The National Front (NF) tried to march through Clifton Rise in Lewisham, where many black people lived, on 13 August 1977. They were feeding off a broader climate of racism.
Earlier that year police had arrested dozens of young black people in Deptford, Lewisham, and charged several with conspiracy to steal. When the Lewisham 21 defence campaign protested, the Nazis attacked it.
The NF claimed to be marching against “black crime” as politicians and the press whipped up a racist scare around “mugging”.
John Lockwood was on the committee of the All Lewisham Campaign Against Racism and Fascism in 1977 and a Socialist Workers Party (SWP) member. John explained that at the time “it felt like the media, the police and the fascists were all attacking black people”.
People organised to push the fascists back despite opposition from much of the left. John said, “For years we’d been opposing the Nazis, kind of marching alongside them and shouting at them. But in April 1977 a bunch of young black boys lashed a load of shoes from a shop into an NF march in north London. It produced mayhem.
“It was clear from that moment that, with greater audacity and double the numbers, we could move from opposing the Nazis to physically stopping them. So that became our objective.”
Paul Holborow was the east London organiser of the SWP in 1977. “Lewisham was an absolute provocation by the NF,” he told Socialist Worker. “It was a culmination of around five years of activity against them. The International Socialists, the forerunner of the SWP, was always at the centre of that activity.”
Harold Wilson was a schoolboy in Lewisham at the time. “I will never forget the atmosphere at school the Friday before the march,” he told a meeting at Marxism Festival 2017.
“Black people were incensed that they should dare to march through Clifton Rise.”
Maeve Landman was teaching in Lewisham. “There was a high percentage of black kids at the school,” she told Socialist Worker.
“I was outraged that the NF could come to where they lived and demonstrate their racist filth. It was like someone shitting on my doorstep.”
Harold said a previous attack by Nazis on a Lewisham 21 protest had hardened up a determination to resist. “They threw acid on one girl, they broke the arm of another girl,” he said. “After that there was no turning back.”
But not everyone saw the need to confront the Nazis. “The Communist Party (CP) wanted to oppose the fascists from the other side of the borough,” John explained.
“We spent six months arguing that it was essential to be alongside black people in Clifton Rise. They called us adventurists. The local CP referred to us as the ‘bring a bottle’ party. But increasingly the SWP was taken seriously by black people.”
On the day a compromise position saw a big meeting at Ladywell Fields, about two miles from Clifton Rise. After speeches a march was supposed to disassemble halfway to Clifton Rise.
SWP members leafleted the march and argued that it should continue to join other protesters at Clifton Rise. “There were about 4-5,000 people on the march in the morning,” said John. “And the vast majority came to Clifton Rise.”
A Communist Party leaflet read, “We totally oppose the provocative march planned by the SWP.” Yet many CP members joined it.
Mounted cops led the NF march. Maeve said, “Police protected the Nazis. It was a heavily charged day and at times it was frightening. But I was amazed to see so many black people on a demonstration. And when the Nazis got to Clifton Rise all hell broke loose.”
Police used riot shields for the first time in Britain. Maeve described how one officer threatened to do her harm “if he wasn’t wearing his uniform”. “They were particularly aggressive,” she said.
But police failed to stop anti-fascists breaking through police lines and cutting the Nazi march in half.
Paul recalled, “The Nazis started marching confidently down Clifton Rise. The air became darkened with missiles thrown at them—fences, gates, dustbins and so on.
“And suddenly the Nazis were scurrying from doorway to doorway to avoid the missiles. Their march was broken up.”
The protest forced the NF to flee and the impact was enormous. “People felt absolutely elated,” said Paul. “It was the first time since Cable Street in 1936 that we’d given the Nazis a bloody good hiding.”
Maeve said, “Lewisham gave enormous confidence to people like me, who were close to the movement but not then heavily involved.
“I think Lewisham was the entry point for me into activism. It ultimately drew me into the SWP. It was also a sharp reminder of what the stakes were if you didn’t get organised.”
The success wasn’t automatic, or easy. The NF was not some tiny, irrelevant group. Earlier that year it had won over 119,000 votes in the Greater London Council elections, beating the Liberals for third place in 33 seats. It had branches in some workplaces. There was a spate of racist attacks.
