‘Black women who have struggled to make our efforts possible’: Olive Morris and the Legacy of Black Power in Manchester

In the month of October we will be marking Black History Month by sharing a series of short essays written by four recent graduates of the History Department at the University of Manchester. These students were part of Kerry Pimblott’s third-year seminar on the Black Freedom Movement and were tasked with putting their new historical skills to work by performing original research on the transnational links between movements for racial justice in the US and UK. We would like to extend our thanks to the many archivists and librarians who assisted the students in developing these important profiles in Black British History. 

Our third blog post on British Black Power activist Olive Morris is from Felix Reilly, a recent graduate of the University of Manchester History Department. 

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Felix Reilly and Tori Williams presenting their research findings on Olive Morris at the Manchester Central Library in December 2018.

The UK has historically been almost non-existent in conversations about 20th century Black Freedom struggles. Even among academics, it is all too often reduced to fleeting chapters or footnotes, focused on clear and tangible comparisons between copycat examples of protest movements. Most famous are the 1963 Bristol Bus boycott, styled on Martin Luther King’s example, and the “freedom drink-ins” that temporarily took over British pubs, replicating the US student sit ins of the 60s.[1]

Scholarship on UK Black Power is even trickier to find. This is partially due to the difficulty of defining exactly what constitutes a Black Power organisation.

As Rosie Wild asserts, manifestations of Black Power could differ significantly from one another. Often targeting the intrinsic roots of cultural oppression, they may simply emphasise pride in Black identity in public discourse that sought to constantly belittle it, or could go as far as attempting to establish complex networks of mutual aid in black communities. Some of the more universal values however, included a deep commitment to anti-colonialism, and a strong sense of the international scope of their struggle.[2]

The fact that the stories of Black Power struggles are beginning to emerge from the shadows is as much due to the diligent efforts of community historians as it is to established academics. Groups such as Ana Lopez de Torre’s feminist community history project, the Remembering Olive Collective, are emblematic of the growing movement to unearth its key actors from forgotten archives and as yet undiscovered family collections.

The UK Black Panther Party, existing from 1968-1973, is a key example of one of the organisations beginning to be shifted into the limelight and it is Olive Morris, one of their early members, whose name has become indicative of what community history can achieve.

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Figure 1: Olive Morris (left) with Black Panther members. Image courtesy of Lambeth Archives.

Her membership of the UK Panthers was an early step in the lifetime of a fiercely committed activist and organiser. A pioneer in the UK “squatting as activism” movement of the seventies, she embodied the proto-typical trajectory of black feminists by breaking away from more national efforts in order to organise specifically around the concerns of black women.

She co-founded the Brixton Black Women’s Group (BBWG) to create space for the women that felt marginalised by larger scale efforts for black freedom, before co-founding two more similar groups as a student in Manchester, the Manchester Black Women’s Co-operative, and the Black Women’s Mutual Aid Group. On her return to London, she was instrumental in the founding of an ambitious umbrella group for women’s collectives, the Organisation for Women of African and Asian Descent, (OWAAD).

The extent of her efforts is made more impressive by the fact that she died at only 27 of Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in London.

Further critical engagement with Olive’s life is not simply necessary in order to recognise her eclectic anti-racist efforts. She also serves as a near perfect example of what it means to fight oppression as a black woman in Britain. Her engagement with oppression was distinctly intersectional, recognising that racism could not be confronted without acknowledging its intertwinement with colonialism, sexism and class oppression. Her activism situated this intersectional struggle within a broader movement, encompassing women across the African, Asian and West Indian diaspora.

Transnational Struggles- Black Power in the UK.

A flier released by the UK Black Panther party in 1970 defined Black Power as a “political slogan which gives expression to the pent-up fury that rages in the oppressed peoples of the world”.[3] This slogan was not taken up in the UK merely as a means of sympathy with movements in the US.

In fact, its UK advocates assumed the slogan as a means to combat the systemic racism experienced by the UK’s Afro-Caribbean population, before using it to unite the concerns of its Continental African, Asian and West Indian descended communities.

