The Campaign Against Racial Discrimination, Britain’s answer to the NAACP

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 second blog post on the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination (CARD) is from Alysha Robinson, a recent graduate of the University of Manchester History Department.

The founding of civil rights organisation the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination (CARD) was inspired by Martin Luther King’s December 1964 visit to Britain. During his stay, King called for ‘the coloured population in Great Britain to organize’ and fight against the perils of racism.[1] His call for unity resonated with the non-white immigrant population in Britain. Shortly after King’s visit activists and immigrant organisations met to discuss ways to create an ‘organization of organizations’ to combat the discrimination and inequality they experienced.[2] This led to the formal launch of CARD on 10 January 1965 by Trinidadian novelist Marion Glean, Cambridge and Harvard trained lawyer Anthony Lester, Grenadian doctor David Pitt, Trinidadian historian CLR James and Indian academic Dipak Nandy. This umbrella organisation aimed ‘to struggle for the elimination of all racial discrimination against coloured people in the United Kingdom’.[3] Significant academic focus has been given to the civil rights organisations in the United States such as the National Association for the Advancement Coloured People (NAACP), the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). However, little focus has been given to British civil rights groups, particularly CARD. Although a short-lived organisation, CARD had a significant role in shaping British civil rights legislation. CARD utilised the legalistic tactics of the NAACP and the grassroots activism of SNCC and CORE to tackle institutionalised racism and help create the Britain that we live in today. This article will begin by highlighting the urgency for a British civils rights organisation to tackle racial discrimination and will then move on to show how the adoption of the tactics of CORE, NAACP and SNCC by CARD was instrumental in both the success and failure of the organisation.

Martin Luther King Jr. speaking in London

The need for CARD

The perceived necessity for CARD stemmed from the frustration of black British activists towards the inaction of Britain’s major political parties in tackling racial discrimination. These activists felt that ‘all major parties agree[d] on a colour bar’ and that these parties were ‘pandering to what they believed are the prejudiced views of the electorate’.[4] A notable case of the racism inherent in British policy making was the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act. The Act restricted the migration of Commonwealth citizens. It only permitted the entry of those with work permits, thus disproportionately affecting the migration of non-white immigrants to Britain. The Act was created and passed by the Conservative government and eventually ratified by the Labour Government after their 1964 election victory. The Conservative Party’s decision to introduce the legislation and the Labour Party’s decision to keep immigration controls in place was fuelled by their desire to appeal to the white working-class voter base that felt threatened by the growing presence of black immigrants to their communities. Following the Commonwealth Immigrant Act Britain’s black population expressed ‘the overwhelming feeling that race relations in this country have steadily deteriorated’.[5] The helplessness voiced by Britain’s non-white populace illustrated the importance for black activists to create an organization to fight for racial equality.

The feeling of worsening race relations was further compounded by the campaign for Smethwick’s Parliamentary seat during the 1964 election. Prior to the election, concerns were expressed by Smethwick’s white population about the increased migration of those of African descent to the area.[6] Conservative Peter Griffiths stood against Labour’s Patrick Gordon Walker. Griffiths ran on an ardent anti-immigrant campaign, influenced by the fears of the Smethwick electorate. He advocated for a five-year ban on all immigration to Britain and separate schools for children hailing from immigrant backgrounds. In support of Griffiths’ campaign leaflets began circulating titled, ‘If you Want a Nigger for a Neighbour, Vote Labour’.[7] Griffiths’ anti-immigrant campaign spoke to Smethwick’s white population and he eventually won the seat. Many black activists saw Griffiths’ victory as representative of the white backlash against the growing non-white presence in Britain and how racism was entrenched in Britain’s political system.

CARD’s Tactics

Although the Labour Government supported immigration controls, anti-discrimination legislation was still on the agenda with Labour’s Home Secretary, Sir Frank Soskice, introducing the Race Relations Bill to Parliament on 7 April 1965. Soskice’s Bill stipulated that racial discrimination in ‘places of public resort’ was to be banned and those found guilty inciting racial hatred could be fined up to £1000 and were faced with the possibility of two-year imprisonment.[8] Despite the Bill being welcomed as an historical acknowledgement of the existence of racial discrimination in Britain lacked both scope and enforceability.[9] This gave CARD the perfect opportunity to act ‘as the leading voice within the inner circles of a newly elected Labour Government lobbying on behalf of Black Britons and migrant communities of color’.[10] The reluctance of Britain’s black community to petition or protest for racial equality due to their distrust of the political establishment influenced CARD to adopt the lobbying techniques of the NAACP.[11] The NAACP’s lobbying efforts included drafting bills and amendments for legislators and face-to-face meetings with members of the US Senate and Congress.[12]

After the first reading of Soskice’s Bill CARD’s legal subcommittee chaired by Anthony Lester followed the lead of the NAACP and drew up a ‘green document’ that recommended several draft amendments to the Race Relations Bill. Inspired by the conciliatory commissions established by the US’s 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Act’s broad scope, Lester’s ‘green document’ suggested the replacement of criminal prosecutions with a conciliatory commission. This would allow victims of racial discrimination to take their complaints to industrial tribunals or civil courts. CARD opposed criminal sanctions as they felt ‘the main object of the law in this field should be to alter conduct, not to punish’.[13] Lester also suggested the expansion of the scope of the legislation into the fields of housing, employment, credit facilities and insurance.

