Arts & Culture

Standing on the shoulders of giants: The Bristol Bus Boycott – MUSICAL

4:00 pm - 5:30 pm | 26 October 2019
Draper Hall | FREE
Hampton Street
SE17 3AN

To celebrate and honour Black History Month, this year the Draper Film Music Academy will present the short musical inspired by the 1963 Bristol Bus Boycott.

Bristol in the early 1960s had an estimated 3,000 residents of West Indian origin, some who had served in the British military during World War II and some who had emigrated to Britain more recently. A large number lived in the area around City Road in St Pauls. They suffered discrimination in housing and employment, and some encountered violence from Teddy Boy gangs of white British youths. This community set up their own churches and associations, including the West Indian Association, which began to act as a representative body.

One of their foremost grievances was the colour bar operated by the Bristol Omnibus Company, which had been a nationalised company owned by the British government since 1950. In 1955 the Passenger Group of the TGWU had passed a resolution that “coloured” workers should not be employed as bus crews. Andrew Hake, curator of the Bristol Industrial Mission, recalled that “The TGWU in the city had said that if one black man steps on the platform as a conductor, every wheel will stop.”

Four young West Indian men, Roy Hackett, Owen Henry, Audley Evans and Prince Brown, formed an action group, later to be called the West Indian Development Council. They were unhappy with the lack of progress in fighting discrimination by the West Indian Association. Owen Henry had met Paul Stephenson, whose father was from West Africa, and who had been to college. The group decided that the articulate Stephenson would be their spokesman.

The Bristol protest took place after 18-year-old Guy Bailey was turned away from a job interview at the state-owned Bristol Omnibus Company. A manager told him: “We don’t employ black people.” The policy, an open secret in the city, was entirely legal.

Inspired by events including the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, a boycott of the the whole bus network was organised. Tony Benn, then MP for Bristol South East, lent his support, declaring he would “stay off the buses, even if I have to find a bike”.

After four months the bus company relented. The victory proved to be a watershed moment and a step on the road towards the UK’s first laws against racial discrimination.

The boycott drew national attention to racial discrimination in Britain, and the campaign was supported by national politicians, with interventions being made by church groups and the High Commissioner for Trinidad and Tobago. The Bristol Bus Boycott was considered by some to have been influential in the passing of the Race Relations Act 1965 which made “racial discrimination unlawful in public places” and the Race Relations Act 1968, which extended the provisions to employment and housing.

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