Socialist Worker

How music helped beat back the fascists in 1950s London

by Tomáš Tengely-Evans
Issue No. 2583

Racist violence blew up on the streets of west London on 30 August 1958.

For five days white gangs, whipped up by fascists, attacked the African Caribbean migrant population in the Notting Hill Riots.

But out of the riots the Stars Campaign for Interracial Friendship (SCIF) was born—the first mass musical response to racism.

It came a long time before the better-known Rock Against Racism of the 1970s or Love Music Hate Racism of the 2000s.

Rick Blackman tells the SCIF’s forgotten story in his book Forty Miles of Bad Road.

“It was a group of musicians and journalists who wanted to organise and propagandise against racism,” he told Socialist Worker.

Supporters included Laurence Olivier and jazz legends Johnny Dankworth, Cleo Lane and Ronnie Scott.

“It was the first organisation to condemn the racism of the Notting Hill Riots,” said Rick.

Until 2002 the Police suppressed the racist nature of the Notting Hill Riots under the Official Secrets Act. They blamed it on the Teddy Boys teenage subculture and black migrants with a chip on their shoulder.

Organised

Rick explained, “SCIF set up multiracial clubs before anyone else and organised against fascist Oswald Mosely in the 1959 election.”

At the time signs reading “No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs” could be found in the windows of boarding houses and hotels in west London.

And a nationwide poll a few days after the riots found that 55 percent wanted restrictions on immigration and 71 percent disapproved of mixed marriages.

But SCIF had some success getting its message into the racist mainstream of 1950s Britain. It organised music nights and the What the Stars Say newspaper championed anti-racism.

In 1959 the BBC, the only national TV station at the time, ran a Panorama investigations programme on the White Defence League (WDL).

This was a fascist organisation that was born out of the Notting Hill Riots. From its headquarters in the heart of Notting Hill, the WDL spread the Black and White News newspaper. Half of the Panorama programme was given over to SCIF.

Flagship

Rick said, “You had Dankworth arguing an anti-fascist position on the BBC’s flagship programme and that was big.”

Rick argues that the riots would not have happened in the same way without fascists organising in the area.

West London epitomised the poverty of many inner city areas after the war. “All of the events in the book take place in the area which today includes Grenfell Tower,” said Rick.

“There were slum dwellings and war damage still around the area. Black people got stuck in places no one else wanted to live in so a sizeable black population had grown alongside a white population.

“All of these problems were made worse by the Tories’ 1957 Housing Act.”

Against this backdrop SCIF had varied success and wound down after Mosely was trounced in the 1959 election, partly due to its work.

SCIF’s place needs to be acknowledged in the history of fighting racism in Britain—and that’s what Rick’s book does.

Published By Redwords. £6.99

Available from Bookmarks at bit.ly/2ixF8Ub


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