Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott are well known in civil rights history, but Britain’s counterpart, the Bristol Bus Boycott, is much less well known but nonetheless an extremely important moment in the campaign for civil rights in Britain.
Britain and race
The arrival of the Empire Windrush in 1948 heralded a new era of multiculturalism and immigration in Britain. As men and women from across the Commonwealth and Empire journeyed to Britain to plug labour shortages and create new lives, they found themselves discriminated against for the colour of their skin almost as soon as they arrived.
Landlords would often to refuse to rent properties to black families and it could be hard for black immigrants to get jobs or have their qualifications and education recognised. Bristol was no exception: by the early 1960s, around 3,000 people of West Indian origin had settled in the city, many of whom had served in the military during the Second World War.
Ending up in one of the more run-down areas of the city, St Pauls, the community set up their own churches, social groups and organisations, including the West Indian Association, which acted as a kind of representative body for the community on wider issues.
“If one black man steps on the platform as a conductor, every wheel will stop”
Despite a shortage of bus crews, any black employees were refused roles, instead being employed in lower paying roles at workshops or in the canteens. Originally, officials denied that there was a colour ban, but in 1955, the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU) had passed a resolution that ‘coloured’ workers should not be employed as bus crew. They had cited concerns over their safety as well as fears that black workers would mean their own hours would be reduced and wages lessened.
When challenged about racism, the general manager of the company responded “the advent of coloured crews would mean a gradual falling off of white staff. It is true that London Transport employ a large coloured staff. They even have to recruitment offices in Jamaica and they subsidise the fares to Britain of their new coloured employees. As a result of this, the amount of white labour dwindles steadily on the London Underground. You won’t get a white man in London to admit it, but which of them will join a service where they may find themselves working under a coloured foreman? … I understand that in London, coloured men have become arrogant and rude, after they have been employed for some months.”
The boycott begins
Angry at the lack of progress in tackling this discrimination from all sides, four West Indian men, Roy Hackett, Owen Henry, Audley Evans and Prince Brow, formed the West Indian Development Council (WIDC) and appointed the eloquent Paul Stephenson as their spokesperson. The group quickly proved that there was an issue by setting up an interview which was promptly cancelled by the bus company when it was revealed that the man in question was West Indian.
Inspired by the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the WIDC decided to act. They announced that no members of the West Indian community in Bristol would be using the buses until company policy changed in a conference in April 1963.
Many white residents of the city supported them: students from the University of Bristol held a protest march, members of the Labour Party – including MP Tony Benn and Harold Wilson as Leader of the Opposition – made speeches directly referencing the colour ban and linked it to apartheid. Disappointingly for many, the West Indies cricket team refused to publicly come out in favour of the boycott, claiming sport and politics did not mix.
Newspapers were filled with opinion pieces and both local and national press were drawn to the dispute: it dominated front pages for several months. Some thought the group were too militant – including the Bishop of Bristol – and refused to support them.
The dispute proved difficult to mediate. Not all members of the West Indian and Asian communities in Bristol wanted to speak out on the matter, fearing there would be further repercussions for them and their families if they did so. Some refused to negotiate with those leading the boycott, arguing that the men did not have authority and didn’t represent the community.
After several months of negotiations, a mass meeting of 500 bus workers agreed to end the colour bar, and on 28 August 1963, it was announced that there would be no more racial discrimination in the employment of bus crews. Less than a month later, Raghbir Singh, a Sikh, became the first non-white bus conductor in Bristol, followed shortly later by two Jamaican and two Pakistani men.
The Bristol Bus Boycott had far wider repercussions than simply ending discrimination in one company in Bristol (although it appears there was still a quota for ‘coloured’ workers within the company and many continued felt that the boycott had exacerbated racial tensions rather than soothed them).
It’s thought that the boycott helped influence the passing of the 1965 and 1968 Race Relations Acts in the UK, which legislated that racial discrimination was unlawful in public places. Whilst this by no means ended discrimination on real terms, it was a landmark moment for civil rights in the UK and helped bring racial discrimination to the forefront of peoples’ minds.