Sunday, 7 August 2022

Britain is no longer a country for and says "Goodbye" to its fearless Civil Rights Activist, Roy Hackett

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As an activist, Roy said :

 "We have a saying : "You got be 'in it', to change it" and that is my word : " 'In it', to change it".(link)

Roy, who has died at the age of ninety-three, arrived in Britain at the age of twenty-four in 1952. He had grown up in Trench Town in Kingston, Jamaica, on the same 7th Street that was immortalised in the Bob Marley and the Wailers song 'Natty Dread'. (link)

"I've got to reach seventh street (Natty Dreadlock)
Natty Dreadlock Bingy Bongo I (Natty Dread)
Natty dread, Natty Dread, now (Natty Dread)
Roots Natty Congo I (Natty Dread)"

After leaving school, by day he worked in a drug store for for £5 a week and by night for the Blue Mountain Coffee Company for the same pay, but only for five months a year and once he paid his shilling a day for rent, he had barely enough to survive. Ironically, he says he was drawn to Britain by the promises of a better life made by none other than Enoch Powell – the man whose racist “rivers of blood” speech, delivered in 1968, warned of the danger of allowing immigrants like him, into the country.(link)

He had travelled from Jamaica to Britain across the Atlantic by ship, because at £35, it was half the price of the plane journey. When bad weather forced his ship stop on the eastern seaboard of Canada he remembered watching a polar bear trying to steal some fish and mistakenly tried to disembark, assuming he had arrived in England. When he did arrive, it was Liverpool, where he lived for a time, before moving to Wolverhampton and then London. Roy recalled : "When I came to London I got a job with the engineering firm Taylor Woodrow. They brought me to Somerset to build England's first atomic power station, Hinkley Point, in 1957, I worked in the turbine hall. While I was there at least a quarter of the workforce were black and Jamaican, and we got talking".

Roy now moved to Bristol and on his first day in 1956, he walked around the city looking for a boarding house. It was in the middle winter around Christmas time, he recalled : "I walked down Ashley Road looking for housing and found one house which didn't have a card on it to one that said 'No gypsies. No dogs. No Irish and No coloureds'. The lady opened the door, saw me, and without saying a word, just slammed the door. It was a struggle, people were blatantly racist".(link) He spent his first night sleeping in a doorway and said : "I wanted to go to the police station, but really, I didn’t know where the police station was. There wasn’t one in St. Paul's, the nearest one was in town".

A white passerby took pity on him and he recalled that he : “Just come and throw an overcoat on me”, before walking off and Roy told himself : “It’s not all of them as bad as we think”. For many, though : “If they think, I had two other legs somewhere else, because they didn’t talk to me as though I was a human”. In 2020, Roy reflected : "Great Britain was not 'great' to its Commonwealth people because we were of different colour". After he had the door slammed in his face : "I said to myself : "I think that's the norm here". There was no rule about discrimination and what you couldn't do. They thought they could do any thing and get away with it".

When eventually he found lodgings in the city, in the St. Paul's District, it was just one room he shared with his cousin and two other men. In the downstairs front room, there was a family with three children and every other room in the house was similarly overcrowded. They all shared a bath that was kept outside and dragged in once a week to be filled with water. He said : "We would either use that, or once a week on a Saturday we would walk about two miles down to Broadmead Centre for a bath, where we paid one shilling for a towel and soap".

Every morning, Roy, who was working for the construction firm Robert McAlpine in Wales, had to rise at 4am to get to work on time. He said :  "I worked there as a labourer, but during my time I became a teaboy and worked with Tom Jones. We were all young men at that time. He was always singing. When I said : “Where are you from?”  In a thick welsh accent he said : “From the Rhondda Valley,” and I said : “Get back there with that noise!”

When he did get the chance for leisure, he said it wasn't safe for a lone black man, or a couple, to go into the city centre after dark. Violent racism meant there had to be a group of at least six or seven people, if they were to be safe from assault by the local teddy boys. The police, he said, always looked the other way. Roy confessed : "I lived a dog's life for the first five years in this country. If I could have afforded the fare, I would have gone back the next day, actually. I didn’t think I belonged here at all. A lot of people who came here at the same time as me said the same thing: if they could have afforded the fare they would have gone back the next day".

