We do not dream for one moment that the Black people in Britain can organise themselves as a unit totally separate from other Black forces in the world. Black Power is an international concept. – Obi Egbuna (founder of the BBPM)
Civil Rights movements are often remembered as being based in America to fight against racism, segregation and discrimination. Yet its influence on Black British activism is largely forgotten. One of these includes the iconic British Black Panther movement. It was not until 2013 that the panthers regained recognition once Neil Kenlock’s photographs were exhibited in the Tate Modern and Black Cultural Archives Museum.
How and why it was established
Visits from US activists Stokely Carmichael, Angela Davis and Malcolm X were highly encouraging for the UK’s black power movement as they actively advocated against racism. Witnessing the Black Panther party throughout the media and reading black literature also ignited the idea for Obi Egbuna, Darcus Howe, Linton Kwesi-Johnson and Olive Morris to start their own black revolutionary movement. The BBP came to life in 1968 and its main headquarters were established in Brixton, Shakespeare road.
Despite adopting the name and drawing influence from the Black Panther Party, the British Black Panthers opposed gun violence and were a movement rather than a political party. The BBP’s focus was to fight against police brutality, subnormal schooling of black pupils and unsuitable housing conditions.
After writing an essay about resisting police brutality, Egbuna was arrested and charged with conspiracy to murder the police. Leadership of the British Black Panthers was subsequently passed down to Althea Jones-LeCointe, who transformed it into a community-based organisation – fighting for black and Asian rights – as opposed to one that was separatist.
The Mangrove Nine
The perception of Black Britons as criminals was further amplified by the media who painted them out to be a threat to society. The police’s unfair treatment towards the black community was also justified by this stereotype. They specifically targeted the Mangrove restaurant in Notting Hill, as it was a notable meeting place for black activists, creatives and intellectuals. The police enforced twelve raids on the basis of drug and health inspections on the restaurant.
Even without evidence of criminal activity taking place, the owner (civil rights campaigner and activist) Frank Crichilow lost his licence.
On the 9th August 1970, the black panthers and the action committee for the defence of the mangrove organised a demonstration which reflected their outrage with the constant aggressive policing. The 150 demonstrators marched to Notting Hill, Notting Dale and Harrow road police stations. Violence broke out between the police and the protesters. Nine members of the BBP – including Darcus Howe and Althea Jones-LeCointe – were arrested and put to trial for inciting a riot.
Howe who studied law knew his rights within the justice system, thus appealed for an all-black jury. Despite only managing to get two black jurors out of the twelve, they too could see that the police had a lack of evidence against the ‘Mangrove Nine’. 55 days later, they were cleared of charges of inciting a riot and the judge acknowledged the racial hatred of the British police. The Mangrove trial was the climax of the black panther’s activism and attracted mass media attention for being highly influential within the black power movement.
I was able to locate myself in the world and to understand myself more fully. Who I am, where I’m coming from and why I am where I am now.– Linton Kwesi Johnson
British schools were highly ethnocentric in the 20th century, which prevented black people from gaining knowledge about important black contributions in the world as well as their achievements. As a result, the panthers set up their own library, providing members with historical and literary texts, which helped them to see themselves as more significant than what society portrayed them as.
A sense of black consciousness was emphasised by encouraging panthers to read books such as The Making of an English Working Class by E.P Thompson, historical content on the Haitian Revolution, Marcus Garvey and Harriot Tubman. Learning about slavery also enabled black people to realise that they deserved to be in Britain, despite white extremists wanting to impose harsher immigration laws.
The British Black Panthers’ Legacy
According to Neil Kenlock, the ending of the British Black Panther Movement was a result of their successes. These included exposing institutional racism, ending plans for deportation and contributing to the cancellation of the repatriation bill. The panthers eventually dispersed to form other struggle groups such as The Brixton Black Women’s Group.
The panthers were one of the most influential civil rights groups in Britain and their struggle must never go unnoticed. After all, what would the state of our country be, had they not fought for black and Asian people? We owe everything to these pioneers, we must salute them and teach the next generations to come.