Spotlight on London’s radical herstory: The Brixton Black Women’s Group

The Brixton Black Women’s Group emerged from the Black Power movements that evolved in Britain in the 1960s-1970s, initially as an angry response to racism and police attacks.

Black communities in the UK were from the 1960s on often in a state of siege, confronted by repeated police raids, with or without warrants, trashing of people’s houses, intimidation, harassment on the street, searches, assaults. Black people were told that if they didn’t want to get nicked they should stay indoors. The massive widespread use of Section 24 of the 1824 Vagrancy Act to arrest people on suspicion that a crime may have been about to be committed, led to its infamous nickname  – the ‘SUS’ law. The charge was “loitering with intent to commit a crime” – cops only had to state that the suspect had done something to arouse their suspicion and then something else that led them to think a crime was about to be committed (usually theft), to justify an arrest. No evidence, independent witnesses, anything, was needed get a conviction. ‘SUS’ was heavily aimed at young black people.

In response to an increasing atmosphere of racism and violence, from police, organised racists, and to the systematic discrimination and deprivation they encountered every day, younger black activists, increasingly influenced by the powerful Black Power movements in the USA, began in the mid-1960s to organise resistance. The activities of radical black campaigners and fighters emerging from the US civil rights struggle, in particular the the US Black Panther party, inspired a number of UK-based groups. But they were also forged by their own daily experience on inner-city streets. Many of the activists who formed the early radical black groups shared a similar background – predominantly arriving in Britain as young children or early teenagers (often between 1959 and 1963), children of the first generation of migrants. The culture shock of arrival here, the experience of racism, both casual and institutional and low quality of life, the lack of opportunities, was blended with the realisation that they were likely here for good, and would have to fight to establish their position. This militancy began to distinguish them from the majority of their parents. Attempts to turn existing race relations groups into black militant groups, led to splits and divisions in organisations like the Institute of Race relations, Campaign Against Race Discrimination and others, and the emergence of more self-consciously revolutionary groups: the Universal Coloured People’s Association (UCPA), Britain’s first Black Power group, founded in 1967, and emerging from the UCPA, the British Black Panthers, and the Black Unity and Freedom Party.

These Black Power groups mobilised hundreds and later of mainly younger black people up and down the UK; through “demonstrations, boycotts, sit-ins, pickets, study circles, supplementary schools, day conferences, campaign and support groups”, aimed at racist immigration laws, police harassment, discrimination in housing, employment and education, many more were to be drawn in as the 70s went on. In tandem with this the movement set up education classes for local kids, running Saturday schools, Black Studies groups, libraries, ran social events, with a strong cultural element – dances, with sounds systems, poetry groups…

“Three Steps Behind the Men” ?

Women were vocal and active in this movement; from the first the Panthers, the Fasimbas and others had included a strong and confident caucus of black women. The Universal Coloured People’s Association had established a Black Women’s Liberation Movement. But this was the late ’60s and early ’70s – not only was a new black consciousness emerging, but a new women’s’ movement was also questing gender relations, and especially the roles of men and women in political organisations. Women in the Black Panthers began to meet and discuss male-female relations, later feeling the need to organise separately.

“The attitude of the ‘brothers’… often undermined our participation. We could not fully realise our full organisational potential in a situation where we were constantly regarded as sexual prey…”

“Every new woman was regarded as easy prey. Some of the brothers were called ‘flesh heads’ because people knew what they were about… The men certainly didn’t understand anything about women’s oppression… Nearly every one of them was a die-hard sexist… things were dominated by the men. We had very little say in anything, to begin with… There was this romantic image of African womanhood around at the time, although a lot of us were beginning to take on the idea that black women were strong and had a role to play, many of us hadn’t reached the stage where we could challenge the idea that we should walk three places behind the men. That’s why Angela Davis was such an inspiration to Black women at the time. She seemed to have liberated herself mentally and fought in her own development…”

Black women’s caucuses began to be formed in black organisations in the early 1970s, working on women’s issues, but also enabling women to come together as women, and address common experiences of both racial and sexual oppression. To some extent white feminism was an influence, but some in the black women’s movement attributed far more influence to people like Angela Davis, to the role of women in developing world liberation movements like Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe.

