Unbeknown to many, due to the lack of research surrounding the topic of British race relations, “coloured people in Britain is labour were under a number of peculiar handicaps which vary in intensity according to circumstances and the radical characteristics of the individual involved.”The Bristol Bus Boycott of 1963 is a fitting example of this and, the transnational links between Black freedom struggles in the US and UK. It addresses the institutional racism prevalent in society at the time and highlights that, despite mainstream media and research suggesting most of the issues occurred in America, Black people in the United Kingdom were also facing discrimination in their everyday lives. The Bristol Bus Boycott was a monumental turning point in the British Civil Rights Movement and emphasised that Britain had its own movement, despite being inspired by events in America. This essay will explore this transnational link and argue that the cross-national diffusion of the American Civil Rights Movement motivated the Bristol Bus Boycott and led to the Race Relations Act passing in 1965 and showing that taking ideas and adapting them is effective when solving the same problem. This will be done pragmatically by looking at the causes and consequences of the boycott, delving into the main figures involved and using a cross-national comparison to understand why there is limited knowledge of the success of this movement. By looking at publications at the time, including newspaper articles and interviews, this will help provide a deeper insight to the issues at the forefront of the boycott and the impact this has had on British society in the 1960s and thereafter.
Cross-national diffusion of social movements is an increasingly growing field of research and This idea will be applied to the American Civil Rights Movement. “When a group of people manages to induce institutional change to achieve their aims through the successful staging of a protest movement it generally convinces other groups of people to do the same. Sociologists Doug McAdam and Dieter Rucht initially related the idea of diffusion to the analysis of social movements and therefore were able to explain “the transfer of ideas of practices from one movement to another in a different country.This theory is applicable to the Civil Rights Movement as Paul Stephenson, the leader of the Bristol Bus Boycott, said himself that he was inspired by the events of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in America and in numerous interviews is quoted saying “Malcom came to my thoughts and Nelson Mandela when asked what motivated him to organise a boycott in Bristol. His inspiration can be seen through the similarities of the two boycotts and also the impact of the outcomes – in Montgomery it led to the “Supreme Court ruling that made bus segregation laws unconstitutional and in Bristol the first major legal win for race relations and discrimination, the Race Relations Act of 1965. In order to argue that cross-national diffusion is what occurred, we first need to look at the events of the boycott in detail and understand how it emulated that of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
Unsurprisingly, despite being largely documented at the time, the legacy of the Bristol Bus Boycott has been undermined in history; resulting in a plethora of primary documents to analyse but little historical research. With this, very little secondary material available on the matter and compared to America, the British Civil Rights Movement as a whole has been overlooked as a monumental turning point in our own history. In the recent years, articles have been published to try and raise awareness of the Bristol Bus Boycott and race relations in Britain however, there still stands very little secondary literature on the event as these are only produced on anniversaries or during Black History Month. The only solid piece of secondary literature available, alongside Stephenson’s own writing of course, is historian Madge Dresser’s Black and White on the Buses: The 1963 Colour Bar Dispute in Bristol, but this text will not be depended on massively when referencing as this essays focus is on primary material that requires researching in more depth. It is important to note that these issues were not confined to Bristol but spread throughout British cities. So why focus on Bristol? Besides the fact that the event was a catalyst for the passing of key legislation, Bristol is a big city of England. Dresser explains that “because of its homogeneity, Bristol had built up a self-contained image of itself which the newly arriving immigrants did not fit into and therefore uprising was arguably much more likely than in other cities, and it was large enough to set an example for other cities and of what is possible for the Black population in Britain.
So, what were the reasons behind the Bristol Bus Boycott in 1963 and who were the influential figures involved? In April 1963, a West Indian youth worker, Paul Stephenson, challenged the ‘colour bar’ imposed by the Bristol Omnibus Company against the employment of coloured workers on busses. The colour bar was essentially the “segregation of people with regard to race.This led to the campaign against the Bus Company and the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) which lasted until August 1963. It started when Guy Bailey, a 19-year-old Jamaican was denied a job at the Bus Company after they cancelled his interview without just cause. He was quoted in an interview saying that he heard the receptionist tell the manager “your two o’clock appointment is here, but he’s Black,to which the manager replied, “tell him all the vacancies are full. Ian Patey, the general manager of the bus company was very open about this discrimination and in the Evening Post on April 30th, 1963 was quoted emphasising that “we don’t employ a mixed labour force as bus crews because we have found from observing other bus companies that the labour supply gets worse if the labour force is mixed. This demonstrates the public openness of racism in Bristol and how normalised it had become due to publications like the Evening Post realising stories like this and managers of companies denying employment. In reality, there were no laws against racial discrimination in Britain and therefore, the actions of the bus company were not illegal.
