Updated: Oct 31, 2022
Black History Month UK 2022 'Sharing Journeys' campaign - exploring the lives of Britons with Caribbean heritage
John La Rose was a poet, essayist, publisher, and political activist. Described by British poet, Linton Kwesi Johnson, as a ‘beacon in the political and cultural life of Britain for 45 years.’ He was a stalwart of Black struggle in Britain who fought for social and racial justice, and the empowering of minority communities to put an end to racial oppression.
La Rose was born in Arima, Trinidad, on 27 December 1927. At nine, he won a scholarship to the prestigious St Mary’s College in Port of Spain, where he later taught before becoming an insurance executive. He later also taught in Venezuela.
Culture, politics and trade unionism were central to his vision of change. He was acutely aware of the link between cultural expression and politics of the working classes through their folk language, stories and other art forms. He was an executive member of the Youth Council in Trinidad and produced their fortnightly radio programme, Noise of Youth, for Radio Trinidad. In the mid-1950s, he co-authored, with the calypsonian Raymond Quevedo (Atilla the Hun), a pioneering study of calypso entitled Kaiso: A Review (republished in 1983 as Atilla's Kaiso).
He joined a Marxist study group; and became an active member of the Federated Workers Trade Union (FWTU) holding 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.
One of John's favourite sayings was "We didn't come alive in Britain," an allusion to the struggles that had been waged by Caribbean peoples in the Caribbean against colonialism and for workers' and people's power.
His political and anti-colonial activities in Trinidad and Venezuela - part of what he later described as his "Life Experience with Britain" outside Britain - prepared him well for the political struggles he embraced in the UK concerning education, workers' rights, publishing, policing and immigration. In 1966, he co-founded New Beacon Books, with his partner Sarah White, a specialist Caribbean publisher, bookseller and international book service. That it has stood the test of time, despite the demise of so many alternative bookshops in the UK, and remains to this day. In the same year, he also helped to found the Caribbean Artists Movement, which launched the careers of many of the greatest Caribbean artists, writers and filmmakers.
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, from 1972-73 he was chair of the Institute of Race Relations and Towards Racial Justice which published the radical campaigning journal Race Today, edited by Darcus Howe; during that time in 1973 he also made a short film on the Mangrove 9 trial; in 1981 he joined the New Cross Massacre Action Committee; and in 1990 he co-founded the European Action for Racial Equality and Justice.
John was also involved in the Black Education Movement in the 1960s, particularly in the struggle against banding, and the placing of largely Caribbean children in schools for the educationally sub-normal (ESN). He started the George Padmore Supplementary School in 1969, the first such school in London, to provide Caribbean children with a decent education. Starting with his own sons around the kitchen table, later to be joined by their friends, La Rose discovered the limitations of the content of the schooling Black children were receiving and especially the low expectations teachers had of Black children. He decided that, if Black parents did not take steps to repair the damage schools were doing to children, underachievement and a lack of belief in their own ability would come to characterise the schooling experience of Caribbean children.
He was also one of the founders of the Caribbean Education and Community Workers Association which drew national attention to the ESN crisis in 1971 by publishing Bernard Coard’s groundbreaking How the West Indian Child Is Made Educationally Sub-Normal in the British School System (1971). He was also instrumental in the founding of the National Association of Supplementary Schools in the 1980s and was its chair for a couple of years.
In his 2006 obituary, the Independent newspaper said ‘‘This groundbreaking little book propelled the development of the supplementary school movement. But successive governments continued to ignore the achievement of these schools. It was only in this Labour government's first term that the education establishment acknowledged that "Saturday" schools had been providing for years the kind of service that Tony Blair was promoting as part of his raising-achievement agenda, through homework centres, Easter colleges and the rest.’’
In 1975, he founded the Black Parents Movement after a Black schoolboy was beaten up by police outside his school in Haringey. Together with concerned parents, they campaigned against police injustice and advocated for a decent education for Black children. The Black Parents Movement later allied with the Black Youth Movement, the Black Students Movement and the journal of the Race Today Collective a breakaway from the Institute of Race Relations, which La Rose had chaired a few years earlier.
This alliance became the most powerful cultural and political movement organised by Caribbean people in Britain. It led the national response to the massacre of 13 young Black people in a fire in Deptford in January 1981. The New Cross Massacre Action Committee, chaired by La Rose, organised a Black People's Day of Action on 2 March 1981, an event that brought some 25,000 people to command the streets of London in protest. John was the chair of the action committee and gave tremendous support to the bereaved families.
John was also part of many organisations focusing on international concerns. As early as 1966, he was a founding member of the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign and a national council member of this important anti-war movement. Sixteen years later, in 1982, he helped to found Africa Solidarity, supporting the struggle against dictatorship and tyranny in Africa, and he also became Chairman of the Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners in Kenya. Alarmed by the rise of fascism and xenophobia in 80s Europe, he helped to found European Action for Racial Equality and Social Justice in 1989, bringing together anti-racists and anti-fascists from Belgium, Italy, France and Germany.
Perhaps, one of his greatest achievements was the International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books (1982-95), organised jointly with Bogle L'Ouverture Books and Race Today Publications. The first book fair was held at Islington Town Hall in London in March 1982, with Trinidadian historian C.L.R James giving the opening address. Bringing together publishers, writers and artists from across five continents, the fair exposed a wide range of radical black books to a huge European audience and provided a forum for sharing information about political struggles all over the world.
La Rose was a joint director with Jessica Huntley of the book fair and, after the withdrawal of Bogle L'Ouverture, its sole director. In the call to the first book fair, John wrote: "This first international book fair of radical Black and Third World books is intended to mark the new and expanding phase in the growth of the radical ideas and concepts and their expression in literature, politics, music, art and social life." The book fair was, indeed, "a meeting of the continents for writers, publishers, distributors, booksellers, artists, musicians, filmmakers, and people who inspire and consume their creative productions".
Incredibly, he also found time to edit the half-yearly journal New Beacon Review and to write essays and poems. He published two volumes of poetry, Foundations (1966) and Eyelets of Truth Within Me (1991).
In 1991, realising how important it was to record and chart the Black history that he and others had made in Britain, John, with his partner Sarah White, founded the George Padmore Institute to act as an archive, library and education research centre. In it, you’ll find materials relating to the Caribbean, African and Asian communities in Britain and continental Europe. The institute stands as a monument to another giant in the anti-colonial movement. Padmore, also from Trinidad, played a pivotal role in the influential fifth Pan-African Congress held in Manchester in 1945. It was this conference that spurred the Caribbean independence movement that so preoccupied the young John La Rose.
John La Rose died of a heart attack on the 28th February 2006. This truly remarkable man transformed the lives of Black Britons, smashing down the doors and paving the way for generations of Black Britons to walk any path they desire in life. La Rose was a renaissance man who could have been anything he wanted but as writer and poet Linton Kwesi Johnson wrote: ‘He was a man who dreamed of changing the world.’
John La Rose. (2022, July 30). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_La_Rose