One of the earliest and well-known of the organisations that emerged from this ferment was the Brixton Black Women’s Group.

“We formed the Black Women’s group in 1973… We came mainly out of Black organisations. Some had left and some were still there, but on the whole the organisations we came from were in the process of disintegrating… Straight away we got accused of ‘splitting the movement’, of weakening organisations which were already on the way out… But for most of us setting up an autonomous group for Black women was really necessary at that time… there were issues that related to us as Black women, like women’s work, our economic dependence on men and childcare… it was a chance to put them at the top of the agenda for a change… We didn’t want to become part of the white women’ movement. We felt they had different priorities to us…
We help to set up and maintain the first Black bookshop in Brixton, and joined the Railton 4 Campaign over police harassment. We also mobilised the community in Brixton against the practice of setting up disruptive units, and helped in the campaign for parental rights.  As the first autonomous Black women’ group of its kind, certainly in London, there were no models for us to follow… We just had to work it out as we went along. We were very wary of charges that we might be ‘splitting the Black struggle’ or mobilising in a vacuum, or imitating white women. These were the kinds of criticism Black men were making all the time. We couldn’t be… anti-men… but it felt good to be in a group which wasn’t hostile and didn’t fight all the time… We would not have called ourselves feminists by any means – we didn’t go that far for many years. It took us a very long time before we worked out a Black women’s perspective, which took account of race, class, sex and sexuality.”

The links the Brixton Black Women’s group made with other developing groups, led on to the founding, in 1978, of the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent, a national grouping which brought together large numbers of black and Asian women.

In the interview that follows, three members of the Brixton Black Women’s Group give a brilliant insight into the activities, politics and discussions that animated the group.

Numbers in the text refer to notes the follow the article.

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

Talking Personal, Talking Political

Originally published in Trouble & Strife radical feminist magazine, no 19, 1990.

This interview with Olive Gallimore, Gail Lewis and Melba Wilson is a discussion about their individual reflections/perceptions by the Brixton Black Women’s Group and is not to be taken as the final word of the collective as a whole.

Agnes Quashie talks Gail Lewis, Melba Wilson and Olive Gallimore of Brixton Women’s Group about its activities, strengths and weaknesses, the contradictions of funding and the complex relationship Black women had and have to women’s liberation movement.

Agnes Quashie: Shall we begin with a history of how the group got started?

Gail Lewis: Basically it was a mixed group that started in 1974; women from Race Today [Note 1: See end of article] and women from Sabarr bookshop[2] who were working in mixed organisations and trying to form a women’s study group. The aim was to a space for themselves to look at the questions of colonialism and the nature of capitalist society, African history and these sorts of things. The object then, was probably to locate themselves as women but not particularly as feminists.

The context of Brixton at the time is important because it was when there was a very big local surge of political activity in a number of fields. There was, for example, a very active South London Women’s Charter[3] group that was a predominantly white women’s organisation but very much focused around questions of working class women’s relationship to work/employment. Some of the early Brixton Black Women’s Group (BWG) women felt that was a women’s organisation that they could have at least some sympathy with because it seemed to be related to questions of class whereas much of the Women’s Liberation Movement was organising in consciousness raising (CR) groups and was deemed to be not really to do with them certainly not to do with working class women as it was thought to be a ‘petit bourgeois’ diversion, if you like.

Something else that women were involved in at that time was the whole move in Brixton and other parts of the country on the question of housing and the demand for empty houses to be given over to local people to be renovated. At that time a squatters’ movement[4] was developing and one of our sisters who is dead now, a woman called Olive Morris[5], was involved in that and in setting up the study group. This was important, that we saw ourselves as an organic part of local community based political struggle. She was also involved in trying to set up Sabarr which was the Black book shop, because that was a time when we, as Black people, were particularly vocal, both in Britain and in the US, in  expressing the need for the learning and writing of our own history, literature being central, particularly resistance literature.

