We can be certain that when we resist cuts and austerity our rulers will try to divide us with racism. If they succeed, the price will be a weakening of the working class movement that will threaten defeat for all—irrespective of background.
Happily, our history is full of examples of workers standing up to bigotry and overcoming racial antagonisms. And black people’s struggles against racism have never been divorced from those of workers.
The best of this anti-racist tradition can be seen as early as a mass meeting of Sheffield cutlery workers in 1793.
Though it is unlikely that many would ever have met a black person, the workers resolved to actively oppose slavery, stating, “Wishing to be rid of the weight of oppression under which we groan, we are induced to compassion for those who groan also. No compromise can be made between freedom and tyranny.”
This is one of many examples showing that racism is not “natural”, but is cultivated by those who wish to sow division. As historian Eric Williams has argued, “Slavery was not born of racism—rather racism was the consequence of slavery”.
As the slave trade grew into Britain’s first great capitalist enterprise, the rich were worried by the possibility of unity among those at the bottom of society.
Almost all of the 10,000 black people in Britain had arrived as slaves—but many were now straining to be free.
Slave owners feared that those who escaped their clutches would have “the mob on their side”. The mob were the indigenous porters, labourers and mechanics who allied themselves with others who suffered under the heels of the rich.
These people made it “not only difficult but dangerous” for slave owners to try and reclaim their escaped “property”. This is an early—but hardly isolated—example of how the poor challenged racism. But it was not uncontested or simple.
During the 18th century, London’s authorities managed to keep black people out of skilled trades. One court declared, “No negroes or other blacks be suffered to be bound apprentices at any companies of the city.”
Britain’s first colour bar had been introduced and it resulted in black people being forced to work as servants.
But the move would soon lead to resistance. Magistrate Sir John Fielding complained in 1768 about free blacks who “enter into societies and make it their business to corrupt and dissatisfy the mind of every fresh black servant that comes to England.”
The heroism of black people who fought for their own liberation both by escaping and through slave rebellions in the West Indies inspired the emerging working class in Britain.
This was expressed in what were known as corresponding societies—where people came together to share radical ideas—and through meetings of religious non-conformists like the radical Quakers.
In 1788 alone, over 100 petitions against the slave trade reached parliament, many from new industrial cities like Manchester.
Even cities like Bristol, that had prospered on the back of the slave trade, sent petitions.
This was the time of the American and French revolutions, so Britain’s rulers could very well see why this was a threat to them. One earl stated in 1793, “What does abolition of the slave trade mean more or less in effect than liberty and equality?”
After the trade was abolished, black people continued to play a central role in Britain’s radical life. When the world’s first mass workers’ movement sprang up it was hardly surprising that its national leader was Irish and its leader in London was William Cuffay, a black tailor.
The rich despised the Chartists and were doubly threatened by Cuffay. The Times sneeringly described them as, “The black man and his party.”
The ruling class pushed racism throughout the 19th century, first against black people, the Irish and later the Jews. Their ideas were widely adopted in popular culture. The attitude to non‑whites in the late 19th century was shaped both by their relative absence and the growth of the British Empire.
Colonial subjects were depicted in comic papers and in popular stories as a childlike burden, while whites were shown as “superior”.
The terrible consequences of anti‑black racism became apparent in Britain at the end of the First World War. With the end of the fighting came an economic crisis and rising unemployment.
Black sailors who had come to work in war industries were attacked in a series of riots in port cities in 1919.
In Liverpool two white sailors stabbed a West Indian in the face because he refused to give them a cigarette. The police responded by joining a racist rampage.
They raided a row of lodging houses with black occupants while an enraged lynch mob gathered outside. Charles Wootton, a 24-year-old black ship’s fireman, ran out and was pursued by a crowd of around 300.
They caught him at King’s Dock. A screaming Wootton was hurled into the waters and pelted with bricks as he tried to swim.
Eventually his battered corpse was dragged out. Over the next three days, white mobs up to 10,000-strong ruled Liverpool’s streets, attacking any black people they saw.
But the post-war period was also one of class polarisation and the growth of radicalism. One of Britain’s first Communist MPs was Indian Shapurji Saklatvala. He was MP for North Battersea, a poor district in south London, in 1922.
When, at an election meeting, one of his opponents argued that “the electorate have an instinctive preference for an Englishman” he was howled down by his audience with cries of “shame”.
The question of workers’ unity returned with a vengeance after the Second World War, when Britain’s rulers encouraged large numbers of black and Asian workers to fill the post-war economy’s desperate need for labour.
This was a time of generally improving living standards and active trade unionism. But in the 1950s unions were not generally at the forefront of fighting racism—indeed there were cases of union branches demanding quotas for the number of black workers allowed on a shift.
For instance in 1955 the TGWU union insisted that no more than 52 of Wolverhampton’s 900 bus workers should be black.
It was experiences outside the workplace that began to shift the situation. In 1958 black people were attacked in racist riots in Nottingham and London.
They fought back, aided by white people in the area who they knew.
In May 1959, Kelso Cochrane, a 32‑year‑old carpenter from Antigua, was killed by a group of white youths in west London’s Notting Hill. It became a turning point. More than 1,200 people, both black and white, attended Cochrane’s funeral.
Black and Asian workers joined unions in their workplaces, but often had to fight the union machine to win equal pay and rights. A series of bitter disputes, including Woolf’s in Southall in 1966, increased their militancy.
There was now a serious battle inside the British working class movement—between those who saw black workers as competitors and enemies, and those who saw them as allies.
When Tory MP Enoch Powell made his anti-immigrant “Rivers of Blood” speech in 1968 some workers struck to support him. But during the 1970s, as workers became more combative, this racism was pushed back.
The spirit of anti-racism was central to challenging the fascist National Front on the streets in the 1970s and breaking down prejudice.
And workers’ unity was also crucial to the battles against the BNP in east London in the 1990s when Derek Beackon won the BNP’s first ever council seat.
The TUC’s Unite Against Racism demonstration in March 1994 saw over 40,000 people march through Tower Hamlets.
It was an important part of the campaign that drove Beackon out.
Today’s recession poses new challenges. Anti-racism cannot be taken for granted—it must be well guarded and fought for anew.
The forthcoming national demonstration against racism is a chance to do just that.
National protest against racism, fascism and Islamophobia: Saturday 6 November, 12 noon, Malet Street, London. Go to www.uaf.org.uk
Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain: Black People in Britain Since 1504 by Peter Fryer
Published by Pluto Press, £19.99
Available from Bookmarks bookshop,
Phone 020 7637 1848