Today in London’s anti-racist history: the League of Coloured Peoples formed, 1931.

The League was a British civil-rights organisation, founded in 1931 to work for racial equality around the world, though in practice its primary focus was black rights in Britain. However it also was involved in other civil-rights issues, such as the persecution of the Jews in Germany.

Harold Moody, a physician and devout Christian, was frustrated with the prejudice he experienced in Britain, from finding employment to simply obtaining a residence. Moody, had moved to London from Kingston, Jamaica, in 1904 to study medicine at King’s College, but met prejudice and exclusion, had trouble finding anywhere to live, and was refused a post in a hospital because a matron “refused to have a coloured doctor working in the hospital… the poor people would not have a nigger to attend them”. Nothing like blaming the poor for your own prejudices. In February 1913, he started his own medical practice in Peckham, South London.

For 30 years Dr Moody helped hundreds of black people who came to him in distress, having experienced at first hand a degrading, or humiliating aspect of the colour bar: finding it hard to get lodgings, or work. Moody would confront the employers and plead powerfully on behalf of those victimised.

He was instrumental in overturning the Special Restriction Order (or Coloured Seamen’s Act) of 1925, a discriminatory measure which sought to restrict subsidies to merchant shipping employing only British nationals and required alien seamen to register with their local police. Many Black and Asian British nationals worked as sailors, but often had no proof of identity and were at risk of being laid off and arrested. Through his involvement with London Christian Endeavour Federation, Moody began to confront employers who were refusing jobs to black Britons.

On 13 March 1931, in a YMCA in Tottenham Court Road, London, Moody called a meeting with the contacts he had made over the years. On this night, they formed The League of Coloured Peoples.

The League had four main aims:

(1) To promote and protect the social, educational, economic and political interests.

(2) To interest members in the welfare of coloured peoples in all parts of the world.

(3) To improve relations between the races.

(4) To cooperate and affiliate with organizations sympathetic to coloured people.

In 1937, a fifth aim was added:

  • To render such financial assistance to coloured people in distress as lies within our capacity.

It was notable, in contrast with some earlier organisations concerned with black civil rights, for its deliberate attempts to become a multi-racial organisation. At the founding meeting Moody stated that he found himself in a position to ‘make representations to government authorities, hospital managements, medical faculties, commercial concerns, factory proprietors, hotel and boarding house keepers and a host of others, not only in his own name and on the basis of his own status and reputation, but in the name of all the coloured peoples in Britain’ . Moody attempted to work at a high level, corresponding with, lobbying and meeting with Colonial Secretaries to push the League’s campaigns.

The League’s inaugural executive committee of included:

  • C. Belfield Clark of Barbados
  • George Roberts of Trinidad
  • Sam Morris of Grenada
  • Robert Adams of British Guiana
  • Desmond Buckle of The Gold Coast

Also present at the inaugural meeting was Stella Thomas, who would go on to become the first woman magistrate in West Africa.

Other prominent members included West Indian Marxist  C. L. R. James, Jomo Kenyatta (later first president of Kenya) and Jamaican writer, feminist, activist, (and first black woman producer at the BBC) Una Marson.

In 1933, the League began publication of the civil-rights journal The Keys.

The League worked in alliance with a wide variety of people – pan-Africanists, race rights groups, the Colonial Office, and pressure groups in the various colonies.

From the League’s founding, its main focus was eliminating the colour bar in the British workplace, in social life, and in housing. Throughout Britain in the 1930s, black people found it extremely difficult to find a job in many industries, and were refused service or access in many restaurants, hotels, and lodging houses, and also. During the 1930s, The League of Coloured Peoples struck many blows for blacks in the workplace. Given Moody’s own experiences racial discrimination in the medical profession in particular drew the attention of the league. By 1935, a branch of the league focusing on equality in the shipping industry had grown to over 80 members.

During the Second World War the LCP continued to highlight discrimination. For instance, authorities organising the evacuation of children from big cities towns struggled to find families who would accept to take in coloured children, and the LCP lobbied against this sort of discrimination.

While relatively small – the organisation never exceeded 500 members, and in 1936 it only had 262 – it was able to command press attention and exposure.

But apart from the opposition the Moody encountered from those who considered whites superior to other races, he also had his critics from other directions… Most notably he came under fire for his initial policy of refusing black people from Asia from joining the League of Coloured Peoples – despite the fact that he did allow white people to join (though they were barred from the executive committee). Moody and a number of other League members felt that ‘coloured peoples’ meant ‘the Negro Race, particularly those in Africa and the West Indies and under the rule of Great Britain. However, others, including some members of the League executive, asserted that the organisation should accept Indians as members and ‘engage in conflict with the British Government on their behalf’. This issue became hotly debated, especially given the League’s particular links to and activity around Britain’s West Indian colonies, since the Caribbean islands had a large Asian population – 43% of the population of British Guiana were Indian, for example. Eventually the policy changed.

But others criticised Moody’s work from a leftwing perspective, as pandering to imperialism. Moody’s campaigning was very much oriented to a ‘loyal’ perspective to the British Empire, reflecting his middle class background in colonial Jamaica. Education was very much aimed at infusing a cultural imperialism, a respect for British culture and a sense of black West Indians as British subjects, with deep affiliation to the Empire’s institutions. While Moody’s and the League’s conceptions of British identity, racial equality, challenged the dominant idea that ‘true’ Britons were, by definition, white, their worldview was firmly based in a vision of a British identity, “invoking an imperial British identity that drew on widely accepted elements of Britishness, namely respectability and imperial pride.”

Its undoubtedly true that by framing their work this way the League was able to gain support from black colonials and white English people in its fight for equality that a more radical or anti-imperialist perspective would have threatened. But it has also been suggested that merely challenging the assumption of the British identity as being white was in itself a challenge to the very idea of this identity. The racial superiority of ‘whites’ was a crucial plank in the imperial project, central to the administration and suppression of the colonies; compounded by both class and gender hierarchies that effectively defined “the true Briton as white, male and middle-class.”

Opposed to this the League put up a conception of Britishness rooted in common cultural values, based on the ideas of equality, fair play and justice: concepts that great numbers of middle-class white folk liked to see in themselves and liked to believe lay at the core of the British Empire.

Moody was himself staunchly opposed to socialism and communism, overtly expressing the idea that black poor would turn to communism unless there were concessions on the colour bar and racism… Left-wing political groups criticised Moody as an “Uncle Tom” and under the control of his “imperialist masters”; Pan-Africanists, many influenced by Marxism, noted the absence of any analysis of class from the League (while co-operating with it on its equal rights campaigns).

Dr Moody died in 1947 at the age of 64, somewhat worn out by his efforts with the League. The League of Coloured Peoples dissolved four years later, in 1951.

Read more:
Reversing the Gaze: Wasu, The Keys and The Black Man on Europe and Western Civilization in the Interwar Years, 1933-1937, an interesting study of The Keys, the league’s journal, with other black publications coming out of London in the same period.

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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