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Remembering the Bristol bus boycott

In Perspective column by Martin Upchurch

Fifty years ago this month a few committed activists from Bristol's 3,000-strong black community launched a remarkable and ultimately successful campaign. As in the rest of post-war Britain, housing was difficult to find. A "colour bar" existed in many places with signs in windows proclaiming "No Blacks or Irish". Young black men on a night out would run the gauntlet of "Teddy boys".

White women who befriended black men would often be shunned by their white friends, and even be labelled as prostitutes. The depth of this racism was a product of Britain's imperial past, whereby black and Asian people would be considered as uncivilised children, and portrayed as near savages in general public discourse. As in some other cities, such as Coventry and West Bromwich, the colour bar in Bristol extended to employment on the buses.

The Bristol Omnibus Company's general manager, Ian Patey, a former army colonel, imposed the bar claiming that "in London, coloured men have become arrogant and rude after they have been employed for some months". In 1955 the Bristol Transport and General Workers' Union (TGWU) bus branch carried a motion to exclude black labour in the Bristol Omnibus Company. The TGWU's attitude sat alongside the hospital union COHSE which had voted at its 1955 conference to oppose the employment of black nurses, together with the National Union of Seamen's vote to keep blacks off ships.

Early in 1963 a small group of West Indian activists living in the crowded City Road area in the St Pauls district of Bristol came together to begin a campaign. The initial problem for the men was proving that a colour bar existed. One member of the group, Paul Stephenson, who had been born in England to West African parents, sought to overcome this problem by encouraging a black Boys Brigade Officer, Guy Bailey, to apply in writing for a job on the buses. Around 2,000 workers were employed in the city as drivers or conductors, but 600 left every year. As turnover was high, Bailey was offered an interview. Stephenson then rang up the bus company thanking them for their consideration and mentioned that Bailey was black. The interview was immediately cancelled.

Stephenson then took a long walk on Clifton Downs in the city to think. He was strongly influenced by the politics of Martin Luther King and the American civil rights movement that had crystallised around Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott. It came to him quickly that a bus boycott would be the ideal campaign.

The boycott was announced on 29 April 1963 and with the support of local MP Tony Benn and students at Bristol University a march was called to go first to the bus station and then to the TGWU. At a trade union May Day Rally on 6 May the predominantly right wing Bristol Trades Council called for an end to the colour bar. On the same day around 100 black residents from St Pauls marched to St Mary Redcliffe church. The campaign drew the support of notables such as former West Indies cricketer Sir Learie Constantine, who led a group petitioning at the West Indies cricket match against Gloucestershire in the city.

The local TGWU remained intransigent, with the regional secretary calling Stephenson "dishonest and irresponsible". But during that summer the pressure began to pay off. Christian group leaders and CND joined the campaign, local Communist Party members and other left wingers agitated within the TGWU and Labour Party, and a petition was raised by a local youth worker on the huge working class estate of Hartcliffe. Negotiations finally started between the TGWU and the bus company led by Constantine, and on 28 August a mass meeting of 500 TGWU members on the buses voted to end the colour bar.

The first non-white to be employed was a Sikh, Raghbir Singh, and a few days later four black conductors took their place on the buses. Suspicions linger that an unofficial quota was imposed, as two years afterwards there were still only 39 non-white conductors and four drivers on the crew of 2,000. But despite this the campaign was a victory. The Labour leader Harold Wilson called it the last example of the colour bar in Britain.

The incoming Labour government, in its 1965 Race Relations Act, legislated against the colour bar. Three years later Enoch Powell, ironically an advocate for the recruitment of black workers in transport and the NHS when he was a minister, attempted to turn back the tide of anti-racism and delivered his rearguard "rivers of blood" speech in 1968. But for the unions a disgraceful episode of right wing racist collaboration with the employer had been pushed to the side. As a fitting conclusion to the story, Unite in Bristol formally apologised in March this year for the role of the TGWU some 50 years earlier, and Unite against Fascism alongside others in the city, including organisers of the boycott, are planning anniversary celebrations.

Thanks are due to Madge Dresser and her 1986 booklet Black and White on the Buses, now sadly out of print, for help in writing this article.


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