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The Bristol Bus Boycott of 1963

Plague depicting key moments in bristol bus boycott of 1963 - protests, the five men behind the boycott (Stephenson, Bailey, Hackett, Evans, Henry and Prince Brown), and the first non-white bus crew hired Raghbir Singhhn
Bristol Bus Boycott 1963 plaque

Bristol in the early 1960s had an estimated 3,000 residents of West Indian origin, some of whom had served in the British military during the Second World War and some who had emigrated to the UK more recently.

In common with other British cities, there was widespread racial discrimination in housing and employment at that time against Black and Asian people.

Despite a reported labour shortage on the buses. Black and Asian people were only offered employment in lower paid positions in workshops and canteens. Because the Bristol Omnibus Company operated a colour bar that prevented Black and Asian people from working as bus crews.

Four young West Indian men, Roy Hackett, Owen Henry, Audley Evans and Prince Brown, formed a campaigning group, later to be called the West Indian Development Council to fight the blatant discrimination.

This new West Indian Development Council (WIDC) soon joined forces with Paul Stephenson, Bristol’s first youth officer.

Stephenson set up a test case to prove the colour bar existed by arranging an interview with the bus company for Guy Bailey, a well-qualified and well-spoken young man for the role of a bus conductor. But when the bus company realised realised that Bailey was a Black Jamaican, the interview was cancelled, and the boycott began.

Taking inspiration from Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott in the US the WIDC organised their own bus boycott. They organised a local press conference and announced their boycott of the Bristol buses on 29th April 1963. the next day, no Caribbeans used the buses. They organised pickets of bus depots and routes, along with blockades and sit-down protests on routes throughout the city centre.

There cause was further bolster by Bristol University students who organised a protest march to the bus station and the local headquarters of the local TGWU and they were heckled by passing bus crews according to the local press.

Local newspaper, The Bristol Evening Post criticised the TGWU for not countering racism in their own ranks while opposing the apartheid system in South Africa. While former councillor and Alderman Henry Hennessey spoke of collusion between the bus company and the TGWU over the colour bar, and was threatened with expulsion from his local Labour group as a result.

The boycott soon attracted national and international attention. An array of big names entered the fray including the left wing MP Fenner Brockway and local Labour MP Tony Benn. The latter, contacted the then Labour Opposition leader Harold Wilson (later Prime Minister), who spoke out against the colour bar at an Anti-Apartheid Movement rally in London.

Learie Constantine, the High Commissioner for Trinidad and Tobago, also lent his support the campaign. He wrote letters to the bus company and Stephenson, and spoke out against the colour bar to reporters when he attended the cricket match between the West Indies and Gloucestershire at the County Ground, which took place from 4th to 7th May. The West Indies team refused to publicly support the boycott, saying that sport and politics did not mix. During the game, local members of the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination (CARD) distributed leaflets urging spectators to support the boycott.

The local branch of the TGWU refused to meet with a delegation from the West Indian Development Council and an increasingly bitter war of words was fought out in the local media. Ron Nethercott, South West Regional Secretary of the union, persuaded a local Black TGWU member, Bill Smith, to sign a statement which called for quiet negotiation to solve the dispute. It condemned Stephenson for causing potential harm to the city's Black and Asian population. Nethercott launched an attack on Stephenson in the Daily Herald newspaper, calling him dishonest and irresponsible. This led to a libel case in the High Court, which awarded Stephenson damages and costs in December 1963.

The union, the city Labour establishment and the Bishop of Bristol, Oliver Stratford Tomkins, ignored Stephenson and tried to work with Bill Smith of the TGWU to resolve the dispute.

Meanwhile, Learie Constantine continued to support the campaign, meeting with the Lord Mayor of Bristol, and Frank Cousins, leader of the Transport and General Workers Union. He went to the Bristol Omnibus Company's parent, the Transport Holding Company and persuaded them to send officials to talk with the union. The company chairman told Constantine that racial discrimination was not company policy.

Negotiations between the bus company and the union continued for several months until a mass meeting of 500 bus workers agreed on 27 August to end the colour bar.

On 28 August 1963, Ian Patey announced that there would be no more discrimination in employing bus crews. It was on the same day that Martin Luther King made his famous "I Have a Dream" speech at the March in Washington. On 17 September, Raghbir Singh, a Sikh, became Bristol's first non-White bus conductor. A few days later two Jamaican and two Pakistani men joined him.

In 1965, the UK parliament passed a Race Relations Act, which made 'racial discrimination unlawful in public places'. This was later followed by the Race Relations Act 1968 which extended the provisions to housing and employment. It's clear that the Bristol Bus Boycott paved the way for these Race Relations Acts.

Fenner Brockway had tried to introduce a bill to stop racial discrimination several times between 1956 and 1964. But it was the nationwide profile of the Bristol Bus Boycott which helped get Britain's first racial discrimination law to be finally legislated. Without it, Harold Wilson's Labour government would have struggled to get the bill passed. The Boycott showed that racism didn't just exist over there in the States, but in Britain too.

The bravery and the steadfastness of these men remained forgotten outside of Bristol until the early 2000s. In 2009, Paul Stephenson, Guy Bailey, and Roy Hackett were awarded OBEs for their part in organizing the boycott. Over a decade later, they were honoured with a plaque in the Bristol Bus station in 2014. In February 2013, Unite, the successor to the Transport and General Workers Union, issued an apology saying their stance at the time was "completely unacceptable".

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