The Bristol Bus Boycott gained significant coverage and manged to gain backing from influential figures such as famous cricketer Sir Learie Constantine, who wrote directly to the company about their refusal to recruit coloured employees. This in turn allowed for greater publicity to the cause and is credited with spurring future Prime minister, Harold Wilson, to implement the stricter legislation which made racism illegal in the coming years. The African-Caribbean community, students and even white residents in Bristol boycotted the buses by walking or travelling by bike. Marches were also arranged, and banners were made to protest, the scale of which led to local and national politicians getting involved. An issue that the organisers faced, when looking to Montgomery for inspiration, was the fact that African Americans contributed to large proportion of the buses customers and in Bristol is numbers were not so large and therefore didn’t have as big of an impact on bus ticket sales for the Bus Company. “Instead, the purpose of the British boycott was to generate propaganda – drawing parallels with US segregation and shaming the authorities – while causing as much disruption as possible.”
Indeed, this succeeded and the spreading of propaganda through newspapers contributed massively to this. The Western Daily Press on August 1963 announced that “the colour bar on Bristol buses is over, as manager Patey explained “there will now be complete integration without regard to race, colour or creed.This was confirmed when a Sikh man, Raghbir Singh, “was the first coloured person to work on the buses in Bristol,” and set precedent for further acceptance regarding race in employment, education and housing, as did the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1956. With the boycott being such a success for Bristol activists, why is only the American impact of the Civil Rights Movement talked about and not how the movement impacted on Britain? On August 28th, 1963 “250,000 people marched on Washington DC to demand civil rights for African-Americans and on this day Martin Luther King, Paul Stephenson’s inspiration, delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech. Across the Atlantic, it was also a momentous day for Bristol as Ian Patey declared that there would now be no discrimination. The colour bar was over. Stephenson’s boycott had succeeded. Is there a link between these two events? In fact, the similarity of the results of these two boycotts is a clear indication of cross-national diffusion.
Stephenson is the key figure to examine when looking at the Bristol Bus Boycott. He was “bold, pushy, assertive and wanted change there and then. Was not willing to wait for gradual equality. What really motivated him was the US injustice and Civil Rights Movement. These characteristics allowed him to achieve equality by his own non-violent means alike Martin Luther King. He was a strong figure, praised for his ability to recruit important figures into the campaign. Tony Benn, an MP for Bristol South East at the time, is an example of this. He became heavily involved in the cause due to Stephenson and fought for the cause through writing articles for the wider public. The Western Daily Press published his piece in which he supported the boycott arguing that you “can’t sweep unpleasant things under the carpet and hope to forget them”.He also published many of his own diaries in which he highlighted the unjust system in place for many racial minorities. Roy Hackett, a Jamaican who moved to England in the 1950s, worked alongside Stephenson to help alter the course of race relations in the UK. He is quoted saying in an interview in 1973 “discrimination was everywhere, racial attacks by gangs and teddy boys a commonplace. His opinions followed that of Stephenson’s in that Bristol was a divided City that should follow that tactics of Martin Luther King in order to achieve equality. A non-violent campaign was vital as diffusion was taking place, and therefore the transfer of ideas that took place emulated Americas success in taking a non-violent approach. Both Stephenson and Hackett agreed that “we just want to reason with them as a human being.
For minorities “Bristol was a very cold city,” and due to this the Black community were largely confined to the deprived area of St. Pauls and often feared attacks as there was no passed legislation to protect them, therefore boycotts and protests became inevitable. Consequently, when the opportunity arose, Stephenson decided to use Bailey as a “stalking horse” of sorts in order to rally for the civil rights of Black people. Today, Stephenson, Bailey and Roy Hackett have all been awarded OBE’s for their efforts in the British Civil Rights Movement. However, in my opinion, they all should be remembered and respect in the same scale that Martin Luther King and Malcom X are in America as they all achieved major progress in race relations for their respective countries. So, whilst the discussions surrounding the Montgomery Bus Boycott are referenced regularly and still the centre of many historical and social debates, the Bristol Bus Boycott remains largely unacknowledged. Concealed British past is becoming a problem in need of addressing and the history of racial integration in Britain requires closer examination by historians, especially when discussing the on-going issue of race relations. Stephenson did, however, win a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2017 at the Pride of Britain Awards which stimulated conversation and generated press, for example, BBC news article which increases awareness around the issues. The movement took some time to take off, but Black support came quick. The Bristol Bus Boycott gained significant support from Bishops, Academics, Politicians and sportsmen from all races, in addition to large numbers of the Bristol populace. The boycott did not just extend the buses but also picketing churches, marches and petitions. However, “despite domination national and local newspaper articles and local television coverage for over two weeks the boycott has slipped out of well-known history. Does cross-national diffusion only allow for the transfer of ideas to be masked by the original social movement?