CARD continued its lobbying efforts by sending Lester’s proposals to every MP, Cabinet Member and the Attorney-General in order to gain government support for their proposals. These letters aimed to educate MPs on the necessity of race relations legislation and the need for a conciliatory committee. The chairman of CARD, Dr David Pitt, would use face-to-face lobbying. Pitt would use his friendships with MPs to garner support for the proposed amendments and Lester would use his incredibly influential role as on the board of the Society of Labour Lawyers’ Committee to further promote CARD’s legislative agenda. Akin to the NAACP’s meetings with members of Congress and Senate, the organisation held meetings with both the Home Secretary and Shadow Home Secretary to discuss the proposed amendments. The organisation utilised the press to ‘muster enough support to convince the Government to amend their proposals to our requirements’.[14] Through the legal scholar Michael Zander CARD had the Guardian, the Sunday Times and The Observer publish sympathetic editorials on the contents of CARD’s ‘green document’.[15] CARD’s lobbying campaign was a success, the pressure from both the press, MPs and CARD meant that in Soskice’s second reading of the Bill, he drafted amendments that involved the establishment of a Race Relations Board and regional conciliatory committees. The national press dubbed CARD’s lobbying efforts as a ‘victory’ for racial equality and the Race Relations Act was put into law of the 8 November 1965.[16]

Despite having success in amending the 1965 Race Relations Act, CARD was still unsatisfied with the narrow scope of the legislation. ‘There [was] disappointment that housing and employment [were] not only not in the Bill, but [could not] be accepted as amendments’ as these were two key areas in which black Britons faced discrimination.[17] Both Marion Glean and Anthony Lester called for the use of grassroots activism to expose the limits of the 1965 Race Relations Act and emphasize the urgency of further legislation.[18] Inspired by the success of the 1964 ‘Freedom Summer’ and SNCC’s propensity for testing the effectiveness of anti-discrimination legislation  CARD created the 1966 ‘Summer Project’ that would test the efficacy of the 1965 and highlight the continuing pervasiveness of anti-black discrimination.[19]

CARD began their campaign by distribution 10,000 leaflets to black Britons on ‘How to Expose Discrimination’. CARD sent 24 school leavers and university students to three area communities, Hyde Park in Leeds, Moss Side in Manchester and Southall for four weeks. Non-white students were paired up with white students in role-playing tasks. This involved a white student applying for housing or an employment opportunity. Shortly thereafter a black or Asian student that was  more qualified would apply for the same position or housing as their white counterpart.[20] The test cases showed that in many areas in Britain, black Britons were refused jobs, housing and loans due to their racial background. By March 1967 CARD sent over 150 complaints gathered during the ‘Summer Project’ to the Race Relations Board. Approximately, 90 per cent of these cases were outside the scope of the 1965 Race Relations Act and were found in the areas of housing employment and the issuing of credit. CARD’s testing schemes demonstrated the necessity of further race relations legislation. The mainstream press reported on the endurance of racial discrimination with The Times, the Observer, the Sunday Times and The Economist all publishing articles supporting the extension of the Race Relations Act.[21] The Sunday Telegraph published an article declaring ‘It’s No Fun Being a Brown Briton’ and the Guardian described the test cases as ‘the most cogent case for extending the Race Relations Act’.[22]  CARD’s work was ‘crucial’ in influencing the government to take further action in promoting racial equality.[23] The success and significance of CARD’s testing campaign was evidenced by the introduction of a new Race Relations Act in 1968 that included provisions that outlawed discrimination in housing, employment and public services.

