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Kalamu ya Salaam's information blog

 

The Amazing Lost Legacy of

the British Black Panthers

 

By Photos: Neil Kenlock, Words: Bruno Bayley

While, in the mid-1960s, the Black Panthers – the famous, American, shotgun-toting ones – were scaring the crap out of white America, the British Black Panthers (BBP) were educating their communities and fighting discrimination. Outrightly racist laws that threatened to repatriate entire swathes of the black population were being pushed into place, and sections of the white middle classes were resentful towards the black community. But the BBP – based in Brixton, south London – helped to change all that, educating British black people about their history and giving them a voice to speak out against prejudice.  

However, despite their successes and influence on black communities in the UK, very little is known about the British Black Panthers. Knowledge of the group – which included figures such as Darcus Howe, Linton Kwesi Johnson and the late Olive Morris – and its aims and achievements isn’t aided by the fact that they only officially existed from 1968 till 1972. Luckily, Neil Kenlock – one of the group’s core members – took it upon himself to become their official in-house photographer, capturing images of their meetings, campaigns, marches and presence in local communities.

This month, a new exhibition put together by Organised Youth – a group of 13-25-year-olds who were inspired by the activism of the British Black Panthers – will profile Neil’s work at a gallery in Brixton, alongside contemporary photos, interviews and a documentary film (click here for more information). I had a talk with Neil ahead of that about the Panthers and their legacy in Britain. 

VICE: So, first off, how did you become involved in the the British Black Panther movement?
Neil Kenlock: Well, I encountered racism when I was quite young – maybe 16 or 17. I went to a club in Streatham, and when I arrived I was told it was full and that I should come back next week. Which I did, and I was then told they wouldn’t let me in because they didn’t want “my type” in there. I protested that I didn’t see why I shouldn’t be let in. There were, of course, no discrimination laws in those days, so there was no one to tell about this. 

And you were never let in? 
My friend and I pointed out that we were well dressed, weren’t there to make trouble and just wanted to enjoy ourselves like other people, so what was the problem? We were told to go or the police would be called. We wouldn’t go, so they called the police, who then told us that we weren’t wanted in the club and that we should go home. I pointed out we weren’t breaking any laws and the police told us they would arrest us if we didn’t leave. I really didn’t want my parents to have to come to Streatham police station and bail me out, so I left. But, on my way home, I decided that I was going to fight against unfairness and discrimination in this country.


Neil Kenlock self-portrait. 1970.

How did you come across the Panthers, then? 
Well, some weeks later, I saw a Panther in Brixton giving out leaflets about police brutality and discrimination. I joined them then.

Had you already been exposed to the American Black Panthers prior to that?
I’d seen them on TV and things, but I hadn’t taken much notice. It might have flashed across my mind, but it wasn’t really in my consciousness. It was all more to do with what had happened to me, personally, and that I felt it was wrong. I saw them giving out those leaflets and thought, ‘This is what I want to be – I want to fight against discrimination and racism and all the bad things that happen to us.’ So I joined. 

When was that?
About 1968, just after I left school.

And at that time how well organised was the movement? Was it a unified group or more ad hoc? 
It was fairly organised. They had a building they were working from in Shakespeare Road, Brixton and a house in north London. They were having meetings, talking about history and all the societal systems – capitalism, socialism and all that stuff. They were teaching us things we weren’t taught at school. Back then, we weren’t taught any black history – we knew we’d been slaves, but there was no information about the struggles we had faced to get our freedom. We were taught to be proud of our history and colour. Black people then weren’t clear about themselves; they weren’t strong, they were submissive. They believed in the establishment, society and the system.

Was the link between the British Black Panthers and the Black Panthers an official one? Or was the name informally adopted? I know, for instance, that you guys didn’t condone gun use at all. 
It was just an adoption of the name. There was informal contact, but nothing on an official basis. They were a political, radical and revolutionary party. We were a movement – we were never interested in gaining seats in Parliament or behaving like a political party. We were a movement aiming to educate our communities and to fight injustice and discrimination. That was our mantra. America was just coming out of segregation then, while we never had it. So there was a huge difference between our problems and theirs. 

What were the issues that the British Black Panthers were combating, specifically?
While we were another large black population, we had no segregation here. But it was difficult for us to get adjusted to this country, and there were cultural clashes for us, too. Our parents weren’t given good jobs, only menial tasks, factory jobs – there were no real black professionals in Britian. The challenge here was to get a fair deal, to climb that ladder. 