Unlike the Jim Crow laws in the US, which explicitly enshrined racial segregation in law, British racism was far more de facto.

The racist “sus laws” of the time made no explicit mention of immigrant communities but justified extensive racial profiling by law enforcement. Discrimination in the professional sphere was rife and was supported by a steady rise in overtly racist discourse, promoted by Enoch Powell’s notorious 1969 Rivers of Blood speech, and the rising prominence of the National Front.

It was from this torrid climate that the first manifestations of UK Black Power arose. The groundwork for public dialogue that focused specifically on the black experience had been laid by pioneers including Claudia Jones, who founded the West Indian Gazette after finding “a more subtle (…) but no less effective” brand of racism in the UK than in the US.[4]

For some, the seminal moment was the visit of Stokely Carmichael in 1967. The movement’s first formal appearance however, came with the 1967 creation of the Universal Coloured People’s Association (UCPA) by Obi Egbuna.

Within months, Egbuna claimed to have recruited 778 members, and several other organisations rallied to the cause.[5] These groups did not claim to be original in their concerns. Members of the Brixton Black Women’s Group pointed out that “working together as women was nothing new” to the activists involved.[6] They were however, revolutionary in their championing of the black identity, and undoubtedly appropriated much of their ideology and tactics from US movements.

This was not an unconscious act, and several Black Power organisations were acutely aware of their role in a global struggle. Obi Egbuna made clear that “we do not dream for one moment that the Black people in Britain can organise themselves as a unit totally separate from other Black forces in the world. Black Power is an international concept”.[7] Across the country, activists capitalised on the potency of this message, distributing leaflets declaring that “in unity lies our liberation!”.[8]

Olive Morris- Engaging an Icon:

Tanisha Ford has contributed immeasurably to the effort to establish an academic framework around the available information on Olive Morris. She perfectly summarises the key issue of engaging with her however, pointing out that she “lives more fully in the shadows of the memories of those who knew her than in the public record”.[9]

Built almost solely on the accounts of those close to her, narratives of Olive’s life are supported by her occasional own forays into writing, as well as public coverage of her activism.

It is clear that she emigrated from Jamaica to the UK at 9 years old, and lived in Lavender Hill with her father, and five siblings, leaving school at an early age.

However, when 17-year-old Olive garners her first piece of national coverage, the challenge arises of recovering fact from legend.

The story goes that Olive intervened in the racially motivated arrest of Nigerian diplomat Clement Gomwalk. She dived in to separate him from the police, and as the Times Report goes, “kicked a police officer, and hit him on the jaw”.[10]

In fact, by Olive’s own account, she arrived after Gomwalk had already been hauled away. She was drawn into a conflict with the police’s reinforcements while trying to defend another friend whose arm they had broken.[11]

This sinister underside of this romanticised story is that it can serve to obscure the truth of what happened next. Olive was arrested and savagely beaten, ordered by jeering officers while in jail to strip to her underwear in order to prove that she was “really a woman”.[12] She was eventually released, hand-captioning a dishevelled photo to point out that it was taken at King’s College Hospital “after the police had beaten me up”.

This event unsurprisingly proved pivotal for her entry into activism, and she was soon after recruited into the fledgling Black Panther movement. A pioneer of the “squatting as activism” movement in the 1970s and 80s, she soon broke away from the diminishing Panthers to co-found the Brixton Black Women’s Group, combatting what former member Beverley Bryan called “the attitude of our ‘brothers’”, which often “undermined our participation” in the wider Black Power movement.[13]

‘We Were Born to Survive’ – Black Feminism in Manchester:

In 1975, Olive began a degree in economics and social science at Manchester University, and her subsequent student activism provides crucial insight into the further development of her worldview. Her focus on the specific needs of black women continued, and her determined protection of the rights of overseas students demonstrated the internationalism that has become a defining feature of Black Power movements.