But Lewisham marked a turning point. Paul recalled, “I went into the SWP headquarters on the Monday after the protest. The phones never stopped ringing.
“People said, ‘We don’t agree with all your politics, but we need a broad, mass campaign against the Nazis’. We responded to that.
“The legacy of Lewisham was the Anti Nazi League (ANL). It meant a generation of anti-racists and anti-fascists was committed to preventing the Nazis from entering the mainstream.”
This united front was key to destroying the Nazis’ support. As former NF organiser Martin Webster admitted, “The sheer presence of the ANL had made it impossible to get NF members on the streets, had dashed recruitment and cut away at their vote.”
The Battle of Lewisham should be celebrated. Yet some denounced it.
Police rioted in Lewisham after the protest, beating and arresting anti-fascists (see below). The Times newspaper wrote, “The blame for Saturday’s violence must be laid squarely with the Socialist Workers Party.”
The Daily Mirror newspaper said the SWP was “as bad as the National Front” while West Midlands Labour Party organiser Bob Chamberlain dismissed the SWP as “red fascists”.
David Foster’s son had been one of the Lewisham 21. He told Socialist Worker at the time, “If the NF had been allowed to march, there would have been much more violence.
“I don’t agree with everything the Socialist Workers Party says, but they were the only organisation to stand up for the rights of black people here.”
Fortunately the vitriol failed to discourage people from organising against the Nazis. Paul said, “We were attacked in the mainstream media and by the Labour Party leadership.
“But many more people knew the importance of what we had done on that weekend.”
John said, “They failed to get through, the Nazis were stopped. And that year if not that day, we turned the course of history.”
John Lockwood was the only protester jailed as a result of the Battle of Lewisham. He’s still an active socialist today but was just 26 years old and a newly qualified teacher at the time.
He spoke to Socialist Worker about the experience and the lengths the state went to criminalise anti-fascists.
“The Nazis had been sent away because the police conceded that they couldn’t break through. We’d held the ground at the Clock Tower for about two hours. The police then rioted against local people.
“They ran me over with a motorcycle, arrested me and put me in a riot van. They spent several minutes climbing on the seats in the van and trying to jump onto my head. They were intent on doing as much damage as they possibly could.
“They broke the bones in my hand as I tried to defend myself and I was charged with assault of an unknown member of the Metropolitan Police force.
“They never named or produced this officer. And in court we proved that no such incident had occurred. The whole thing was fabricated. But I was charged under public order legislation which was introduced allegedly to fight fascism in the 1930s. It meant I didn’t have the right to a jury trial. So I was tried by a judge and two magistrates.
“Prior to the cases coming up, there was a conference of magistrates. They were told in no uncertain terms that the SWP was responsible for violence at Lewisham. They were told the SWP was a criminal organisation and needed to be dealt with very harshly.
“I was in jail for three months. Two fascist screws came to see me and implied they would do me harm. I was very, very intimidated by this.
“Deptford SWP branch worked night and day to try and support me. They got Lewisham MP Chris Price to meet me in prison. That was extremely helpful because it meant the Nazi screws had to back off.
“I’d been in the SWP for four years and this was a baptism of fire. I was unable to speak about it for about ten years. It was absolutely devastating. I thought I was going to die in prison. It was very, very grim.
“When I got out I was banned from teaching. An SWP member on my union’s executive committee negotiated a deal whereby I could teach north of the river. I’m still banned from teaching south of the river Thames.
“I managed to find work but right to the end of my career this never went away. It was problematic all my life.”
A series of events will take place this weekend to mark the anniversary of the Battle of Lewisham:
Supported by Unite Against Fascism andLove Music Hate Racism.
#Lewisham77Sunday 13th August. Part of a weekend of free events, including live music, talks, exhibitions and screenings commemorating the 40th anniversary of the battle against the fascist National Front in 1977.
Supported by Goldsmiths College, Lewisham Council & Love Music Hate Racism. Go to sites.gold.ac.uk/battle-of-lewisham for more details.
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