In 1959 at the age of thirty-one, he married his childhood sweetheart, Ena, who arrived in Bristol from Jamaica, in 1958, and subsequently they had a daughter. In the 1960s he said : "When I tried to buy my first house there was a big crowd of white people standing out and I thought they'd come to welcome me in their midst. 'No'. You know what they did ? They said they didn't want me there. I said : "Why did God make two colours or three colour people ? Why didn't he just make everybody, black ? Everybody white ? Everybody pink ? We wouldn't have this trouble". I felt extremely degraded, but thought : 'What am I doing Here ? And I think I've just got to put up with it until something comes along".(link)

Roy recalled : "After I got settled in Bristol I met a friend. He and I were born in the same month, in the same year, in the same county. His name was Owen Henry. He gave me a lot to think about and said we should form something to tackle the Council's attitude towards the black population, because with the Council when you went for a job they could tell you anything and kick you out of the office". At Roy's suggestion, in 1962, they formed an association because : "As with today, one voice is not really enough, you have to have somebody behind you". He said : "We were going to include Bristol in the name but we decided, no, we were commonwealth people so we called it the 'Commonwealth Coordinated Committee'". 

Owen, who ran a travel agency, was the Chairman and Paul Stephenson, had served in the RAF and worked as a support teacher, became the President and Spokesperson and Roy was the Public Relations Officer, 

Roy recalled : "We used to meet in the 'Speedy Bird Cafe' on  Sundays, drinking fish tea and red stripe beer and listening to calypso music with a paraffin heater to keep warm. After 1962 once we had the CCC name we started a recruitment drive for membership". Roy recalled : "We decided to fight anything that a black person was involved, to help them out" and challenged Bristol Council, pressuring it to act on housing and employment. 

Having said that, one day in early 1963, Roy was walking in the Broadmead area of Bristol, when he saw a man outside the 'Bristol Omnibus Company', who was crying. He told Roy that he was weeping because the Company had told him he could not get an interview for a job there. The memory of that injustice stayed with Roy for the rest of his life and when he was interviewed last year, he said that it still stuck in his throat : “Not because he was a Jamaican, or foreign, but because he was black. It is degrading”. Roy marched straight into the bus company to demand answers. He was, he said : “Born an activist” and saw it as his duty to challenge racism whenever he saw it. Once in front of the manager, he made it clear he was not asking for black people to be treated equally – he was demanding it and he remembered telling the man : “If he can’t drive it, then the bus won’t be moving, will it?”

It is hard to believe, but in 1963, it was entirely legal for British companies to discriminate against someone because of the colour of their skin and the Bristol Omnibus Company was one such company, notorious for racial discrimination in recruitment. (link) Roy said workers from the colonies and former colonies were allowed to : “Wash the buses at night”, but were barred from the better-paid work on the bus crews. This segregation was not only upheld by the bus company, but also vigorously defended by the local branch of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, which did not want its members to lose jobs to immigrants. The company now became the target of the Commonwealth Coordinated Committee's most important fight against discrimination. 

Roy recalled : "They were not shifting. We said : "We've got to take it to the other level. We are going to form ourselves into a group and stop the buses". We physically sit down in the road. At the time Arthur Scargill was having a miners' strike up north and we were having the strike down here and at one stage they said : "Arthur Scargill, Roy Hackett and Tony Benn is the three worst persons in England".(link)

Roy had never worked on the buses, nor had any intention of doing so, although Ena had been turned down for a job as a bus conductor. In fact, at one time,  Roy worked for St Anne's Board Mill Co Ltd Works in Bristol, where he became the foreman of 52 white employees, which, needless to say, was unusual for the time. He said he got involved in the struggle with the bus company : “For his countrymen”, because the bus service that they had to use every day served as a daily reminder of the racism in Bristol society. It was particularly galling, because London Transport was not only hiring black people to work on buses in London, but also actively recruiting in the Caribbean.

Together with Owen Henry, Audley Evans, Prince Brown and Paul Stephenson, Roy used his skill as an organiser to marshal the 3,000-strong Caribbean community in Bristol into a boycott of the bus service and proved to be charismatic leader who spoke with natural eloquence. The idea was partly inspired by the action in Montgomery in the USA in which Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white traveler. The Bristol Boycott was announced at a press conference on 29 April 1963 and  gained national attention as the first boycott of its kind in Britain. Roy organised the blockades in Fishponds Road, which ensured that no buses could make it past their barrier and into the city centre. Apparently, each time he recalled it, Roy's eyes flickered as he remembered the determination the campaigners felt and as he said : “No bus came in and no bus came out”.