The End of an Organization

The success of CARD was fleeting. The organisation collapsed in 1968 after it was unable to follow through with one of its main aims ‘to mobilize the coloured community on its own behalf’ and ‘unify the immigrants’.[24] CARD modelled its membership after the NAACP. This meant the inclusion of white liberals to leadership positions in order to attract the support of more white Britons to the organisation.[25] The inclusion of white Britons to CARD alienated many immigrants of African descent as during this period they had become increasingly radicalised by Black Power ideology via the West Indian Gazette and were moved towards black self-determination.[26] Similar to the NAACP, CARD was a ‘middle class’ organisation. This further disillusioned black Britons who predominantly hailed from working-class backgrounds. The differences between the classes resulted in a disconnect between the middle-class immigrants running CARD and the working-class base CARD was supposed to represent. As a ‘middle class’ organisation CARD focused on giving an air of public ‘respectability’ , however, this was not suitable for CARD’s working-class base. A former member stated ‘we wanted a strong body that would speak for us, but it [CARD] has become soft and middle-class, working behind the scenes’.[27] The detachment between the leadership of CARD and the base it intended to represent was accentuated by the introduction of a £1 membership fee, this fee prevented many working-class non-white immigrants from joining the organisation. The formation of CARD as an interracial and middle-class movement akin to the NAACP did not translate well, particularly at a time when Black Power was dominating the social consciousness of black Britons.

Furthermore, CARD’s close connections with the Labour Party generated a sense of distrust amongst the black population. Britain’s black community already viewed the Labour Party with wariness following their extension of the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act. According to some accounts, Pitt’s close involvement and attempts at becoming an MP led some black Britons to declare him ‘an Uncle  Tom’ and led many to believe that CARD was just another arm of the Labour Party.[28] This factor discouraged black and Asian immigrants from joining the organisation. The lack of a support base rendered CARD increasingly more powerless and they were unable to effect more policy change.


CARD was conceptualised out of the need to challenge the racism in British policy and prevent racial discrimination in British society. Even though the lobbying tactics of the NAACP proved fruitful in helping push for amendments and extended legislation to outlaw racial discrimination in Britain, the formation of CARD that was evocative of the NAACP’s formation, proved to be the organisation’s downfall. The creation of an interracial, middle-class movement was not welcomed by Britain’s black community who increasingly relied on the teachings of the Black Power Movement. In addition, CARD’s association with the Labour Party generated scepticism from non-white immigrants who felt that the Labour Party had helped to perpetuate racism and anti-immigrant sentiment.


[1] Quoted from Peace News, 11 December 1964.

[2] Benjamin Heineman, The Politics of the Powerless: A Study of the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972).

[3] Campaign Against Racial Discrimination pro tem, passed 10 January 1965.

[4]Peace News, 25 September 1964; Guardian, 3 August 1965; and Observer, 8 August 1965.

[5] NCCI, Report for 1966, p. 24.

[6] Joe Street, ‘Malcolm X, Smethwick, and the Influence of the African American Freedom Struggle on British Race Relations in the 1960s’, Journal of Black Studies, 38:6, (2008), p.932-950.

[7] The Guardian, 8 October 1964, p. 3.

[8] The Guardian, 8 April 1956, p. 5.

[9] Gavin Schaffer, ‘Legislating Against Hatred: Meaning and Motive in Section Six of the Race Relations Act of 1965’, Twentieth Century British History, 25:2, (2014), pp. 251-275.

[10] Kennetta Hammond Perry, London is the place for me: black Britons, citizenship and the politics of race (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), p. 72.

[11] Rob Waters, Thinking Black Britain, 1964-1985 (Oakland: University of California Press, 2018), p. 21.

[12] Gilbert Ware, ‘Lobbying as a Means of Protest: The NAACP as an Agent of Equality’, The Journal of Negro Education, 33, (1964), p. 103-110.

[13] Interview with Anthony Lester, 13 May 1967.

[14] Letter from David Pitt to CARD members, February 1965.

[15] Heineman, The Politics of the Powerless, p. 128.

[16] Guardian, 8 April 1965, p. 1.

[17] Letter from CARD Organizing Secretary, 38 April 1965, CP/LON/RACE/1/8, Communist Party Records, Manchester Labour History Archives and Study Centre Manchester.

[18] Marion Glean, ‘Suggestions for the Future Activities of CARD’, paper presented to CARD Executive Committee and Heineman, The Politics of the Powerless, p. 130.

[19] Camilla Schofield, ‘“Whatever Community Is, This is Not it”: Notting Hill and the Reconstruction of “Race” in Britain after 1958’, Journal of British Studies, 58:1, (2019), pp. 142-173.

[20] Campaign Against Racial Discrimination, ‘How To Expose Discrimination,’ 1966, Black History Collection, Institute of Race Relations, Racial Discrimination.

[21] Heineman, The Politics of the Powerless, p. 136.

[22] Sunday Telegraph, 11 September 1966; Guardian, 13 January 1967, p. 4.

[23] Heineman, The Politics of the Powerless, p. 120.

[24] Selma James, ‘Thoughts on Future Work’, a paper presented to CARD Executive Committee.

[25] Howard Malchow, Special Relations: the Americanization of Britain? (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011).

[26] Waters, Thinking Black: Britain 1964-1985, p. 28.

[27] Observer, 27 February 1966, p. 4.

[28] Independent, 20 December 1994.

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