This also related to the whole question about imperialism politics, where literature was seen as a part of the resistance struggle; you know, the decolonisation of the mind and all that. Olive in fact got the Sabarr bookshop, the original one we had at the end of Railton Road, by going out as a part of the collective and claiming the building. In fact, when the council was going to evict them she went up onto the roof and said “I won’t come down until you let us have the building”. So what I’m saying is that the history of the group started as a study group, out of two locally based Black organisations, but saw itself very much as part of a community based organisation, campaigning on a number of issues.

AQ: How and why did each of you become involved?

Melba Wilson: I came to this country in 1977 from California where I was involved with consciousness raising type women’s groups and I had done a lot of things in terms of Black politics and community politics.

However when I came here I was looking for more of a consciousness raising (CR) group. Also I was looking to get connected to the Black community. I am married to a white British person and so I was cut off from the Black community, so in that sense the group was a sort of mainstay, a grounding.

CR was one of my main thrusts in the group and I kept on pushing that; that the personal is the political. But ultimately the group became for me a political education because, even though I had done a lot of work in the States, it was in the narrowly defined strictures of Black politics and basically it was all aimed at getting a piece of the pie, the American pie. BWG broadened my whole perspective in making me more aware of what Black people outside of the States were doing, and what Black people were doing outside of Britain, and in a sense it opened my eyes to the world.

Olive Gallimore: What was talked about little then was that women came out of different educational experiences or abilities or political understandings of their situations but there was the need to move beyond that. I was brought up in West London, I was a ‘single parent’ living in Vauxhall. I got to know other women, single women, women who were less articulate than the other women who were in BWG and I suppose in that sense I was part of this group of women who came in, but I wasn’t intimidated by that because there was some purpose behind it in sharing and moving beyond our current situation. Lots of things were happening at a community level and people were organising around education quite specifically. What was missing at that time was a clear political or feminist analysis of what was taking place and to find a way of using that to absorb as many women as there were. I think later on that created conflicts and it was quite an important political lesson for everyone involved.

GL: BWG was not the first women’s organisation that I had been involved in. As a teenager I had been involved in things like the Soledad Brothers[6] Support Campaign here, and briefly in something called the Black Liberation Front when it first split off from the [UK] Black Panthers[7]. I developed what I considered to be a Black consciousness, I had always thought of myself as some kind of a socialist as well, and during that period, before the late ’60s, I met one of the women who had been involved in setting up the study group and was introduced to a number of Black political events really, rather than a whole active network. Then I went away for a while because prior to that I had thought that feminism had nothing to do with Black women and working class women of any ‘race’. Then I started to read a few things and thought that maybe there is something in this and then got involved in 1975 in the National Abortion Campaign, as the lone Black woman, in the area where I was living.

I wanted a Black women’s group but was terrified because by this time I had also come out as a lesbian. I heard about a group that met every Sunday and I thought about it for a long time and then thought no, I can’t possibly go to a Black women’s group because I’m a dyke, and then one day I just took courage and went I joined the group because I felt not only did I want to be involved in a Black women’s group, but I wanted to be in a Black women’s group that defined itself as socialist and anti-imperialist.

There had to be some form of continuity for me in terms of my previous political development.

OG: For me came out of the Black Panther, Angela Davis[8] era; you know, the ‘most wanted woman in the United States’ and that kind of thing, and because as a single parent I had been working on those issues and like Gail wanted to belong, I got involved. What I wasn’t clear about at that time was feminism, so to speak, it wasn’t something close to me.

AQ: How were you run, was it collectively? Did you have funding?

GL: At that time we would have rejected funding. Our demand was that there are empty houses; we have a right to them as Black folks; we’re going to take them.

