Socialist Worker

Olive Morris—a tragically short life dedicated to struggle

Issue No. 2723

Olive Morris

Olive Morris (Pic: London Borough of Lambeth, Archives Department)


Teenager Olive Morris was hanging out at Desmond’s Hip City record shop in Brixton, south London, on a Saturday afternoon in November 1969 when it happened.

Outside the shop, the police pulled over a Nigerian diplomat who was driving a Mercedes. They accused him of stealing the car and refused to believe his explanation that it belonged to his embassy.

When the officers arrested him, the diplomat resisted and soon there was a fight involving a collection of bystanders. 

Morris was one of those who waded in to protect the man from being beaten by cops.

She wore her hair short and some described her as being “dressed as a man”. 

The police who arrested the Jamaican-born 17 year old said they didn’t believe she was a woman and at the station forced her to strip. They then beat her and threatened to rape her with a truncheon.

After release, Morris’s brother Basil said he “could hardly recognise her face, they beat her so badly.” 

Such trauma would fill most with fear and drive them away from political activity, but Morris used the experience as a source of anger. 

A few months later she joined the American-inspired Black Panther Movement. The small group were committed to fighting state racism, and using physical force when necessary. 

But they were also engaged in education and welfare projects.

The Movement was committed to the idea of “Political Blackness”, and their leaders were made up of people of both African-Caribbean and Asian origins. Most saw ­themselves as part of the broader radical left.

When Marxist writer John Berger won the 1972 Booker Prize he donated half of his award to the organisation so that it could set up a headquarters in Brixton.

Morris dedicated her life to a succession of groups and projects. 

While doing a variety of office temp jobs she set up the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent, and also took up the question of housing— a key battleground for black people at that time.

Fire

In 1972 she led a demonstration to the local housing department after two black children were killed by fire in an unsafe council flat. 

As the police moved in to arrest, child protesters pushed their way into the office and sat down.

The council’s housing boss was forced to come down to address the protest and promised new central ­heating would be installed.

As squatting empty property became a key part of the housing struggle Morris became a recognised leader. 

She even featured on the cover of a “how to” pamphlet entering an abandoned house by its upper windows.

The dominant politics of black liberation at that time were of the left, but also critical of it.

Most Black Panther activists believed that black people needed their own organisations and that the needs of black working class people were different from those of whites. 

But ever-growing struggles against the racist police and the fascist National Front in the late 1970s presented a problem. To win, a broader unity was required, and that meant fighting alongside white anti-racists.

For Morris though, those questions had become ­somewhat distant. 

In 1978 she was diagnosed with cancer and died the following year at the impossibly young age of 27.

This is part of a series about radical black lives Go to bit.ly/SWBlackLives

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