A tribute to Olive Morris

Olive Elaine Morris (b: 26th June 1952, St Catherine Jamaica) has left behind a prominent legacy as a community leader, as well as an anti-discrimination and squatters’ rights activist.  In celebration of Women’s History Month, Brits + Pieces will be celebrating her contribution to British history throughout her short life in the 1960s-70s.

Morris’s arrest

Olive’s political activism ignited in November 1969, at age 17.  On the streets of Brixton, Nigerian diplomat Clement Gomwalk was dragged out of his parked Mercedes, interrogated and beaten by the police.  After witnessing the mistreatment, Morris intervened and was consequently beaten and arrested.  During her time in police custody, the young activist was racially abused, forced to strip and threatened with rape.  She was charged with threatening behaviour, assault on the police and possessing dangerous weapons.  In turn she was fined £10 and given a suspended sentence for two years.

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A photograph of her release from prison shows her bruised and dishevelled.

Activism

Olive’s brutalisation didn’t stop her from dedicating her life to campaign for basic human rights.  Along with Althea Johnson, Linton Kwesi Johnson and Darcus Howe, Olive joined the Black British Panthers Movement in a fight against oppression.  She secured the headquarters for the Race Today collective (co-ran by Leila Hassan Howe) which had basement sessions with discussions of politics, art and culture.  After the panthers disbanded, Olive moved on to launch the Brixton Black Women’s Group with Liz Obi and Beverly Bryan.  The group focused on issues affecting black women such as immigration and family planning.

Squatting Movement

Rented accommodation in inner city London became increasingly difficult to find during the 1970s.  As an alternative, many people turned to squatting, including Olive and Liz Obi who squatted at 121 Railton Road in Brixton.  The building later housed the Sabarr Bookshop, one of the first black community bookshops in South London.

On several occasions Olive and Liz encountered eviction attempts and were arrested.  Yet the two continued to go back to the squat and carried on with their activism.  One day when Olive came back from work, the police attempted to remove her from the premises.  Liz had already been taken to the police station earlier that morning.  Olive was photographed climbing onto the roof of her building and from there protested to the policemen below.  The notorious photo was displayed on the cover of the Squatters Handbook 1979 Edition.

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Determined to find a resolution for homelessness Morris successfully campaigned for squatters’ rights.  In 1973, the Lambeth council agreed to purchase some abandoned flats on behalf of the squatters.

Education

In 1975, Olive’s political activism extended outside of her local community.  She went on to study a degree in Economics and Social Sciences at Manchester University.  During her time, she campaigned for the abolition of fees for overseas students, as a member of the National Coordinating Committee of Overseas Students.  In Moss Side she became heavily involved in the community and was an active member of the Manchester Black Women’s Cooperative as well as the Black Women’s Mutual Aid Group.

OWAAD

In 1978 came the birth of the Organisation of Asian and African Descent, which Olive co-founded with Stella Dadzie.  The group organised sit-in protests against the offensive virginity tests practised on Asian women to test their residency and marriage claims, at Heathrow Airport.

Writing

Olive was also an avid traveller, visiting Italy, Morocco, Algeria and France.  In 1977 she visited China to gain knowledge about the establishment of the socialist society.  She wrote a piece entitled ‘A Sisters Visit to China’, an exploration of China’s anti-imperialist struggle.  The piece was published in the Brixton Black Women’s Groups newsletter Speak Out!.

Along with her partner Mike McColgan, Olive co-wrote ‘Has the Anti-Nazi League got it right on racism?’ which was published in a flyer fir the Brixton Ad-hoc Committee against police repression.  The piece criticised the strategy for focusing on fighting fascism at the expense of institutional racism.

Death and Legacy

On a trip to Spain in 1978 Morris succumbed to illness and was subsequently diagnosed with non-Hodgkinson’s Lymphoma on her return to London.  She underwent treatment but was unsuccessful.  At the age of 27, Olive Morris passed away on July 12th 1979.

Her premature death was a massive shock to the community.  To honour Olive’s legacy, a Lambeth council building on Brixton Hill, was renamed after her in 1986.

In 2008, Elizabeth Obi founded the remembering Olive Morris collective to keep her courageous spirit alive and to document her immense contribution to the political struggle.

In 2009 Olive was voted to feature on the B£1 denomination of the Brixton pound.

Olive Morris had a profound amount of achievements in her short life.  She was driven, passionate and fought tirelessly for equality.  This is a Black British Caribbean Woman whose remarkable life must be forever known of and forever celebrated.