There was also a cultural issue, and if I was to blame anyone for that it would be the British middle class and the political class, because they didn’t educate the working-class British about the history of black people. They weren’t told that we were taken from Africa, that we were actually slaves for this country for over 300 years. And at the end of slavery, plantation owners were compensated, while we got nothing, not even an apology. So, in those days, we believed we had a right to be in this country – we had helped build this country and we deserved some benefits from that. We felt we had a right to share in the profits, while British people felt, ‘Why are they here taking our jobs?’ 


A protester is arrested by police.

So the Panthers were there to educate people about all that?
Yeah, the middle and political classes did nothing to explain the situation. That was what we were trying to get across – that we deserved to be here and we needed laws that reflected that. At the time, they were trying to repatriate us. It was outrageous – you can’t take us from Africa, enslave us, and after we’ve built the country up after the war, tell us to go back. No. That’s not on. 

How much did you interact with other rights groups? Anti-fascists, for example? Or were you fairly insular at the time? 
We had some links with the Socialist Workers and other left-wing groups, and there were many intellectuals who were funding the Panthers – as well as actors and actresses and the like. Left-leaning people were supporting us. We weren’t “racist” as such, but we decided that all our members should be black because we were there to educate and advance black people. We felt we needed to be able to sit together and talk about our situation and our history, and to do so in confidence without interruption.

The British Black Panthers eventually dissolved into numerous other groups – what caused that? Was it planned?
The British Black Panthers, in my opinion, came into being as a result of the discrimination that many students from the Commonwealth faced. Back then, the best students from the Commonwealth were sent to Britain to be educated. Many of those who associated with the Panthers were those sorts of people; they had never encountered discrimination in their own countries, where they were the sons or daughters of the middle classes. So when they got here for university, they discovered this inequality and decided to fight against that, but they needed support in our communities, so they came to Brixton and met people like me who shared these challenges, and we worked together.

After we’d educated these students and our communities, lots of the students returned to their countries – in many cases to positions of leadership. We were left with lots of the things we’d been campaigning for actually being achieved. The repatriation bill was quashed, the idea of deportation was gone and the movement just dissolved – not in an organised way, but people just stopped coming around and stopped doing things.

So the dissolving of the BBP was a reflection of its success, to an extent?
Yes. I think we helped to change the way we were perceived in this country. And many of those students who were set to return to the Commonwealth had good jobs waiting for them back home, in government, legal practice and so on – they no longer wanted to risk their future careers by being involved with us.

What do you think the core legacy of the Panthers in Britain was? 
The Black Panther movement was a secretive movement, yet it had a great impact on discrimination in this country. The legacy is in all the proposed laws regarding deportation being quashed. We made sure the government were properly educating our children. Lots of black children back then were educated in subnormal schools – those things were quashed, too. There were a lot of successes, but they weren’t really attributed to the Black Panthers, even though they were the work of the Panthers. It’s a hidden story – that’s why it’s important that these photos exist. Without them, it would have been difficult to tell this story, especially to young people. The legacy of the photos themselves is important.

Were you aware when taking these photos that they would become an important document in Britain’s social history? 
It was very conscious. When I joined the Panthers, it was a reaction to how I was treated. I felt that this was what I could do for the Panthers. I could record their meetings, their marches, their efforts. Many of the photos were used in our meetings and so on. It was a conscious contribution to the movement. 

Great, thanks Neil.

Neil Kenlock’s photos of the British Black Panther movement will be exhibited at the Photofusion Gallery at 17a Electric Lane, Brixton, SW9 8LA. The public exhibition will run from Wednesday, October 16th to Saturday, October 26th. (Regular opening hours are 10AM till 5.30PM, although you’ll be allowed in till 8.30PM on Thursdays. It’s closed Sundays.)Click here for more details.

Additionally, 100 copies of a book by Organised Youth – The British Black Panthers and Black Power Movement – will also be available for £20.

CLICK THROUGH TO SEE MORE OF NEIL KENLOCK’S AMAZING PHOTOS OF THE BRITISH BLACK PANTHERS.

 


Racist graffiti at an office in Balham, London. 1972.


BBP member Eddie Lecointe with a placard raising awareness of police brutality.


BBP member Clovis Reid with his dogs in Brockwell Park, London.

Neil Kenlock’s photos of the British Black Panther movement will be exhibited at the Photofusion Gallery at 17a Electric Lane, Brixton, SW9 8LA from Wednesday, October 16th to Saturday, October 26th. Click here for more details, click below to continue the gallery.


Young boys protesting.


Angela Davis, from the US Black Panther Party, addresses a crowd in London to thank them for their support while she was in jail. 1974.


