Civil Rights Movement in Britain…a poverty of knowledge?

The Civil Rights Movement is emotively charged by historical profound moments and figures.

But as an immediate thought does Civil Rights conjure images of Britain’s own Civil Rights movement to you?

For me (and perhaps you) there are varying images of immense magnitude.

The Klu Klux Klan (KKK) standing over a black victim, Martin Luther King rallying people to protest in peace, Malcolm X rallying people to protest “by any means necessary”, Claudette Covin and then Rosa Parks, churches burning, crosses burning, heavy handed police, Black Panthers, or the gruesome date of August 7, 1930, where a  baying mob of thousands in Marion Indiana lynch two men. The stark image of thousands of men, women and children gleefully staring at the camera emboldened by their cowardly lynching of these two men is chilling.

The images are endless, graphic, disturbing, fuelling outrage, sadness, dis-belief, confusion and more.

But these images are distinctly American. Civil Rights Movement and America seamlessly go hand in hand.

There is (to a degree) this incongruous, paradoxical romanticisation of the movement and America. Black American people (and whites too) standing up for Black Civil Rights.

In this strange, perhaps slightly macabre emotion I almost want to be there in the 60’s Deep South standing in unison with my brothers and sisters in this hugely dangerous period. It was a time where blacks had to fight to be humanised.

But there was a powerful Civil Rights Movement within UK. For me and maybe for other Black British people there is a poverty of our own movement.

Partly that is due to the ‘American Imperialism’ (if you will) through Western global media (as a whole) on the ideology and ‘ownership’ of ‘Civil Rights Movement’.

Indeed it is fair to say that in many ways popular British media have (to an extent) had a distinct bias to that Americanism of the Civil Rights Movement. This bias has been to the detriment of the British black movement.

There have been some telling British films-think the powerful SUS (2010) starring Clint Dyer. More recently, the talented Sir Steve McQueen directed the telling series Small Axe (2020) examining three events from 1981 – in January, the New Cross Fire which killed 13 black teenagers, March, Black People’s Day of Action, which saw more than 20,000 people join the first organised mass protest by black British people: and the Brixton riots in April. I think there is a poverty of such powerful historical British Civil Rights work.

Perhaps more damningly and maybe harder to digest is an idea.

As blacks (individually) within the UK we are complicit to this poverty of knowledge, regarding our own Civil Rights Movement. We have to a degree been sucked into an inertia of sorts where we do not really push in a concerted, sustained, and holistic manner just how deep our UK movement is.

I would strongly argue that an American child today has a deeper, more knowledgeable understanding of the American Civil Rights Movement than a British child would of our own movement.

How many British children could name important events within our Black British history? Or how many could name significant figures? They could however reel off a list of American Civil Rights moments or figures. Or more significant reel off just exactly who Winston Churchill and his importance to the ‘world’ (despite his own racist attitudes) some 60 years after his death.

This is nothing to do with the fact that perhaps the American Civil Rights Movement was somehow more profound than ours. That is if we want to play the unsavoury game ‘my Civil Rights Movement is better than yours’.

No, the answer to why our movement continues with this poverty will surely be multi-faceted.

For me however as I write this piece, I am conscious of the fact that I have to be careful that I do not come across as speaking for everyone. Not everyone has a ‘poverty of knowledge’.

I am sure there are those reading this who have a deep knowledge of our own movement. That knowledge in turn they have abundantly blessed their children with. I can vividly see the collective raising of eyebrows at my assertions.

Hopefully to quell your thoughts or criticism of me.

On a personal level I am acutely aware of my inadequacies as a Black British male suffering from a ‘poverty of knowledge’.  I am ashamed in many ways that maybe here I am writing this piece on our movement when I am sure that my poverty of knowledge is shocking.

I know Black History month, the Brixton Riots, Tottenham Riots, Mary Seacole, names like Bernie Grant, Darcus Howe, the influential Diana Abbot and more. (despite what people might say)

But Sir Steve McQueen’s series was particularly telling for me. It showed me how much I did not know. How superficial my knowledge was? How little I invested my time to teach my own children the knowledge regarding the history of Blacks in the UK. How my own poverty of knowledge of the British Civil Rights movement was in fact self-induced due to complacency.

From names who died like Cynthia Jarret (a catalyst for the Broadwater Farm Riots 1985), Derek Bennett, Joy Gardener, and Mark Duggan (and the 2011 UK wide riots that followed his death).

To pivotal moments-think 1967 when American activist and leader of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) Kwame Ture (formerly Stokely Carmichael) spoke at a gathering in Camden. He inspired black people living in Britain to ‘organise against prejudice and white power’.

My knowledge was and is merely the proverbial ‘tip of an iceberg’. I know dates. I know names. I know moments of time.

As is always the case things/changes need to start with the individual and for our children at home.

It is not a poverty of knowledge but rather (in may case it seems) a poverty of pushing my own access to that knowledge and then imparting this knowledge to my children. Thankfully, my children are consciously individual.

It is a telling, and painful realisation that my own inertia and ‘poverty of knowledge’ must be addressed.


  • 1919 Uprisings in London, Cardiff and Liverpool
  • 1931 Dr Harold Moody establishes the League of Coloured Peoples
  • 1948 British Nationality Act
  • 1948 SS Empire Windrush arrives at Tilbury
  • 1958 uprisings in London and Nottingham
  • 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act
  • 1958-1966 Notting Hill Carnival begins (exact date is disputed)
  • 1963 Bristol bus boycott
  • 1965, 1968 and 1975 Race Relations Acts
  • 1967 British Black Panther party established
  • 1970 Trial of the Mangrove Nine
  • 1979 Royal Commission on Criminal Procedure (led to repeal of the ‘Sus laws)
  • 1981 Brixton uprisings and Lord Scarman report
  • 1999 Macpherson Report published following the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry
  • 2011 Riots following the shooting by police of Mark Duggan


  • The Huntley Archives at the London Metropolitan Archives
  • Black Cultural Archives
  • Institute of Race Relations
  • George Padmore Institute
  • Bernie Grant Archive at the Bishop’s Gate Institute
  • Local archives – use the Find an archive tool to search for local archives, or search Discovery and refine your results to select records from other archives.
  • Historic England – the Slave Trade and Abolition
  • British Library
  • The Modern Records Centre – includes the archives of the Trades Union Congress, the Transport and General Workers Union and the Confederation of British Industry.
  • Church of England Archives
  • The National Archives.