History in the Making: 40 years on from the Black People’s Day of Action
This post highlights a small selection of items in the Library’s collections of interest to anyone wanting to know more about the educators and activists behind the Black People’s Day of Action on 2nd March 1981.
On that day, around 20,000 people from across the UK marched from New Cross to Hyde Park, crossing Blackfriars bridge and bringing parts of central London to a standstill on a weekday. The demonstration took place six weeks after the devasting New Cross fire (also referred to as the Deptford Fire) that claimed the lives of 13 young black people at a house party celebrating Yvonne Ruddock’s 16th birthday and the 18th birthday of her friend Angela Jackson. In the face of official indifference, the march channelled the anger and grief of a community into a political action that marked a turning point for black people in Britain.
Poster held by the George Padmore Institute featured on the Library’s Windrush Stories website. The poster was not used once the death toll of 13 became clear. Another young person who experienced the trauma of the fire died two years later.
There are numerous accounts of the New Cross Fire and of the Black People’s Day of Action online, including Nadine White’s extended article, which is accompanied by a short film. The film gives voice to a survivor of the fire and three women who joined in organising the Day of Action. Commemoration leaves further traces online such as this event marking 30 years on the Black History Studies website. This year, UCL is marking the 40th anniversary with an event, podcast, and online exhibition of photographs.
Online events have given a wider reach to conversations and memorialisation, particularly where they have been recorded and made available for later listening. At a recent event made available through Westminster University’s ‘Black History Year’ site, Leila Hassan Howe, who was a member of the New Cross Massacre Action Committee, recalled the context to the Day of Action and spoke about her personal journey to activism.
What can resources in the Library add to the accounts available by searching online?
For anyone wanting to go further into this history, it’s no surprise that the Library holds books written by people involved in organising the Black People's Day of Action. The Library also holds some of the newsletters and journals produced at the time. A small number of oral history recordings held by the Library and some recordings of events are available online and can be accessed while the Library is still closed.
To pick out just two accounts in books, in Black British History: new perspectives, edited by Hakim Adi and published by Zed Press, Carol Pierre describes how the fire, along with the movement of solidarity afterwards left “an indelible imprint on a community”.
A detailed account is also given in Robin Bunce and Paul Field’s Renegade: the life and times of Darcus Howe. Bunce and Field describe the way Darcus Howe spoke at meetings across the north of England, accompanied by Gus John who was based in Manchester at that time. Gus John has held professorial positions including Associate Professor of Education at the UCL Institute of Education in London. In December 2016, Professor Gus John delivered the British Library Lecture ‘Changing Britannia through the Arts and Activism’ to mark 50 Years since the founding of New Beacon Books. This post describes the background to the event.
Renegade: the life and times of Darcus Howe. ELD.DS.110104 and YC.2018.a.2504
Nadine White’s article mentioned above shows how the organisation of the march marked a first step into political action for some of those involved. But many of the core group within the New Cross Massacre Action Committee had worked together as part of the Alliance linking the Race Today collective with the Black Parents Movement, Black Youth Movement and Bradford Black Collective.
An issue of Race Today featuring the Black Parents Movement. P.523/84
The Action Committee emerged from a meeting on 25 January 1981 in Lewisham. Led by John La Rose and Darcus Howe, it also included Leila Hassan and other members of the Race Today collective. Linton Kwesi Johnson and Farrukh Dhondy were part of the collective. Each of them feature extensively in the Library’s collections. As a group their actions were informed by an exchange of ideas and experience. They were engaged in teaching (mainly through supplementary schools), discussion groups, research, reading and publishing. The work of Trinidadian intellectual CLR James was an important influence.
The British Library holds much of this publishing output and also fosters research on these collections, particularly those that are harder to find elsewhere. In 2019 Emma Abotsi worked in the Library as British Sociological Association Fellow exploring independent community publications relating to education. This blog post describes one aspect of the work she did.
Currently, UCL doctoral student Naomi Oppenheim is working with the Library on a collaborative doctoral partnership focused on Caribbean diaspora publishing and activism. Naomi is leading on a project supported by the Eccles Centre to collect oral histories through conversations about Caribbean food shedding light on wider aspects of life, history and politics. She has recently written about the ‘Caribbean Foodways at the British Library’ project.
Selected publications and recordings by John La Rose, Darcus Howe, Leila Hassan Howe and Linton Kwesi Johnson
John La Rose
John La Rose (1927-2006), who founded New Beacon books (pictured in this Wasafiri article ) with Sarah White in 1966, was an educator, mentor and friend to the members of the organising committee. As a poet, writer, activist and publisher, John La Rose was at the heart of key movements advancing the cause of black people in Britain, in education, the arts and culture, for four decades. His works in the Library range from poetry, to interviews and newsletters.
The New Cross Massacre Story: interviews with John La Rose YK.2013.a.19831. This book is still available from the George Padmore Institute, along with The Black Peoples Day of Action 02.03.1981 (Café Press, 2020) by Vron Ware which contains contains black and white photographs taken by Vron Ware on the day.
New Beacon Reviews, first collection 1968-, P.901/409.
