Roy Hackett: the civil rights hero who stood in front of a bus – and changed Britain for ever


Kehinde Andrews (The Guardian) writes “When he arrived in the UK in 1952, he faced vicious racism – and decided to fight back. In the first of a new series, he tells the story of the Bristol boycott.” [Read the full article at The Guardian.]

One day in early 1963, Roy Hackett was walking in Broadmead, Bristol, when he saw a man crying. The man was outside the Bristol Omnibus Company. He told Hackett he was weeping because the company had told him he could not get an interview for a job there solely because he was black. Almost 60 years later, and despite all he has seen in his 92 years, it still sticks in Hackett’s throat – “not because he was a Jamaican, or foreign, but because he was black. It is degrading.”

Hackett marched straight into the bus company to demand answers. He was, he says, “born an activist” and saw it as his duty to challenge racism whenever he saw it. Once in front of the manager, he made it clear he was not asking for black people to be treated equally – he was demanding it. The indignation and strength of his will ring in his voice as he remembers telling the boss: “If he can’t drive it, then the bus won’t be moving, will it?”

In the face of such resolve, the manager crumbled and promised to give the man an interview. Three years later, the two men met again: Hackett stepped on to a bus and saw the man behind the wheel (naturally, the ride was free). But it was far from a simple triumph – to get to this happy ending, Hackett had to take on not just one manager, but an entire bus company – and the structures that allowed an informal but devastating segregation to flourish in parts of the UK. It took a months-long boycott to finally overturn open discrimination.

At the time, the so-called “colour bar” meant that ethnic minorities could legally be banned from housing, employment and public places. Prior to the Race Relations Act 1965, for instance, it was legal to hang signs saying “No blacks, no Irish, no dogs” in public places such as pubs. Until the Race Relations Act 1968, discrimination in housing and employment was not covered by anti-racism legislation.

Across the country, housing was the most routine area in which a colour bar was applied – which explained the concentration of minorities in inner cities, as these were the only homes available to them. But trade unions, employers, working men’s clubs and pubs exercised their right to discriminate against the black and Asian population. In 1965, Malcolm X visited Smethwick, near Birmingham, where the council was still refusing to rent houses to immigrants; in the previous year’s general election, the Conservative candidate had won with the unofficial slogan: “If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour,” and crosses had been burned in front of people’s homes.

At the time, the Bristol Omnibus Company was notorious for racial discrimination in recruitment. Hackett says labourers from the colonies and former colonies were allowed to “wash the buses at night”, but barred from the better-paid work on the bus crews. This segregation was not only upheld by the bus company, but also vigorously defended by the local branch of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, which did not want its members to lose jobs to immigrants.

Hackett believes that underlying these economic fears was the even more insidious racist fear that white women would not be safe with black men working on the buses. Hackett’s neighbour told him he was tormented by his work colleagues because he lived next door to a black man. They told him to “go home – your neighbour will be holding down your wife”, Hackett says.

The same neighbour also gave him the perfect example of the resentment that underpinned the colour bar one day as Hackett was washing his Vauxhall Cresta, his pride and joy. The neighbour marched over and started ranting at Hackett that it was not right for him to have a fancy car and own his own home “when you have just got here”. Hackett lets out a mischievous laugh at the memory, but at the time he simply reminded his neighbour that he had been struggling as an immigrant in Britain for years and that it was not his fault his neighbour could afford only a motorbike with a sidecar for his wife and child.

Hackett had grown up in Trench Town in Kingston, Jamaica, on the same 7th Street that was immortalised in the Bob Marley and the Wailers song Natty Dread. Despite working as an insurance broker, among other jobs, he had struggled as a young man to make enough money even to eat. Ironically, he says he was drawn to Britain by the promises of a better life made by none other than Enoch Powell – the man whose racist rivers of blood” speech, delivered in 1968, warned of the danger of allowing immigrants into the country.

Before Powell became the foremost anti-immigrant MP of his generation, he was the health minister between 1960 and 1963, championing the recruitment of doctors and nurses from the Caribbean. Hackett insists Powell spoke at a meeting in Kingston that he attended (although this proved impossible to verify). The politician, says Hackett, was “talking friendly”, encouraging people to migrate to a land of plenty with “loads of jobs”. At the time, everyone thought Powell was a good man, says Hackett, shaking his head with a wry smile: “Son of a gun!” [. . .]

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