The BBP’s Darcus Howe.

Neil Kenlock’s photos of the British Black Panther movement will be exhibited at the Photofusion Gallery at 17a Electric Lane, Brixton, SW9 8LA from Wednesday, October 16th to Saturday, October 26th. Click here for more details, click below to continue the gallery.


British Black Panther Olive Morris.


Member Danny DaCosta at the British Black Panther headquarters on Shakespeare Road, London.

 

Neil Kenlock’s photos of the British Black Panther movement will be exhibited at the Photofusion Gallery at 17a Electric Lane, Brixton, SW9 8LA from Wednesday, October 16th to Saturday, October 26th. Click here for more details.

 

__________________________

SUNDAY 13 OCTOBER 2013

 

 

Power struggle:

A new exhibition looks back at the rise

of the British Black Panthers

The British Black Panthers brought about a sea-change in attitudes to race in this country. On the eve of a new exhibition charting the rise of the movement, Holly Williams speaks to the old guard – and finds them ready and willing to give a new generation a further education in the struggle for equality

 

BY HOLLY WILLIAMS

 

Neil Kenlock/Autograph ABP

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Everyone knows about the Black Panthers ‑ the militant wing of the American civil-rights movement, whose political activism still provokes strong emotions to this day.

They made headlines only last week, with the news that 71-year-old Herman Wallace, one of the “Angola Three”, who had been in solitary confinement for 41 years after being convicted of killing a guard in a Louisiana prison, died just three days after being released.

A judge ruled his conviction had been unconstitutional; he had always maintained his innocence. An active member of the Black Panthers, he’d organised protests for improved rights and better protection from violent abuse for black prisoners prior to his conviction.

All these years later, Wallace’s death was still reported as a Black Panther story, and the party is still in the public consciousness. But what is less well known is that here in Britain, we had our own big cats. The British Black Panther movement (always deliberately a movement, not a political party) was not affiliated to the American organisation, but fought for many of the same rights.

Farrukh Dhondy holds up a newspaper detailing the fire-bombing of his home (Neil Kenlock/Autograph ABP)Farrukh Dhondy holds up a newspaper detailing the fire-bombing of his home (Neil Kenlock/Autograph ABP) 

It flourished, briefly but brightly, in London in the late 1960s and early 1970s. There were several branches, but Brixton was the centre – 38 Shakespeare Road its headquarters – so it is apt that this autumn an exhibition revisiting the British Black Panther legacy is to be hosted by Brixton’s Photofusion Gallery.

Fifty years after Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, the gallery wanted to look at the face of black power in the UK. They took as their initial inspiration a series of evocative black-and-white shots taken by Neil Kenlock, the official photographer of the movement, capturing protests, debates, parties and portraits of key members and the local community.

In response to these photographs, a group of young people, aged 13 to 25, carried out an oral history and photography project this summer. Calling themselves Organised Youth, they met and spoke to those at the heart of the movement to record their memories of the struggle, and photographed them afresh.

Movement members at the Black Panther headquarters on Shakespeare Road (Neil Kenlock/Autograph ABP)Movement members at the Black Panther headquarters on Shakespeare Road (Neil Kenlock/Autograph ABP)
As with many left-wing, self-organising groups, there is much haziness and debate around the exact dates the British Black Panthers were active, the numbers of people involved, and even the ideological objectives. But essentially, the movement was part of the struggle against racism and for improved rights for all ethnic minorities in the UK. “The Black Panther movement put out this list: we wanted better housing; we wanted better education; we wanted the end to police brutality,” explains Althea Jones-LeCointe – considered by many to have been a leader of the movement – in an interview for the project.

Although many members were inspired by hearing American activists talk in London – including Angela Davis, who addressed a crowd to thank her British peers for their support while she was in jail – there were notable differences between Black Power groups in Britain and the US. “Over there, they were a party; they were seeking political power,” explains Kenlock. “The American Constitution allows people to carry guns, so they were policing the police. There was segregation in America at that time – the system in America was far behind Britain. What we were about was seeking better education and jobs, and making sure the police treated us fairly. It was just the name and the culture that was adopted.”

The name was a quick way to attract attention and get young people excited; some of the style was taken on, too. “The berets, black trousers, black T-shirt and guns,” is how Darcus Howe, a member of the British Panther inner circle k and later editor of Race Today, describes the iconography. ” But we didn’t get to the [real] gun bit over here.”