The study group used to meet in people’s houses and by the time we joined in 1978 we used to meet in Sabarr bookshop, in the room at the back. Clearly that was not satisfactory but it was a necessary step, because when we eventually came to discuss whether we should set up a centre there were many long and important discussions about whether an organisation like ours – one that was supposed to be revolutionary, supposed to be about change and centrally supposed to be critical of the state in the way in which it controls all Black people and working class people how could we take money from the state?

AQ: What did the organisation consider were its aims and objectives? Did it have a particular kind of politics; any particular labels by which to identify the people who were involved?

GL: We were a collective, but at the same time we had, like all other collectives, different individual women there. We had different forms of knowledge, we came from different kinds of political histories and political understandings, but there wasn’t one leadership position. On the contrary actually, that manifested itself more in organisations such as the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent (OWAAD)[9] than in BWG or in any of the local Black women’s organisations that we developed links with.

OG: I think that individuals were struggling to identify themselves and the community also saw us in a particular way. It was not until later that we sat down and decided who we were and wrote a position paper. It was not an overnight thing that you suddenly had one uniform concept of who we were. There was a lot of individuality within BWG. This is why the identity of the group involved at times a very deep and painful debating, to get those different focuses on the agenda.

MW: I suppose we were all already political women which is what made us come to BWG in the first place. We were all a certain type of Black woman and while we saw ourselves as being very much a part of our community, that did present problems in terms of Black community politics, male/female Black community politics. However, in terms of the workings of the group the coming together around a political basis was what provided the impetus and is what I think got us over a lot of those contradictions – even though we may not have dealt sufficiently with them at the time. For instance, the heterosexual/lesbian divide which is still hanging up the Black women’s movement to this very day, as I am sure you are aware.

At the same time I do think that we did try and deal with these issues, but it was after some prodding. When Gail got up in a meeting and came out to us it precipitated a whole load of discussion, heartache and soul-searching, which was good in terms of the group having to face its own weaknesses.

GL: The group, for most of the years that I was involved, was a heterosexual women’s group. I can remember saying to myself, “I have to tell these women that I am a lesbian”.

I was living with a white woman at the time and I felt this enormous split in my life, in terms of living as a lesbian and with a white woman then, yet being involved in anti-racist and Black women’s liberation politics. But I did not necessarily want to go into a discussion about it because I felt alone. I knew that some other women in the group were lesbians and for one woman in particular it was hidden from the rest of the women in the group for a long time. Granted, there may have been some discussion about lesbianism and what it meant, but in the late ’70s/early ’80s lesbianism was not seen as a political issue; it was seen as something you did privately and was therefore your own business. We really managed to hang ourselves up with that because like every other Black organisation at that time, we had a notion of the Black community as traditional, as homogenous and as unable to deal with difference.

After we got the Black Women’s Centre[10] in 1979/80, a Black lesbian group was formed. I was not a member of that, but they asked at some point if they could meet at our centre, and there was one hell of a furore amongst women from BWG, saying things like, “We can’t possibly have lesbians meeting in our centre, what would the community say? they’ll know”, and all this kind of stuff. By that time though there were enough other women, and not only the lesbian women in BWG but heterosexual women as well, who were saying, “This is crap, are they not our sisters?” So the lesbian group met in the centre but if you talked to any of the women who were involved in that, they never felt as if the centre could be claimed as their own; they always felt hostility.

There are also other questions about other identities and political positions. Some women may not have said that they were socialists as individuals but the group always said it was socialist.

MW: It wasn’t only the lesbian issue that was not adequately dealt with. For instance, I am in an inter-racial relationship and I had great angst about wanting to come out in that way and not feeling that I could. In the end I did pluck up courage and said it and one of my enduring memories is just how many other women in the group were in inter-racial relationships also and we just did not know it.

We were all afraid to come out in that way, which is why my thrust was always the personal becoming the political, because there was that sense that we could not talk about stuff that happened outside in our other lives.

