Roy Hackett was one of the UK’s civil rights heroes. A pioneer for his tireless campaigning for the equality of Black people – continuing the fight well into his 90s – his efforts were fundamental in shaping Britain into the country it is today.
Alongside campaigners Owen Henry, Audley Evans, Prince Brown and Paul Stephenson, Hackett organised a boycott of the Bristol Omnibus Company in 1963 in a bid to overturn their racist policy, which stopped employers hiring Black or Asian workers.
Their efforts in galvanising the 3000 strong Caribbean community in Bristol saw the policy revoked, and is thought to have blazed a trail for the 1965 Race Relations Act, which prevented discrimination in public place.
However, the exhaustingly fought battle from people of colour to be treated equally to their white counterparts in Britain is a shameful gap in our knowledge, with hugely influential incidents such as the Bristol bus boycott conveniently airbrushed from much of our curriculum despite it happening less than 60 years ago.
Now, an outpouring of tributes from political figures upon the news of Hackett’s death yesterday, aged 93, have seen the campaigner’s incredible life and work nationally recognised.
‘We have honestly lost someone who was a proper legend,’ Kehinde Andrews, Professor of Black Studies at Birmingham City University, explains to Metro.co.uk. He had previously met Hackett, having interviewed him in August 2020, shortly after the Black Lives Matter protests took place across the world.
‘He could have been Britain’s Martin Luther King, if he had the same PR. Roy Hackett could be remembered in the same way.’
Hackett chose to come to the UK from Kingston, Jamaica in 1952. In a strange twist of fate, it was Enoch Powell – who became one of the UK’s most prominent anti-immigration politicians thanks to his 1968 Rivers of Blood speech – that had encouraged Hackett to consider life in Britain with the promise of a prosperous life and good jobs, when he performed a speech as health secretary at the time.
Bouncing between Liverpool, London and Wolverhampton, Hackett eventually settle in Bristol, where he married childhood sweetheart and had three children.
But he did not instantly have the prosperous life he was promised by politicians when he landed in UK shores, facing daily hate and prejudice based solely on the colour of his skin.
‘That generation of migrants had to face a lot of abuse,’ Andrews explains. ‘It was terrible for them. We all know how bad things were, but when I spoke to him, I could see his pain. We may not be where we want to be at this current moment in time, but I don’t experience that same level of overt, in-your-face racism that the Windrush generation did. I’m not being beaten up on the street, I’m not being told I can’t live in a particular area.’
The Bristol Omnibus Company was particularly infamous for the ‘colour ban’ – hiring immigrant workers to wash and clean the buses at night, but preventing them from applying for the better-paid jobs on the buses themselves.
‘Roy himself was defined by his selflessness,’ Andrews explains. ‘He never worked on the buses. The ban wasn’t something that impacted him. But sitting with him, I could see that determination and wit that he had. He was incredibly sharp. I could imagine sitting across from someone at the bus company.’
There was one test that was performed by those planning the boycott to ensure the colour ban was in place. Paul Stephenson rang to arrange an interview for a man called Guy Bailey at the bus company, with the phone call verifying there were vacancies. When it was confirmed that Bailey was Black, the company cancelled the interview.
In his position on the Commonwealth Coordinated Committee, which regularly lobbied Bristol Council on issues pertaining to the community, Hackett and others on the board utilised the force of the people of colour living in Bristol to commit to the boycott the buses. It was thought to be the first and biggest boycott in the UK at the time, and received national attention.
I was born an activist
‘Hackett certainly put the pressure on,’ Andrews says. ‘He was the one that could galvanise the community, working at a grassroots level. He said he was “born an activist” and I could see the fire in his eyes about the situation, even all these years later.’
The boycott lasted months, and was adhered to by the Caribbean community, many students of the University of Bristol, and members of the public that agreed with the cause. The Commonwealth Coordinated Committee worked closely with the Bristol MP at the time, Tony Benn, who Andrews considers a hugely important ally in introducing anti-racist legislation.
After four months of disruption, the company agreed to lift the colour ban. At this point, the boycott had attracted attention of government, which saw Prime Minister Harold Wilson pressured to start changing the law to prevent further discrimination of people of colour.
‘It’s possible that the Race Relations Act in 1965 wouldn’t have happened without the bus boycott,’ Andrews says. ‘That legislation didn’t happen because people thought this would be “a good idea”. They happened because of Roy, who fought and struggled to get them implemented.
‘The type of protections we have, we have because of Roy Hackett. We’re able to have these conversations thanks to people like Roy Hackett. It is a massive legacy. He really did reshape Britain.’
Even after the boycotts, Hackett still didn’t stop his work in the community, setting up Bristol’s St Pauls Carnival in 1968 and continuing to work with young people in the community.
In spite of his lifelong commitments to activism and the influence he had on race relations in the UK, Hackett’s work isn’t particularly widely known across the country.
‘The UK is really bad at understanding race,’ Andrews says. ‘We learn more about America’s civil rights movement and slavery. There’s a far bigger community over there.
‘Here, we’re a far smaller part of the population. I feel Britain has always pretended that race issues were more class issues. We don’t like to acknowledge our part in racism, despite the awful acts of the British Empire. Britain whitewashes its own racist history and the part they played on the world stage. It’s totally and utterly glossed over.
‘We need to celebrate legacies such as Hackett’s far more.’
When Andrews last sat down with Hackett, it was just months after the footage of George Floyd’s murder was seen across the world, resulting in impassioned marches across the world in honour of the Black Lives Matter movement.
The fact there’s still a need to protest for equality was not a surprise to Hackett, says Andrews.
‘In his time, he saw things change, he’s seen things not change,’ Andrews says. ‘Things may have changed but that doesn’t necessarily mean thing got better. He knew we’re going to have to continue fighting. He says that very, very clearly. It’s a bit dystopian that 50 years down the line we’re still fighting for the same things. But he knew were going keep going, and he was willing to keep going his whole life.’
And it was Hackett’s city of Bristol that had the eyes of the country on it once more, after protestors pulled down a commemorative statue of Edward Colston – a prominent slave trader – and dumped it into the River Avon.
‘Roy was very happy about that,’ Andrews laughs. ‘I asked him when I interviewed him if he believed in what people were saying that he should be made into a statue in his honour. He kind of laughed when I asked him, and said: “Why? So they can pull me down in 20 years too?” But there is space to recognise actual heroes and be memorialised.
‘A statue of Roy Hackett would be perfect to remember him by. He was a properly formidable man. It was actually a pleasure to speak to him.’
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