Socialist Worker

Checking racism out of the library - an experiment in activism

by Ken Olende
Issue No. 2449

East London in 1977

East London in 1977 (Pic: Socialist Worker archive)

“A storm of angry shouts and jeers brought Hackney Council’s monthly meeting to an abrupt end on Wednesday night when frenzied demonstrators invaded the public gallery,” the London borough’s local paper reported in September 1981.

The protesters were rightly angry at the lack of provision for black people in local libraries. 

“They claimed that the council only spends 1 percent of its annual book budget on reading matter concerning ethnic minorities,” the article continued. 

This campaign was one of many local grassroots protests against racism at the time that led to changes in policy. 

In this case over time the council’s policy would change and one of the libraries in the area would also be renamed after the black Marxist revolutionary Cyril Lionel Robert James—always known as CLR James or Nello.

A new book, Celebrating CLR James in Hackney, recalls the campaign and reprints documents and interviews. It reprints a speech James gave in the borough.

The campaign did not spring out of the blue. Hackney had long suffered from racism. The fascist National Front set up its headquarters in the borough. And the local police were notorious. 

The book describes how in 1977 “60 percent of arrests under the ‘sus’ laws in Hackney were of black people, even though only 11 percent of Hackney’s population was black”. 

Trevor Carter, a black Trinidadian activist in the area at the time, described “the unconscious but nevertheless systematic exclusion of black people’s presence in the area of social provision.”


Lively grassroots campaigns challenged all this. As an experiment some activists went round the borough’s libraries in 1981 asking for black studies materials such as books on the great black American singer and activist Paul Robeson. 

Not only did they find hardly any, but when they complained to the council the were met with indifference. They were told there was “no money to purchase materials of this kind.” 

As the local Hackney Gazette reported, “They were also complaining that only 2 percent of the council’s library employees are from ethnic communities and there are still many racist books in the borough’s libraries”.

It was the council’s indifference that made them switch to militant action. 

The disruption of council meetings took place because they could not get their delegation heard any other way. 

In local elections the following year more radical parts of the Labour Party came to control the council. The new “left” council appointed Kenyan-born Dan Thea as race relations advisor.

Hackney Council’s Anti-Racist Year was part of a broader initiative by the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone.

Much of it was symbolic. One council block was renamed Nelson Mandela House. And a council building was renamed after Maurice Bishop, who had led a left wing takeover of Grenada in the Caribbean.

It was a shortlived movement. By the end of the decade the activists were divided over whether to maintain a “dented shield” as a Labour council imposing Tory cuts or to break the law.

But as the book says, in a time of heightened Islamophobia and abuse of migrants “the idea of local councils helping organise ‘anti-racist years’ and similar campaigns would be one powerful antidote to help counter the poisonous rise of racist populism.”

Celebrating CLR James in Hackney, edited by Gaverne Bennett and Christian Hogsbjerg, £7, Redwords

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Tue 14 Apr 2015, 16:52 BST
Issue No. 2449
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