It was like having a split personality, but in a way I felt a bit of a fraud, being in an interracial relationship, coming to a Black women’s group and not being able to discuss that whole other aspect of myself. This is why I pushed for the consciousness raising aspect of the group. Not to the exclusion of the active political campaigning work that we also did and which was the main thrust of the group, but I also thought that other strand was important. So we had these two strands working within the group for very much of its active period. However, I do believe that we began to deal with it in as straightforward a way as we could at the time, given our frame of reference. You have to remember that we were seen as an anachronism within the Black community; we were taking time away from the valuable Black struggle, talking about women’s politics, women’s rights and so on, and that was seen as a white women’s issue diverting our energies away from the Black struggle. There were all these things going on at the same time, which we were just trying to work through on a daily basis.

GL: I was probably one of the most vocal women in the group and I can remember saying, “I don’t want a CR group”. I mean there was an Irish war going on, there was Palestine, there was Southern Africa, there was class struggle in Britain and we had a wealth of information and something to offer. So I wanted to foreground all that stuff.

MW: I don’t think it got in the way of our work. It was left hanging, but it was left hanging while we got on with the business of fighting the SUS[11] laws and fighting the virginity testing at Heathrow Airport[12] and doing a lot of really good work. I mean, we did have an agenda, and in those Sunday meetings when we met from three o’clock until six/seven, the things that were on those agendas were about the SUS laws, about how we could organise as a community to stop young Black boys being stopped and hassled by the police. We organised around health, fighting against Depo Provera[13] injections and all that kind of stuff.

OG: There was also the issue of whether or not the group ought to accept partnership money (funding). As I remember it, the discussion was quite fierce and went on for weeks. In the end it was agreed that we would, but Olive (Morris) also insisted that she be statemented as saying she did not want to be a part of this, based on a political analysis of the state getting involved in the lives of Black people and buying them off.

GL: The cost was that we lost individuals. Women would come for a short period of time and then feel that the set-up wasn’t for them. This was usually for different reasons.

Sometimes they would say, “I am not a socialist”; some of them were more separatist; for some it was not a feminist enough type of group. But I think the key thing here is that it was contradictory. It was contradictory in the sense that I was the only out lesbian for quite a while, but I was also one of the people who was arguing against talking personal, that this was a political organisation and not necessarily a friendship organisation.

AQ: How did you see BWG’s relationship to predominantly white feminist organisations; about the idea of women being in sisterhood, Black as well as white women? Did you have close links with other women’s groups that had a predominantly white involvement? Lastly, what do you think about white women who are involved in politics and struggles pertaining to Black women? How do you see these things fusing together, or don’t they?

GL: Let’s start with the ‘easiest’ one about what other women’s organisations we were connected to. We were connected to many, and we also worked alongside many, and we were actively involved in other Black women’s groups that started. We were very much involved in setting up OWAAD. We were connected to other women’s organisations fighting around anti-imperialism: to SWAPO[14] Women, Zanu Women[15] and with women from Ethiopia, Eritrea; with Black American women’s organisations, with Irish women’s organisations. To some extent we were also involved with women organising around Palestine and anti-Zionism. We also mixed with many other organisations, like the Depo Provera campaign for example. We also had links with, but a different type of relationship with, other white women’s organisations that did not have a specific anti-imperialist focus, like reproductive rights. It was a much more tense relationship with such organisations but we weren’t necessarily fighting against each other.

What is problematic is, because there is scanty documentation about our work and aims, both Black and white women have picked up a very wrong picture of the politics of Brixton Black Women’s Group; saying things like we were completely against free and safe abortion on demand on the NHS, for example. We always supported the demand for a woman’s right to free and safe abortion, but we also said that abortion was not the sole issue. I mean from our own experiences, from what we knew to be happening to Black women in this country and from a kind of picture of the world.

