A unique project tells the tale of how militant anti-racists in the 1970s helped create the multicultural London now taken for granted.
1976-7 was the pivotal year in the annals of British anti-racism. There was the vilification in the press of Asians fleeing Malawi, the murder of Gurdip Singh Chaggar in the heart of Southall, the electoral rise of the National Front. But there were also unique fight-backs: the Grunwick strike, led by Asian women from East Africa; the creation of the first Asian youth movement; the riots against the police at Notting Hill with its echoes of Soweto; the confrontation against fascists and police at Lewisham; the birth of Rock Against Racism.
It was the events of the late 1970s, too, which led to the creation of Southall Monitoring Group (SMG), now known as The Monitoring Group, involved in this unique project to recall the importance of those struggles and record the voices of political activists on whose shoulders a new generation of BAME campaigners now stand. ‘There have been various heritage projects which have told aspects of the different events’, the project explains, ‘but no project has linked the series of events into a cohesive narrative … there is an overwhelming demand by people from the earlier generations of migrants to emphasise how different communities worked together in the past. Many of the individuals who were activist in 1976 are now much older, and their stories have never been told, and their contribution to building the modern multicultural London is mostly unacknowledged. This project provided an opportunity to document their stories.’ This is a telling of ‘history from below’ and telling it like it was.
The project ‘curated ‘by veterans Suresh Grover and Jagdish Patel has many facets: exhibitions, schools packs, a website and now a huge 218-page book entitled, Coming of Age: 1976 and the road to anti-racism, which brings together a unique and wide-ranging collection of writings, interviews, photos, timelines of key moments and newspaper cuttings that breathe life into the anti-racist resistance story of the last century.
1976 was the year that instances of the many forms of black struggle against racism came together – sometimes one after the other, sometimes simultaneously. It was the year that black anti-racism inspired and gave a lead to white anti-racists on many fronts: racist attacks and murders, fascist violence, racist immigration laws, black worker strikes, police harassment, press incitement to racism, the struggle against apartheid, to name but a few. And significantly this book makes such connections all the way through, linking struggles of early migrant seaport settlers to those of the post-war generation, those of Asian communities to those of West Indian’s, women’s with men’s, the anti-racist and the anti-imperialist, the streets with the town halls, the arts with their communities.
But 1976 has to have historical context. This complex set of stories is prefaced by an in-depth look at struggles in the first half of the twentieth century, with two long narratives − one by Jacqueline Jenkinson on the little known story of riots and resistance to racism in South Shields in 1919 and second, A. Sivanandan’s seminal From resistance to rebellion: the struggles of Asian and Afro-Caribbean struggles in Britain (1982). Pieces by Claudia Jones and Gus John complement historical accounts of the resistance and rebellion of the quarter century before 1976.
Thus we are made ready for the stories in Part 2 from the 1976 protagonists. Through a series of (then and now) interviews and articles by a selection of African Caribbean, Asian and Black British activists in the mid 1970s, differing assessments and accounts of struggles over the years are offered. We hear from the late Vishnu Sharma (of the Indian Workers’ Association), Karamjit Chaggar (brother of Gurdip), Suresh Grover (founder of SMG), Avtar Brah (a founder amongst other things of Southall Black Sisters), Balraj Purewal (founder of Southall Youth Movement), Laxmiben Patel (of Grunwick strike), Gautam Appa (academic and activist), Stafford Scott (partaker in Notting Hill Carnival 1976 now of Tottenham Rights), Cecil Gutzmore (analysing the Carnival events), Gurinder Chadha (at the launch of Rock Against Racism).
The stories in this volume comment not just on overt political physical battles against police harassment such as at the Notting Hill Carnival of 1976, but also include literary/ cultural dimensions of struggle such as the founding of New Beacon Books and the Caribbean Artists Movement. The Indian Workers’ Association (IWA) activity around the Grunwick strike is connected to the struggles in India by Gautam Appa and to fighting discriminatory immigration controls by Vishnu Sharma. Essentially the ‘Coming of Age’, recounted and illustrated so graphically here, is the history of how first- and second-generation post-war ‘immigrants’, through a mosaic of struggles, forged what Sivanandan has termed ‘Communities of Resistance’ and made black a political colour.
With endnotes, including bibliography, timeline, and lists of racist murders and industrial disputes 1965-75, this hefty volume in itself provides an important archive to inspire future generations.