Neil Kenlock, self-portrait, 1970 (Neil Kenlock/Autograph ABP)Neil Kenlock, self-portrait, 1970 (Neil Kenlock/Autograph ABP)

 

Howe got involved in the movement after meeting Panthers at the Mangrove Trial in 1971. The Mangrove, a West Indian restaurant in Notting Hill, was repeatedly raided by police; a subsequent protest march saw nine people – including Panthers such as Jones-LeCointe and Barbara Beese – arrested. Their trial became a turning point for racial justice in Britain: they were acquitted, and the institutional racism of the police was publicly acknowledged.

But while the British movement was largely founded on political protest, it was also culturally significant and socially rich. Linton Kwesi Johnson describes, in an interview for the exhibition, how his interest in poetry was ignited by exploring the library at the movement’s headquarters: “Joining the Black Panthers was a life-changer for me because for the first time I discovered black literature.”

While the movement had its own literary sub-groups, it was primarily concerned with fostering understanding of black history and radical political thought. For many, it was a Marxist struggle, an adjunct to the labour movement.

The British Black Panthers’ founders were often highly educated immigrants, scholarship kids who came to the UK from the colonies in order to gain a university degree; from wealthy backgrounds, they had never before encountered racism and were incensed at the violence and prejudice of Britain in the 1960s. They made it their mission to educate and radicalise the black immigrant working-class, too, uniting against racism across class divides (and, of course, across different ethnicities – members might have Caribbean, African or Indian heritage).

Black Panther Olive Morris who co-founded a vibrant Black Women's Group in Brixton (Neil Kenlock/Autograph ABP)Black Panther Olive Morris who co-founded a vibrant Black Women’s Group in Brixton (Neil Kenlock/Autograph ABP)

 

Kenlock says there was little tension in the class gap: “I see myself as working-class, born in Brixton. [The students] came along to educate the community, about history, slavery. It was basically socialism, and they invited us working-class people to help with the campaign. It was about trying to change society, and letting the black community know they really need to do things to get a better life in this country.”

Educating the next generation was a huge part of their work – members including Beverley Bryan, Farrukh Dhondy and Johnson helped run a Saturday school on Shakespeare Road, giving local kids extra lessons in English, maths and black history. The Panthers also campaigned against discrimination within the education system. But it wasn’t all serious and worthy: they knew how to throw a party. Bryan remembers having “a lot of nice dances and going to a lot of parties, and I think that’s important if you’re involved with young people”.

The movement disintegrated by the early 1970s; exact dates and reasons vary depending on who you talk to. There was certainly ideological in-fighting, but there was a more positive story, too: for many, the Panthers had simply achieved much of what it set out to do. “People realised there was no chance of revolution, but there was change in attitude and anti- discrimination laws and better education for our children,” says Kenlock.

Black Panthers activists take part in a protest march (Neil Kenlock/Autograph ABP)Black Panthers activists take part in a protest march (Neil Kenlock/Autograph ABP)

 

The movement had many offshoots, too: there was a vibrant Black Women’s Group in Brixton (co-founded by Black Panther Olive Morris) and Howe was joined by Johnson and Dhondy in being involved in the highly influential Race Today. “I seriously believe that the methods we learnt, the ideology we imbibed and then the campaigns that we participated in gave rise to the legislation which outlawed discrimination in housing and employment,” Dhondy tells me. “We couldn’t make a Marxist-Leninist revolution. But we did establish the right of blacks to become proper citizens of Britain.”

On the one hand, the Panthers’ struggle for equal rights was successful, as seen in the day-to-day lives of those involved with Organised Youth – “Looking at them and the freedom of spirit in which they work, their generation has certainly benefited from the kind of nonsense we did in our time,” says Dhondy warmly.

Yet at the same time there is a worry among those interviewed for the exhibition that young people today are woefully apolitical. Barbara Beese challenged her young interviewers: “I do wonder, given what’s happening in our schools, I do wonder, given the experiences of everyday people [who have] a government that’s committed to social inequality rather than equality, that we haven’t had people out on the streets in different ways. I think the riots of a couple of years ago were probably flashed by that sense of injustice.”

For Kenlock, however, looking back at his work with these young people has left him hopeful. “It’s useful for younger people to see what their parents did so they can enjoy what they enjoy now. [The movement] was left-leaning, socialist, and I hope our young people will [also] give more to the community, educate themselves better, and take advantage of what is available in life. It was great to sit down and show them what we did to contribute to society.”

The British Black Panthers is at Photofusion Gallery, London SW9 (photofusion.org), from Wednesday to 26 October

>via: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/features/power-struggle-a-new-exhibition-looks-back-at-the-rise-of-the-british-black-panthers-8872269.html

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