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We're gonna get off the bus

PROTEST: The Bristol Bus Boycott quickly made headlines all over Britain

IN 1963, a young black man decided to challenge the racist employment practices of a Bristol bus company. His actions sent shockwaves through the country and changed race relations. Vic Motune reports

WHEN YOU hear people talk about famous civil rights protests, the first one that probably comes to mind is the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

The 1955 boycott sparked the birth of a movement that would transform America.

But eight years later in April 1963, another bus boycott organised by a determined young black man working in Bristol would have equally far reaching consequences.

Inspired by the Montgomery Bus Boycott, youth worker Paul Stephenson forced 1960s Britain to confront the existence of an unofficial colour bar. And his success in doing so paved the way for groundbreaking legislation to protect black people from discrimination.

Now the remarkable events of almost 50 years ago are retold in a new book, Memoirs of A Black Englishman and a special exhibition in Bristol celebrating his life.

REBUILD

During the late 1940s and ‘50s Britain invited workers from the Caribbean to help rebuild an economy ravaged by war.

However, their arrival was met by a rise in racial violence in many of the country's cities.

Although Stephenson wasn't from the Caribbean, his experiences as a youth worker in Bristol in the early 1960s made him understand that his fate was bound together with that of the new arrivals by civil rights issues.

As in other British cities, Bristol’s black community experienced widespread discrimination in housing and employment. One of the new community’s biggest grievances was a colour bar being operated by the local Bristol Omnibus Company.

“They were making it clear to other employers in the city that they didn’t need to bother employing black people” Stephenson recalls “I realised I wasn’t going to be able to do my job of integrating black youngsters into British society without making a stand.”

PROTEST

An action group, later to be called the West Indian Development Council, was formed to tackle the issue, and its members elected the articulate Stephenson to be their spokesperson.

Inspired by civil rights protests in the US, the activists decided on a boycott of local buses.
The boycott quickly made national headlines, with Stephenson finding himself thrust into the media spotlight.

But his new fame also saw him become the target of death threats and verbal abuse. And there was even opposition from the local black community.


THE GREATEST: Future EastEnders star Rudolph Walker, Muhammad Ali and Paul Stephenson on the day that the boxing champ was persuaded to visit a school in south London

He says “Some told me ‘you’re making it difficult for us to settle in. This is a white man’s country and a white man can do what he wants in his own country. We can’t impose any restrictions on how he wants to behave.’”

However, Stephenson was unmoved.

“I had no doubt that once we took it on, we would win. Others threatening to kill me didn’t make much difference to my attitude at the time.”

The campaigners were boosted by support from some unexpected quarters. The then leader of the opposition, later Labour prime minister, Harold Wilson backed the campaign, as did future cabinet minister Tony Benn. It was the first time that major political figures had publicly backed a black led protest against racial discrimination.

A turbulent six months later on August 28, 1963, the same day that Martin Luther King gave his famous ‘I Have A Dream’ speech, the campaigners tasted victory with the company’s senior managers deciding to lift the colour bar.

The campaign was fundamental to the introduction of the Race Relations Act in 1965, the first legislation in Britain to outlaw racial discrimination.

You only have to look at the many honours and awards that have been bestowed upon Stephenson, including an OBE, a honorary degree from the University of West England and the freedom of the city of Bristol, to realise the impact he made during those heady days.

Roles with the now defunct Commission for Racial Equality and the Sports Council followed, where he campaigned prominently against sporting links with apartheid South Africa. And during his time as a governor of Tulse Hill school in south London in the early 1970s, he succeeded in pulling off a major coup when he invited one of the world's greatest ever sportsmen, Muhammad Ali, to speak to black pupils in desperate need of a role model.

“I met with Ali in the foyer of London’s Hilton hotel and asked him if he’d like to come and visit the school,” says Stephenson. “He initially told me he couldn’t because he had to get back to Chicago. He’d just beaten George Foreman. I told him that if he could come to our school it would be the biggest thing in its history. He then asked me how much was I willing to pay him. When I told him I couldn’t pay him, he said ‘You’ve got more nerve than Joe Frasier!’ We hit it off.

EastEnders actor Rudolph Walker, at that time one of the most prominent black actors on TV came along as well. The kids didn’t know I was going to do it but it was a huge success.”

*Memoirs Of A Black Englishman is published by Tangent Books.

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