A stalwart of Black struggle in Britain, John La Rose, has died. As a writer, publisher and political organiser, his contribution to the development of Black cultural expression in the UK cannot be rivalled.
It is with great sadness that the staff of the Institute of Race Relations heard the news of John’s death on 28 February from a heart attack. As a member of IRR’s Council, and its Chairman in the early 1970s, he helped to guide the organisation during a particularly turbulent time in its history; its transformation from an establishment body into a radical think-tank.
John was born in Trinidad in 1927 and, after leaving school, became involved in the work of radical political, trade union and cultural organisations. Having joined a Marxist study group, he became an active member of the Federated Workers Trade Union and held meetings throughout the oil belt of southern Trinidad. In 1952 the FWTU, joined by other radicals, formed the West Indian Independence Party and John was appointed its General Secretary- contesting a seat in Arima, his home town, in the 1956 elections. In 1958 he left Trinidad for Venezuela, where he worked as a teacher and in 1961 left for Britain.
In 1966 John founded New Beacon Books, a bookshop, publishing house and international book service, (which, despite the demise of so many alternative bookshops in the UK, uniquely, remains to this day). The same year he also helped to found the Caribbean Artists Movement, which was to launch the careers of many of the greatest of West Indian artists, writers and film-makers. During the 1960s, John became concerned about the poor education Black children were receiving in school and ran from his home the George Padmore supplementary school which went on, in 1975, to expand into a Black Parents’ Movement. There was hardly an important Black issue that John was not involved in, agitating over or bringing to public notice. His achievements read like a potted history of Black struggle itself. For example, in 1973 he made a short film on the Mangrove trial, in 1981 he joined the New Cross Massacre Action Committee, in 1990 he co-founded the European Action for Racial Equality and Justice.
But John’s greatest contribution was probably the unique Black book fairs from 1982 to 1995. The International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books, of which New Beacon was a central co-organiser, would rock London’s cultural world for three or four days each year, attracting audiences from Europe and farther afield. For these events, run in inner-London town halls with volunteer staff from bookshops and black organisations, did exactly what their description said. Contributors to the fairs’ many public events of discussion, talks, films shows, plays, poetry, dance, were not just Black, but also Asian, not just First World, but also Third. And the politics was never narrowly nationalist, but invariably incorporated a socialist perspective.
In 1991, realising how important it was to record and chart the Black history that he and others had made in Britain, John, with Sarah White (his partner of over thirty-five years), founded the George Padmore Institute to act as an archive and education centre. And it is, no doubt, through its activities that the dynamism and commitment enshrined in his life’s work will live on.
John gave of himself unstintingly. He was one of the most incorruptible of men. With his intellect, range of contacts, skills as an orator and gentle, easy-going style, he could have carved out a niche for himself anywhere – in the media, in academia, as ‘a spokesman’ or a cultural critic. But he was interested not in status or position, but service. And that’s his legacy to us all.