Although in other parts of the country the British Civil Rights Movement had been in full fruition vis-à-vis the creation of the League of Coloured Peoples in 1931, 1958 uprisings in London and Nottingham and the beginning of Notting Hill Carnival in 1958, the Bristol Bus Boycott was the last impactful event that directly resulted in the calls for the first ever anti-racial discrimination legislation in Britain. Of course, this was only a small step in the right direction, but also can be argued to have also inspired the 1968 and 1975 Race Relations Acts as once authorities had been broken down once, it was easy to implement the same tactics again. Interestingly enough, at the time of writing this Rosa Parks has just been honoured for all her efforts with the implementation of a new statute in downtown Montgomery – 64 years to the day she was arrested for refusing to move to the back of the bus. How long will it take for the likes of Stephenson to achieve this recognition he deserves?
All things considered; the Bristol Bus Boycott was a success for ethnic minorities in Britain. It brought around the Race Relations Act and stopped employment discrimination on buses. This essay has used newspaper articles and relevant interviews to argue this and although it can be argued that these particular sources can be opinion based and lean towards the bias of the writer, they serve as effective material to examine the conditions in Bristol, the key figures involved and the results of the Boycott. All in all, this essay has highlighted that cross-national diffusion in social movements is prevalent throughout societies, and ideas can be transferred, as they have done here, in order to emulate a success in one country to another. Furthermore, it draws out a need to pay closer attention to the British Civil Rights Movements and, as historians, it is important not to let the movement slip away without being highlighted to younger generations. Of course, this essay only scratches the surface and further research is required, at the Bristol Archives for example, but this is substantial enough to begin to address these issues.
- John Alexander, ‘Coloured Man Buses at Bath’, Evening Post, 1 May 1963, p. 2.
- ‘W. Indians Claim 100 P.C. Support for Bus Boycott’, Evening Post, 30 April 1963, p.2.
- Malcom Smith, ‘Bewildered Jamaican Feels Downhearted’, Evening Post, 1 May 1963.
- ‘Boycotts in Bristol’, Bristol Evening Post, 2 May 1963, p.3.
- Bristol Evening Post, 3 May 1963, p.2.
- Bristol Evening Post, 8 May 1963, p.2.
- ‘Colour Bar War’, Western Daily Press, 1 May 1963.
- ‘Bus Firm Drops Colour Bar’, Bristol Evening Post, 29 August 1963.
- Interview with Paul Stephenson, 2 February 2007, YouTube, minute 2.
- Interview with Tony Benn, 4 August 2011, Oral History Interview – Bristol Boycott Project, minute 1.
- Shea Doran, ‘Short Documentary on Roy Hackett’, 30 April 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qR5K9zxEOmA [accessed on 29/11/2019].
- Letter from Vincent Tewson to Trades Union Congress, 21 November 1954. “Colour Problem: Race Relations’, 1944-1960 – Correspondence – SO337.
- Madge Dresser, Black and White on the Buses: the 1963 colour bar dispute in Bristol (Bristol: Bristol Broadsides Ltd., 1986), pp. 1-59.
- Paul Stephenson, Memoirs of a Black Englishman, (Bristol: Tangent Books, 2011), pp. 1-19.
- Jon Kelly, ‘What Was Behind the Bristol Bus Boycott’, BBC News, 27 August 2013.
- Doug McAdam and Rucht Dieter, ‘The Cross-National Diffusion of Movement Ideas’, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences 528 (1993), pp. 56-74 (p. 57).
- Kenneth Lindsay Little, ‘The Colour Problem in Britain and its Treatment’, July 1948, Bristol. Labour Party – SO377.