as the Bristol West Indian Parents and Friends Association – founded in 1962, to tackle these attitudes against the Black community.  The response to rising tensions on Bristol’s buses was to form an action group, named the West Indian Development Council.  With the charismatic Paul Stephenson as its spokesman, they announced their boycott at a press conference on 29 April to expose the attitudes of the Bristol Omnibus Company.  Unlike the Montgomery Bus Boycott, this monumental moment in British activism has been largely forgotten, so we owe it to its key players to share their stories:

 

Paul Stephenson

Born in London to a mixed-heritage household, Paul Stephenson arrived in Bristol as part of the RAF before going on to study Leadership and Sociology at college, becoming the first Black youth officer in the city.  Working in community development, his relationship with members of the CCC brought him into close contact with the issues plaguing Black people in the transport industry.  Many sources attribute Stephenson as the orchestrator for Guy Bailey’s interview with the Bristol Omnibus Company as a test of its colour bar or that the CCC had put it together themselves (TUC, no date), but Guy himself had no knowledge of it being a test, only that he needed a job!  Regardless of its myths the point was clear – Paul Stephenson was made aware of the details of his rejection and, during the boycott, he came up against trade unions, supporters of the Omnibus Company, Bristol’s clergy and members of Parliament.  It feels incorrect to attribute the successes of four months of boycotts, rallies and strikes to one man, but Paul was definitely the media-savvy voice whose words propelled the story from a local to a national level.

 

Roy Hackett

Co-Founder of the CCC, Roy Hackett first arrived in Toxteth from Jamaica in 1952, moving on to Wolverhampton, then London before finding himself in St Pauls.  He spent his first night in Bristol in the doorway of a shop after hotels with ‘no Gypsy, Irish, Dogs or Blacks’ signs blocked his entry (Hackett, quoted in Cater, 2012).  He formed a relationship with Owen Henry, creating the Commonwealth Coordinated Committee to address the attitudes towards Bristol’s Black communities and to resist them.  While Roy may not have had direct issues with the Omnibus Company before 1963, his wife Ena had been rejected the role in 1962 despite her qualifications as a trained conductor (Volpe, 2019).  Beyond the boycott, he co-founded the first St Paul’s Festival in 1968, along with the first Race Relations officer Carmen Beckford, as a thank you to the community for their support in 1963.  His work laid the foundations for St Paul’s Carnival which is now recognised as one of the largest festivals of its kind in Europe.

 

Owen Henry

Like Roy, Owen Henry emigrated from Jamaica in 1956.  He had known about the bus problem for years, and distrusted the Labour party’s promise that they would help get Black people driving them which, by 1959, had still not happened.  Henry was already critical of the contradictions, noting that ‘there was enough Black people that were using the buses enough to pay a Black person’s wages’ (Dresser, 1985, p.5).  Owen’s work had been dedicated to improving the quality of life for Black Bristolians, and the boycott was only a small part in a larger story to promote integration, equal opportunities and Black joy after migration.  While Paul Stephenson may have taken on the role as the boycotts face, Henry was heralded as the Mayor of St Pauls, having founded Homeland’s Travel Service to bring cheaper flights to reunite families from the Caribbean, and co-founding the St Paul’s festival committee (Inspiring City, 2023).

 

 

Audley Evans

Unlike Paul, Roy and Owen, there is not as much known about Audley Evans.  He was a founding member of the CCC and key orchestrator of the boycott with the rest of the group.  Along with the others, he helped to create the first St Paul’s Festival, but emigrated to Florida shortly afterwards, where he continued his activism by helping people migrating from Central America, especially Haiti and Cuba, secure new jobs (ITV, 2022).  Though his story is covered in mystery, his impact is still known to Bristol, and he was included in Michele Curtis’ ‘The Seven Saints of St Pauls’, pictured below.

 

Prince Brown

Even less is known about Prince Brown.  Like the rest of the group, he had emigrated to Britain from Jamaica, formed the CCC with Roy, Owen and Audley, and played a large role in creating and sustaining the Bus Boycott.  Beyond that, not much is known about him, but his legacy should still be celebrated in the narrative of Black British activism.

Image credits: Murals of Owen Henry (above) and Audley Evans (below) as part of the Seven Saints of St Pauls by Michele Curtis, Photographed by Author

While I chose to focus on these five men specifically, the list of influential figures around Bristol both before and after who played other roles. This includes people like ‘Aunty Babs’ Barbara Dettering, who preferred to work in the background with her activism but was no less important to the progress of the boycott and raising community awareness in Bristol’s growing Afro-Caribbean community.

 

The boycott exposed the hypocrisies of British society, especially at the height of racial tensions in other parts of the Global North. Mrs Margaret Batt, a resident of Bristol who had moved back to Jamaica, had asked Bristol Evening Post ‘is our criticism of South Africa’s policy, in these circumstances, not merely a case of “the kettle calling the pan sooty?”’ (1963).  Trade Unions like the Transport and General Workers’ Union had been key opposers to the boycott, under the guise that giving jobs to Black people would force white people out of work, despite their advocacy for ending apartheid in South Africa.  By August, the WIDC had received support from Trinidad and Tobago’s High Commissioner to the UK Learie Constantine, Labour politician Tony Benn and the future Prime Minister Harold Wilson.  On the same day that Martin Luther King gave his speech, Ian Patey conceded and the colour bar officially ended.

 

What can we learn from the Bristol Bus Boycott?  First, that Black British activism has always been present.  From the abolition of slavery, to Bristol in 1963, to Grenfell and Black Lives Matter, we have always fought for our rights, our safety and our self-determination.  Secondly, it presents to us the importance of community aid and collective action, something I believe we are seeing evolve in the 21st Century.  Roy Hackett argued the importance of togetherness, because ‘one voice is not really enough, you have to have somebody behind you’ (Quoted in Cater, 2012).  Black activism in Britain has been largely ignored in general narratives, not unless it matches the racist stereotype that we all inevitably resort to violence.  The Boycott shows the community spirit of activism – the desire to protect and uplift one another.  It was successful because it stretched out from West Indian transport workers into Asian communities, student groups, white communities, manual workers and more.  Our ability to work together is what makes moments like this boycott, and other successful moments in Black British civil rights history, more successful.  In four months, the resistance inspired by just one group of men exposed the ‘prejudice among white people’ (Patey, 1963) and set the cogs turning for Raghbir Singh, Norman Samuels and Norris Edwards to be the first men of colour to drive Bristol’s buses.

Image: Commemorative plaque for the boycott in Bristol Bus Station, photographed by author

Image credit: Commemorative plaque for the boycott in Bristol Bus Station, photographed by author

 

Main image credit: Mr Adolphus Cumberbatch (right) with another bus driver in Bristol. Courtesy of Bristol Archives

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