The Library holds a recording (C1172/14 and C1172/15) of John La Rose interviewed by Ron Ramdin (author of The Making of the Black Working Class in Britain, 1987, reissued by Verso in 2017). He can also be heard giving the welcome address, introductions and thanks on recordings from the International Book Fairs of Black Radical and Third World Books. These were ground-breaking events that John La Rose organised jointly with Jessica Huntley of Bogle L’Ouverture Publications between 1982 and 1995. (The Library also holds an oral history interview with Jessica Huntley and Eric Huntley, who jointly founded Bogle L’Ouverture publishing.)
On 2 March 2021, the George Padmore Institute launched its new website with a film about the Institute’s New Cross Massacre Action Committee archive collection.
The film Dream to Change the World: A Tribute to John La Rose, directed by Horace Ové can be viewed online.
Dream to change the world: the life and legacy of John La Rose. YK.2019.b.783
Born in Trinidad, Darcus Howe was a broadcaster, writer and racial justice campaigner. He edited Race Today and was chairman of the Notting Hill Carnival. Steve McQueen’s film Mangrove, part of the Small Axe series available on BBC iPlayer, dramatises Howe’s experiences as one of the 'Mangrove Nine', charged with “inciting a riot” following a demonstration in defence of the Mangrove restaurant in Notting Hill which had been targeted by police raids.
Darcus Howe: a political biography. Held by the Library at ELD.DS.79837 and YC.2014.a.8855. Bloomsbury have made this book available free online.
Many of Darcus Howe’s publications are held by the Library along with sound recordings from conferences and events. Although the Library tries to collect UK and Irish publications as fully as possible under Legal Deposit, some books are missed, as are many small-circulation magazines and newsletters. In writing this post, I have come across a small number of titles from the prolific output of people around Race Today, the Institute for Race Relations and the George Padmore Institute that the Library still needs to add to its collections.
From Bobby to Babylon was originally published in 1988, but is not held by the Library. It has recently been reissued and will be added to the collections when we return from lockdown.
Outside the Library, on British Library Sounds, you can listen to Darcus Howe discussing the work of CLR James with Farrukh Dhondy, recorded in 1992.
Leila Hassan Howe
Leila Hassan Howe can be found in the British Library catalogue under the name Leila Hassan. Her writing for Race Today is featured in the magazine and in an anthology published in 2019 by Pluto Press, and a booklet authored by Farrukh Dhondy to which she and British Black Panther member Barbara Beese contributed. The Library also holds poetry recordings introduced by Leila Hassan on behalf of Creation for Liberation Society and the Poetry Society. Recorded in London in 1985, they feature the poetry of Amryl Johnson, Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze, Maya Angelou and Alice Walker. Sadly, these fascinating recordings are only available in the Library.
Here to stay, here to fight: a Race Today anthology. ELD.DS.456429 and X.529/70862
The Black explosion in British schools, by Farrukh Dhondy with Leila Hassan and Barbara Beese. X.529/70862 63 pages.
Linton Kwesi Johnson
Linton Kwesi Johnson was awarded the PEN Pinter Prize in 2020 in recognition of his work. In making the award, the judges said:
‘Linton Kwesi Johnson is a poet, reggae icon, academic and campaigner, whose impact on the cultural landscape over the last half century has been colossal and multi-generational. His political ferocity and his tireless scrutiny of history are truly Pinteresque, as is the humour with which he pursues them.’
The presentation event, including an introduction by Paul Gilroy, was hosted by the British Library and can be viewed on the British Library player.
Voices of the Living and the Dead YD.2009.a.903
In 1974 Race Today / Towards Racial Justice published Linton Kwesi Johnson’s first poetry collection, Voices of the Living and the Dead. Between then and now his poetry has been published in print and recorded, performed over dub-reggae. These recordings (also held by the Library) were mostly in collaboration with producer and artist Dennis Bovell.
This exceptionally rich blog post by Sarah O'Reilly includes selections from her oral history interview with Linton Kwesi Johnson, held by the Library.
Dread poetry & freedom. ELD.DS.333758
I have flagged up just a few of the many publications held by the Library that shed light on the events of 1981, but for now the Library is closed and many of these books cannot be accessed. A number of independent bookshops feature an impressive range of titles available to buy or to access through public libraries.
Screengrab showing small selection of the non-fiction books available from New Beacon books.
The Londonist published a list of black owned bookshops in London, some of which sell online, and across the country members of the Alliance of Radical Booksellers may also stock these items. Presses such as Pluto and Verso sell online.
Open access books : Knowledge Unlatched
I noted above the biography of Darcus Howe made freely available by Bloomsbury. The Library is committed to open access publishing and is one of 630 libraries working with Knowledge Unlatched to make books freely available online to read and download. The books that are 'unlatched' cover a very wide range of disciplines and languages. The Knowledge Unlatched collection features some titles that are relevant to anyone interested in Britain’s black history, for example:
Heidi Safia Mirza: Young, Female and Black. (Routledge, 1992)
Colin Chambers: Black and Asian Theatre In Britain. (Routledge, 2020)
Gerald Horne: Paul Robeson: the artist as revolutionary. (Pluto, 2016).
The Black People's Day of Action marked a turning point in the challenge to racism in Britain. For those of us who remember these events, the sources of information above reveal far more than was reported by a hostile press. For those born later who approach these events as history, these sources may be a starting point to find out more and draw parallels with more recent experiences.