Why has the UK civil rights movement been forgotten ?

Let me start of by saying Happy Birthday to the late Martin Luther King. Today many in the USA will remember the work of Dr Martin Luther King jr for his role in the American civil rights movement. His legacy will be forever remembered for his iconic “I have a dream” speech which captured (and still captures) the imagination and hearts of many.

Here in the UK we are taught about the American civil rights struggle. I remember learning in my first year of A level about the NAACP, SCLC, Malcolm X and various other civil rights campaigners and learning (in-depth) different events spanning across several decades. But we never looked at the UK civil rights movement.

It’s almost scary how good the UK is at glossing over its history. This is a great example. In school we are taught about the brave fight Britain put up in both World Wars. We talk about how Britain ended the slave trade. We look at how Britain become the first Industrialised nation. How the empire was responsible for ‘modernising’ the world. But with social issues, especially race, we look to the other side of the pond rather than looking inwards. Proof being that many people can name off the top of their heads American civil rights heavyweights: Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Very little would be able to name Paul Stephenson.

Stephenson is a civil rights activist who is best known for his leadership role in the boycott of the Bristol Omnibus Company. He protested their policy of refusing to hire Black or Asian drivers in 1963. His efforts, after a 60-day boycott, saw the company retract its policy.

The following year he refused to leave a pub until he was served beer, directly going against the de-facto practice for some establishments to show the sign: “No blacks, no Irish, no dogs”. He shot into national prominence and even worked with Muhammad Ali years later.

There is an image the UK wants to protect of being an inclusive and diverse country. But to be both you must diversify your history and it is important not to change the nuances of it. The race relations acts of 1965 and 1968 did not come about of an innate sense of “Britishness”. Rather change came about through the hard work of ethnic minorities whose voice history continues to silence.

Although the national curriculum does not do justice to Paul Stephenson, his personal achievements show that not everyone has forgotten him. His OBE in 2009 is a commemoration for his efforts to community relations in Bristol.

The purpose of this post wasn’t to give a history lesson. The limited words would simply trivialise the struggle. The purpose was to pose the question: Why has the UK civil rights movement been forgotten?

In my previous posts I have looked at how powerful images can be. In this case it is the clear void in history concerning UK civil rights that is disturbing. There are untold struggles that are being forgotten that must be taught. By teaching the struggle in the UK context, there will be an attachment for UK ethnic minorities. The history should be made canon for the sake of an inclusive and diverse Britain.

My last post I @ed the former education secretary and a few hours later she resigned. (My ego likes to think that it wasn’t a coincidence). I hope that the new education secretary (or whoever is in charge of the national curriculum) will make sure that there will be an extensive discourse on the UK’s civil rights movement taught in schools. This will empower the young generation who feel so passionate about equality and will remind us that the fight is still not fully won.