Making of an activist peer

Last month Sir Simon Woolley was made a Lord, an appointment marking a significant milestone in a life spent on campaigning for race equality and black political representation. For The Voice, he recalls some of the things that have shaped him

DETERMINED CAMPAIGNER: Operation Black Vote founder Sir Simon Woolley was made a crossbench peer by outgoing prime minister Theresa May

MY JOURNEY from being a black working-class political activist to being knighted and then becoming a lord in the space of three months has been described as the fastest social rise in British history.

In reality it is the 50-plus years of my life that make up the backstory for those three meteoric months, particularly the 25 years of frontline civil rights activism.

Growing up on the St Matthews council estate in Leicester back in the 1960s and 70s, there were two things I realised very quickly.


First, money was very tight in our household.

And secondly, I realised I was black.

I know the latter statement sounds like the blindingly obvious – “just look in the mirror, Simon”, I hear readers saying.

Yes, OK. But, it’s a bit more complicated than that.

I grew up in a loving and supportive white foster family.

But back then gangs would often roam the street taunting black boys with chants such as “send the w**s to Vietnam”.

I knew the term was a racial insult, but as kid I couldn’t understand why they wanted to send us to Vietnam – or even where it was. I asked my mother after one bout of abuse: “Why do they want to send us to Vietnam?”

To this day I don’t remember her reply.

I just recall her holding my head close to her heart and sobbing. I thought, “boy, that Vietnam must be a bad place”.

The other moment of clarity I had about my racial identity was during a Cub Scouts away day, where I met other Cub Scout outfits around the country…

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