The Caribbean community arranged lifts between themselves to get to work, but support for the boycott was much more widespread, because it had caught national attention. It included the local MP Tony Benn, students at the University of Bristol, anti-racist groups such as the 'Campaign Against Racial Discrimination' and sympathetic members of the general public. Even the Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, backed them, wishing the protesters : “All the success”. Roy remembered Tony as a genuine friend to the campaigners who drank tea with the organisers and stood in the road alongside them. In fact, it was in his role as a Cabinet Minister that he helped the campaign pave the way for the 'Race Relations Act' of 1965 and Roy was convinced that Tony's influence was key in persuading the Wilson Government to pass anti-racism legislation.

Despite Paul Stephenson's optimism in front of the press (link), the group faced hostility and threats of violence, but Roy remembered how, undeterred, they felt and said :What we started now, we won’t stop until we get what we want”. After four months of disruption, on 28th August, the day Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, the Transport Union and the company caved to the boycotters’ demands and the colour bar at the bus company was lifted. The success of the boycott, with its size and the level of public support, added to the pressure to change the law.(link)

Three years after Roy had met the man weeping outside the bus company, he met him again when he stepped on to a bus and saw the man behind the wheel but it had been a far from a simple triumph. To get to this happy ending, Roy had to take on an entire bus company and the structures that allowed an informal, but devastating segregation to flourish in parts of the Britain and it had taken months of the bus boycott to finally overturn open discrimination.

After the boycott, Roy stayed very active in the community and that year founded the 'St Paul’s Festival', which later became the 'St Paul’s Carnival', which has become one of the biggest events in Bristol’s cultural calendar. Eventually, even the Union honoured him, with a 'Roy Hackett Training Room' in their offices which prompted his response : “If you can’t beat them, join them”. He himself gave talks in schools about the Boycott, his life and his experiences in Bristol and he said children were  always keen to know what life was like “back then”. Of the Boycott, he said : "They never taught it in school, that this happened here and I said : "Why, are they ashamed of what they done to us ?" I talk to the primary schools and I always tell them that we had to do that to bring you up and never forget your roots".(link)

From 1965, until he was seventy-seven in 2005, Roy served on the 'Bristol Race Equality Council' which was the first of its kind in the country. He chaired the Committee of the legendary 'Bamboo Club', which hosted international music artistes like ‘Bob Marley and the Wailers’ and Jimmy Cliff. In his latter years memory of his legacy in Bristol waned, but there were calls to replace the toppled statue of the slave trader, Edward Colston with a tribute to him, to which he wryly responded with :  “So they can pull me down in 20 years?” He continued to offer help to young activists with the one stipulation that he could : “Sit in the shade”. He said that seeing the 'Black Lives Matter' protests gave him hope, because he wanted : "The younger people to fight it. We fought for what we have now. Let’s push it further”.

LaToyah McAllister-Jones, Executive Director of the St Paul's Carnival, said : "Rest In Power, Mr Roy Hackett. You have inspired so many, your service and dedication to your community lives on through us all".

Bristol West Labour MP, Thangam Debbonaire said: "It was an honour to know him. He was an inspiration to so many and taught us all so much about standing up for justice and equality. I will miss his warm smile, quick wit and charm, as well as his deep and lasting commitment to the people of Bristol and to ending racism".

Roy said : 
"Try and try and never stop trying, because trying is what I did in my life, in my whole life. I keep trying because everybody think I'm a 'no good' and I keep trying, until I become a 'too good' ".(link)

In 1965, Harold Wilson stood up in Parliament and said : "As from today, any person discriminating against another because of politics, religion, colour, creed or disability, you have committed a crime punishable, five months in prison or five thousand of both". And I cried. I said "Thank Heavens for this". I said :"We won".(link)

"Trying is a great thing and if you ever fail one, try another time or try to improve what you fill in. You know and try again, because young people today, they are tomorrow's people and we must try our best to make them be a good, 'Tomorrow's People'".(link)

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