MW: With regard to the second part of your question, I think BWG set itself up to be an autonomous Black organisation and I think that was partly because some BWG members had been involved with white women’s organisations/movement, and had come away feeling very disillusioned by the racism that they found within them; as well as the refusal generally to accept that there were issues that concerned Black women, or that Black women were involved with, that meant that we operated within a mixed (female/male) context within our communities and that we did not see ourselves as separate from our communities in their entirety. We consciously organised as a Black women’s organisation because we wanted to address those things. I suppose that it was a reaction to the racism in the white women’s movement as well, and it was also a reaction to the sexism of Black men, so in that sense we were a consciously Black and female organisation.

GL: I don’t think that we had a principle by which we responded to white women feminist organisations or white women socialists or whatever. What guided us, despite the fact that some women felt extremely suspicious of white women’s organisations, even when they were organisations like Women Against Imperialism for example, was saying that we come from a position of Black socialist feminism; our central concerns are the antiracist/ the Black Liberation struggle, the anti-imperialist struggle and the struggle against capitalism. Therefore we decided that we would work with, we would make alliances with people as and when we could see that they were also fighting for those things. We acknowledged that alliances are not a matter of principle, alliances have to be strategic.

AQ: Was it difficult to negotiate all those different identities, i.e. at one and the same time being a Black women’s organisation, a community-based organisation and negotiating that with wider women’s issues as you say making alliances and also at the same time acknowledging the racism that can come from those alliances and dealing with them? Was it difficult to negotiate all those things and come out with something that you felt was positive?

OG: It was a minefield. Rather than use the white women’s group terms ‘in sisterhood with’ we would say ‘in solidarity with’. This is because we were still working out the racism or at least forcing them to look at that Again in terms of this concept of ‘in sisterhood’, although I did not have any formal contact with white women’s groups, I think very warmly of individual white women who contributed very significantly to my understanding of what was going on. At the time I did not see how valuable it was to me. However, now I can see that it has been extremely important in shaping and giving me hope.

GL: But I think the way we negotiated it, and negotiated is exactly the right word, was because of the way we operated. We would have our Sunday meetings and then we would go off to do things that we had been collectively delegated to do. The strength of that is that you could always argue with other organisations that you were representing BWG. BWG grew in terms of how much respect it had; it was recognised in terms of socialist feminist networks at the activist level. There was a great deal of strength in that because you knew if there was a problem you could always go back to the group to get some feedback and work out how to proceed.

In many ways the most fraught sorts of negotiations that we had to deal with were with the men involved in the Brixton Defence Campaign[16]. After the 1981 uprising we had close links with the organisations in Toxteth[17] by now the women from BWG and the women and men from the Brixton Defence Campaign joined and went to Liverpool. We still had to make it known that we had something to say; that we were not just the providers of space – they used to meet in our centre – and the people who did the typing.

We still had to fight to be heard. I remember there was a big row, on the coach on the way back from Liverpool, between the women and the men and that created quite a big rift between us. Some of the sharpest contradictions that arose,· arose in relation to Black men rather than in relation to white women.

OG: Although it did not affect me directly in my confrontation with some of those men, I know that some very strong sisters were physically quite shaken by that experience.

Where there were differences between the women in those different groups, we could argue quite forcefully about them, but there still remained a great deal of respect amongst us. However that sort of respect was missing in our disagreements with the men and they were often quite dismissive of us in very derogatory terms and they did not want to look at why they were behaving in those particular ways.

AQ: I am conscious of what I am going to ask next, because at times I get slightly wary of the motives behind questions that are constantly asked about the relationships between Black women and Black men. However, having made my qualification, why do you think your relationships with white women were less problematic than with Black men?