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Figure 2: One of the few photos of Olive in Manchester, at an educational conference for the Black Women’s Mutual Aid Group. Kath Locke is seated behind her, third from the left.

Paul Keleman, a close friend of her partner Mike McColgan, remembers that one of her key fights was against the university’s efforts to raise tuition fees for overseas students. This change would not have affected her, but she was determined to oppose what she saw as a racist denial of the UK’s responsibility to those, especially in the colonies, that had been drawn to “the mother country” as workers and who now sought education.[14]

Olive was also instrumental in the founding of the Manchester Black Women’s Co-operative, which was reformed into the Abasindi collective shortly after her death. Dianne Watt, another co-founder, makes clear that the co-operative was formed to address inequality in white-collar employment in Manchester, focusing on professional training for black women aspiring to seek office-based work.[15]

The unity of the African diaspora however, remained a crucial undercurrent to the group’s aims. Manchester had already played a key part in this struggle, having hosted the 1945 Pan-African Congress after being identified as a city “intimately identified with the under-privileged sections of the coloured population”.[16]

Watt remembers that much of the group’s activity was centred around the Pan-African movement, and “the branch in Birmingham, the branch in London, they would come down and have lots of political discussions, group discussions”.[17]

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Figure 3: The booklet published by the Abasindi Collective. Abasindi is the zulu word for “survivors”, and the booklet is dedicated to Olive Morris and the other “black women who have struggled to make our efforts possible”.

The connection of these localised concerns to a wider global struggle is further illuminated by interviews with other former members such as Kath Locke, who makes clear that though Manchester remained the group’s key focus, observation of the diaspora was crucial in the development of the activist’s “political conscience”. She recounts that “I always knew I was black first, and everything else was secondary”. When looking at black populations across the world, she “saw that we was always at the bottom”.[18]

Olive’s work in Manchester remains a crucially understudied element of her Black Feminist outlook. Her work, and that of innumerate other black female activists centralised the concerns of black women and allowed activists to contextualise highly localised efforts within a global Black Freedom struggle. Further engagement with this work is crucial in order to illuminate the extent to which global black power narratives, and subsequent black feminism, changed the face of UK activism.

References:

[1] Stephen Tuck and Henry Louis Gates, The Night Malcolm X Spoke at the Oxford Union: A Transatlantic Story of Antiracial Protest (University of California Press, 2014), pg. 182.

[2] Rosie Wild, ‘Black Was the Colour of Our Fight: The Transnational Roots of British Black Power’ in Kelley, Robin D. G., and Stephen G. N. Tuck, The Other Special Relationship: Race, Rights, and Riots in Britain and the United States (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), pg. 27.

[3] Anne-Marie Angelo, “The Black Panthers in London, 1967-1972: A Diasporic Struggle Navigates the Black Atlantic”, Radical History Review, Vol. 103 (2009), pp. 17-35, pg. 17.

[4] Beverley Bryan et al., ‘Chain Reactions: Black Women Organising’,Race & Class, vol. 27, no. 1, (1985), pp. 1–28, pg. 6.

[5] Anne Marie Angelo, ‘The Black Panthers in London’, pg. 22.

[6] Tracy Fisher, ‘What’s Left of Blackness?’: Feminisms, Transracial Solidarities, and the Politics of Belonging in Britain (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), pg. 74.

[7] Anne Marie Angelo, ‘The Black Panthers in London’, pg. 30.

[8] Rosie Wild, ‘Black Was the Colour of Our Fight’, pg. 29.

[9] Tanisha Ford, ‘Finding Olive Morris in the Archive: Reflections on the Remembering Olive Collective and Community History’, The Black Scholar, vol. 46, no. 2 (2016), pp. 5-18, p. 5.

[10] “Girl’s sentence changed”, The Times, 17 Apr. 1970, p. 5, The Times Digital Archive, Gale Document Number GALE|CS84898449.

[11] Tanisha Ford, ‘Finding Olive Morris in the Archive’, p. 12.

