Fifty years ago a campaign on Bristol buses struck a major blow against racism. Paul Stephenson kicked off a boycott of Bristol buses because Bristol Omnibus Company bosses refused to hire black people as bus drivers or conductors. They did so even though they were short of workers. And the local Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) backed them up.
Paul said, “Fifty years ago if you were a person of colour you couldn’t become a policeman, a firefighter, a senior teacher, a landlord, a head teacher. You could become a cleaner. Black people were seen as below white people.”
Paul was inspired by Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott in Alabama in the US. He led a group of young black people to expose what was happening. Paul organised a boycott of Bristol’s buses until the ban on hiring black workers was scrapped.
Students organised a march through the city, past the bus station to Transport House. One priest said at the beginning that it was only “Christians or communists” who opposed the ban. But campaigners got support from much of the black and white population of Bristol—and within four months the company backed down.
Paul said, “When I moved to Bristol it was a different game. There was a clear feeling that black people were inferior. I was aware that racism wasn’t new to the city. It had been a city of slavery. Half a million Africans were shipped as slaves across the Atlantic in Bristol ships. Bristol has a special duty to stand up against fascism and racism.”
About 3,000 West Indians lived in Bristol in the early 1960s. The colour bar was quite legal at the time. But the bus boycott won a promise from Labour leader Harold Wilson to make racial discrimination illegal if Labour was elected.
In 1955 bus crews in the Bristol TGWU reportedly passed a motion calling for no black workers on buses. The other part of the union branch, maintenance, voted the other way, and black workers were employed in the garages.
Racism on the buses in Bristol was worse than in many other cities because it was the only major city in Britain not to have a nationalised service. This meant that bus crews had suffered a relative decline in wages since the war. More than half their wages came from overtime.
Workers did split shifts—one conductor reported working days of 6.30am to 9am, 11.45am-2pm and 3.30pm-6pm. With these conditions the company had a very high turnover and a constant labour shortage. It employed 2,000 people with a turnover of 600 a year.
White bus crews at the time took a racist position rather than looking to the union’s strength to defend them. One said, “When old Beeching [the chairman of British Railways] drops his axe there won’t be enough work for the white people, let alone the blacks. We’ve got to look after our own people.”
Other crew members accepted crude racist stereotypes. One woman conductor said, “I wouldn’t like to work with them at night”. The colour bar became a national embarrassment for the TGWU. Its regional secretary, Ron Nethercott, later denied the union had ever supported it.
Paul said, “Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement inspired me. I thought, what is happening in England? Racism is on the march. It will not be defeated unless we defeat it. We owe it to our children and grandchildren that they will not have to live in a society where human beings are treated like trash.
“I was born and bred in Britain. I lived in London. As a young child during the war, I was evacuated to the Essex countryside. I never saw another black person. My mother would come down and see me. People found it strange to see a black woman in army uniform.
“After the war I lived in Newham in east London. I was the only black child in my school throughout my education. We have an enormous duty to bear on what happens to our own children. What’s happening in Greece now is frightening. Anyone who said racism and fascism don’t exist any longer has another thing coming.”
On 28 August 1963 Martin Luther King gave his “I have a dream” speech in Washington. The bus company finally gave in that same day—and scrapped the colour bar on Bristol buses.
‘The two o’clock is here, but he’s black’ —‘Tell him all vacancies are filled’
‘As a young teenager I attended the Boy’s Brigade. Then I started a youth club next door to that. Paul Stephenson was a youth coordinator, employed by the authorities to work with young black boys and girls.
He wanted to run an educational programme to help young people, with English, maths and so on. He started evening classes at the youth club. I got to know him really well. He was a vibrant young man.
He was aware of the colour situation and challenging the colour bar. There were so many places we couldn’t go. We couldn’t go to the pub. The only place we could really go to was local churches.
I wasn’t yet 18, but in those days you would be employed at 16 or 17, though you had to be 21 to get a man’s pay. They were always advertising for bus drivers, conductors and that sort of thing.
Paul thought we could challenge the bus company. So we applied. He arranged the appointment. On the day we rang up an hour before the interview to confirm. I remember it specifically, it was for 2pm at the bus company.
I turned up dressed in my blazer and a nice tie and shirt. The receptionist looked a bit surprised and said, ‘Can I help you?’. I said I was here for the interview and she said, ‘No, we’re expecting a Mr Guy Bailey.’ I said that was me.
She called through to the manager and said, ‘The two o’clock is here, but he’s black.’ I heard him say back, ‘Tell him all vacancies are filled.’ So it kicked off from there. Later that manager said to me that it wasn’t about how suitable I was, but that if he employed me he would be displeasing his bus crews.
I went back and told Paul. He was really mad about this. We met up that evening to decide what to do. I remember him pacing up and down in the classroom.
We went down to see the big boss at the bus company the day after, but he almost physically threw Paul out. So we went down to the TGWU offices. We thought the union had to support us, because we were members.
“The regional secretary at the time was Ron Nethercott. I’ll never forget his long moustache! He decided to support the bus company. So we started the boycott. Tony Benn was MP for the ward we all lived in and he was shadow transport minister. We met him, and he gave us support and helped us organise.
In the end we won because the colour bar was draconian conservatism. The barrier had to be broken. And we went on protests, through the media and organising locally. We marched. Students from the university supported us big time.
It took about four months before they backed down and employed the first black bus driver, Mr Singh. It’s much easier to raise these issues now, though sadly racism is still very much with us.”
‘I got people to block the road’
‘I came to Somerset to help build Hinkley Point power station. The road that runs behind this centre is Ashley Road. It has big old houses with big doorways. On my first night in Bristol I had to sleep in one of them because no one would rent me a room.
After that I did find a place to rent further down the street on Lower Ashley Road. We had to share. One family there was a mother, father and four kids in one room. I shared with my cousin. He’d been here since he was demobbed from the RAF.
He went to the London School of Economics and trained as an accountant, but no one would give him work. In the end he went back to Jamaica. We formed the Commonwealth Coordinated Committee, the CCC. We wanted to do something about the area we lived in. We read that we lived in a ghetto, but it wasn’t we who made it like that. So we organised the CCC to do something about it.
At first we met in people’s front rooms. We drank fish tea soup and listened to calypso and discussed what to do. The CCC ran the boycott. I was a shift worker, so I had time to go round and organise. I couldn’t do anything where I might end up in front of a camera, because the firm I worked for might see my face.
So I stayed in the background. I got people to go into the road to block the buses. We used to stop them as they had to go through a one way street. We had a lot of help from white people. There were students and a lot of women. They’d drop the kids at school then come and chat to us.”
Around 100 people attended the meeting to commemorate 50 years since the Bristol bus boycott on Thursday of last week. The meeting also marked the republishing of the pamphlet Black and White on the Buses by Madge Dresser.
Madge explained how she came to write the history of the boycott. She said, “I think people reading it now will be surprised just how overt racism was in the 1960s. I was born in Los Angeles. My university tutor was Angela Davis. So when I came to Bristol in 1972 and heard people talking about ‘darkies’, I couldn’t believe it. When I was writing in the 1980s the trade unions didn’t want to discuss the boycott. But, I felt the story needed to be told.”
The pamphlet is available from Bookmarks bookshop, 1 Bloomsbury Street, London WC1B 3QE Phone 020 7637 1848