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Black British activism after WWI

In the second in a four-part serialisation of his new book, African Uhuru, ROGER McKENZIE outlines the organised resistance to a surge of racism against black workers in law and in the unions as they returned from the war

THE summer of 1919 was as red in Britain as it was on the other side of the Atlantic in the US. It was a year of international unrest and fear at the same time as being a time of excitement, hope and radicalism, springing from the new world that had been ushered in by the 1917 Russian Revolution.

Much of Britain’s 1919 black population was made up of seafarers, dock workers and colonial troops returning from doing their duty in World War I.

This should not be taken to conclude that black workers only arrived in Britain after World War I. Far from it. There has been a sizeable black population in Britain since Roman times when soldiers of African descent were sent to guard Hadrian’s Wall. But 1919 witnessed a new phenomenon — organised attacks on a community in Britain based on race.

Prior to World War I trade unions in Britain took the principled position of resisting moves by employers to pay black workers, African or Asian, less than their white counterparts. But this principled position disappeared after the war even though unions in the colonies sought to forge an alliance with them against these racist employer practices.

There is little evidence to suggest why this change in attitude took place within the unions. After all, the establishment of a low-paid strata of workers within a sector could only serve to hold down the wages of all workers as African and white workers were pitted against each other.

One can only assume that the pressure by returning servicemen, complaining of African workers “stealing their jobs,” forced the hand of the unions to change policy.

The Colonial Seamen’s Association

The Colonial Seamen’s Association (CSA) was founded in 1935 as a response to the racist 1935 British Shipping (Assistance) Act.

The Act subsidised the British shipping industry by safeguarding seamen’s jobs — as long as they were white — during the brutal economic depression of the 1930s.

One of the requirements for payment of the subsidy from the Act was that the ship employed only “British seamen.” This led to many ship owners sacking all but their white seafarers.

In an act of collective resistance by African, Chinese and South Asian seamen the CSA was formed to campaign against the Act. With opposition to the Act not confined to local campaigners, with opposition to the new rule also coming from the Colonial Office and the India Office, the discriminatory provision was eventually removed in March 1936.

One of the key campaigners against the Act was Chris Braithwaite. Born in Barbados in 1885, Chris Braithwaite was a sailor, a docker, and a communist. Braithwaite joined the British Merchant Navy as a teenager and sailed the world. After the war, he moved to London to work for the Shipping Federation.

The League of Coloured Peoples

The League of Coloured Peoples (LCP) was founded in 1931 by Harold Moody. The LCP, which grew to become the pre-eminent national political organisation for African people in Britain during the 1930s and ’40s, became most involved in raising awareness of the very high levels of unemployment within the black community (particularly among African seamen).

The LCP also lobbied politicians about the racism faced by African commissioned officers during the second world war and exposed the killing of civilians during the Italian invasion of Abyssinia. In July 1944 the league organised a three-day conference in London to draw up a Charter of Coloured People.

The charter demanded that there should be full self-government for colonial peoples at the earliest possible opportunity, and insisted: “The same economic, educational, legal and political rights shall be enjoyed by all persons, male and female, whatever their colour. All discrimination in employment, in places of public entertainment and refreshment, or in other public places, shall be illegal and shall be punished.”

The ‘colour bar’

The type of work that the new workers in Britain were recruited to do was typically at the very bottom of the labour market. The recruitment to different sectors of the economy also depended on where in the world you were from.

Pakistani and Bangladeshi workers were specifically recruited by employer agents to work in the textile industries while Indian workers were employed predominantly in foundries and low-skilled manufacturing roles.

Caribbean workers of African descent were substantially recruited to work in the then-nationalised railway industry and other areas of public transport in jobs that white workers did not want to do.

The division of black labour into African and Asian created immense difficulties for the development of unity of action against the racial discrimination that all black groups, regardless of national heritage, faced.

Although at a national level there was little or no support in resisting racism there were certainly honourable examples of more local attempts to support black workers. Nottingham Trades Council, for example, set up a liaison committee with black immigrants as far back as 1954.

The trades council even paid for the cost of a booklet that welcomed black immigrants to the city and, while strongly criticising one of the largest local unions for discriminatory policies (causing the union to withdraw from the trades council), encouraged African and Asian workers to join trade unions.

It was clear to black workers, as it seemed apparent to Nottingham trades council, that racism in the workplace was prevalent and therefore resistance was not only necessary, but vital.

African self-liberation strategies arrived in Britain on the wave of the anti-colonial struggles in the Caribbean and Africa, as well as South Asia.

Black self-organised union structures in Britain were used by African and Asian workers as a community of resistance to defeat the ideological objections from white (as well as some black) trade unionists to self-liberation.

These developments, in the long run, helped to build stronger alliances between progressive black and white anti-racists and deepened the anti-racist agenda within unions and “progressive” political parties.

Read part three of this book extract series in Friday’s paper.

African Uhuru by Roger McKenzie is out now, published by Manifesto Press. The book is available via the Morning Star shop (www.shop.morningstaronline.co.uk) and every order made gives a slice of the cover price to our daily paper of working-class power and liberation.

Manifesto Press authors Roger McKenzie and Nigel Flanagan will be taking part in an event, Decolonising the trade union movement, on June 15 at The Venue, Oxford, 2.30-5.30pm. For more information visit www.manifestopress.coop.

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