[12] Ibid., pg. 13.

[13] Beverley Bryan, ‘Chain Reactions’, pg. 10.

[14] Ana Colin, Tanisha Ford et. al (eds.), Do You Remember Olive Morris? (London: Aldgate Press, 2009), pg. 40.

[15] Ibid., pg. 42.

[16] Diane Watt and Adele D. Jones, Catching Hell and Doing Well: Black Women in the UK- The Abasindi Co-operative (London: UCL Institute of Education Press, 2015), pg. 15.

[17] Ana Colin et. al, Do You Remember Olive Morris? pg. 42.

[18] Kath Locke, Transcript of Video Interview with Kath Locke / Paul Okojie, Manchester, 1992- Ahmed Iqbal Race Relations Centre, pg. 15.

Primary sources:

Abasindi Co-operative, Booklet entitled ‘‘Si Zalelwe Ukusinda’: We Were Born to Survive’, 1986, Manchester. Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Centre- Elouise Edwards Collection- Box 4- GB3228.5/4/16.

Bryan, Beverley, Suzanne Scafe and Stella Dadzie, ‘Chain Reactions: Black Women Organising’, Race & Class, vol. 27, no. 1, (1985), pp. 1–28.

Colin, Ana, Tanisha Ford et. al (eds.), Do You Remember Olive Morris? (London: Aldgate Press, 2009).

De La Torre, Ana Laura Lopez, Liz Obi, ‘Do You Remember Olive Morris?’, October 2007, https://rememberolivemorris.wordpress.com [accessed on 14/11/2018].

“Girl’s sentence changed”, The Times, 17 Apr. 1970, p. 5, The Times Digital Archive, Gale Document Number GALE|CS84898449.

Flyer entitled ‘Roots Festival – the Birth of Roots’, Manchester- Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Centre- Elouise Edwards Collection- Box 2- GB3228.5/2/23.

Kath Locke, Transcript of Video Interview with Kath Locke / Paul Okojie, Manchester, 1992- Ahmed Iqbal Race Relations Centre.

King, Lizzy (ed.) and Organised Youth, The British Black Panthers and Black Power Movement: An Oral History and Photography Project (Photofusion Educational Trust, 2013).

Watt, Diane and Adele D. Jones, Catching Hell and Doing Well: Black Women in the UK- The Abasindi Co-operative (London: UCL Institute of Education Press, 2015).

Secondary sources:

Angelo, Anne-Marie, “The Black Panthers in London, 1967-1972: A Diasporic Struggle Navigates the Black Atlantic”, Radical History Review, Vol. 103 (2009), pp. 17-35.

Fisher, Tracy, ‘What’s Left of Blackness?’: Feminisms, Transracial Solidarities, and the Politics of Belonging in Britain (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

Ford, Tanisha C. ‘Finding Olive Morris in the Archive: Reflections on the Remembering Olive Collective and Community History’, The Black Scholar, vol. 46, no. 2 (2016), pp. 5-18.

Kelley, Robin D. G., and Stephen G. N. Tuck, The Other Special Relationship: Race, Rights, and Riots in Britain and the United States (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).

Photos:

Figure 1: Olive Morris (left) with members of the  Black Panther Movement. Part of the Olive Morris Collection, created and donated by Mike McColgan, Liz Obi and the Remembering Olive Morris Collective, Lambeth Archives, Ref: IV 279/1/6/1.

Figure 2: Image taken from Abasindi Co-operative, Booklet entitled ‘‘Si Zalelwe Ukusinda’: We Were Born to Survive’, 1986, Manchester, Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Centre- Elouise Edwards Collection- Box 4- GB3228.5/4/16. Used with permission and thanks.

Figure 3: Image taken from Abasindi Co-operative, Booklet entitled ‘‘Si Zalelwe Ukusinda’: We Were Born to Survive’, 1986, Manchester, Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Centre- Elouise Edwards Collection- Box 4- GB3228.5/4/16. Used with permission and thanks.

 

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