OG: Black men, those so-called political men, saw Black feminism as divisive, in the sense that it was splitting the movement and those of us who had a long and continuing relationship with Black men weren’t communicating with them on that political level. With white women that is the basis on which a lot of relationships have been formed. But the immediate problems between the Black man and the Black woman were not analysed in that way; communication was about personal things the way you treat me, the personal not being the political – and I don’t think that the Black men had grasped that. Also they themselves were struggling through nationalist politics and had become quite entrenched in their own sexism and domination of women. It was only a privileged few of those men who were able to come out and look at all these things in a political context, but even they did not really want to spend a great deal of time looking at those issues we were raising because it struck at the very foundation of their own existence. They would have to undo a lot of things to get it right, but they were not prepared to do that.

GL: We were working with them, we were part of the Brixton Defence Campaign, we were meeting on our territory and some of those guys felt extremely threatened. I mean we did have political time for some of them, but others were just jokers; separatist, chauvinist people that we did not have much in common with politically, over and above Black nationalist politics. Even those that we did have political time for felt threatened. I remember we had this Hindi poster with a woman holding a machete type thing and some of those guys would come into the meetings saying that they really couldn’t handle the poster. They would say things like, “I don’t know how to be with you any more, just talking to you individually”. I can also remember being asked, “Do you think that Black feminism is becoming so strong now that all Black women are going to become lesbians?” There was also some disagreement as to how these tensions could be rationalised.

Some of the men and a few of the women would say it was all about personal relationships and others of us argued that it was about politics.

OG: These problems show where we were at that time and I think we have made tremendous strides since then, with still a long way to go and we are very hopeful because I don’t think that we are in a position to cut off any form of voice because we are all oppressed in one way or another. However, being oppressed does not mean at the same time you cannot oppress others. That was always another issue: was it possible for us to oppress each other within the group? As you can imagine some of us said “yes” and others said “no”, but I do think that at times we did intimidate one another.

MW: Not intentionally.

OG: I believe that we can turn oppression on each other: I can oppress you at one time, and you can oppress me on another. Whether it is intentional or not, the effects linger on.

AQ: So do you think the conflicts that came out of all that were productive, even though it was a hard and painful struggle?

OG: In the main.

GL: I agree, but with costs, because we lost some good women. I mean there was so much going on, there was friendships breaking down.

OG: It was too much to handle.

AQ: How did the group change, in terms of its earlier days, to that point at which the group as a collective ‘dissolved’ itself?

GL: We began to document our history. By then we had come to some agreement that documentation was quite important. Before, we would just write position papers which we discussed, because this was a way to encompass the division of interest amongst us, a way to share information, If you look in the earlier newsletters, nothing was given an individual person’s name, besides the poetry and contributions that came from other organisations.

Later it became the case that you could write individual pieces in Speak Out [18] for example.

Another move that we made was to become very definitely and very statedly socialist feminists, actually saying we were a socialist feminist organisation.

OG: We also started moving towards taking up lesbian feminist struggles, for example. But going back to what Gail said about the organisation losing many good women, we have to acknowledge that some of those women left because they did not agree with the direction in which they thought the group was going. Some of those that left wanted to become engaged purely in practice and they thought that BWG was becoming an elitist organisation by, say, sitting down and writing ‘position papers’ on these areas.

MW: There was also some recognition of the personal as well, towards the end. And in fact when we finally closed BWG, one of the things that came out of it was a group called “Sisters in Study”. This group not only dealt with study but with our personal interaction with each other and this was now an equal part of our agenda.

GL: We also moved from the earlier days where we were about creating a space in which women could meet together, for whatever purposes, to being a Black women’s organisation which foregrounded gender relations.as being the object of political change.

OG: Even the day and time that we met was an empowering factor in our lives. I mean, we met on Sunday afternoons between two and whenever, and that was generally a time of day when people stayed at home.

MW: In fact that was quite liberating for many of us, because to get that space was not easy for some BWG women; you know to leave the cooking and all the rest of it.

GL: I suppose the puzzle is, with all that going for it, why did it end?

MW: Many of the issues changed, for a start.

Many of the issues that we were involved with – Depo Provera, SUS, disruptive units – in a sense had been won. At the same time, while we were looking for a new focus, younger women were coming into BWG. I think we began to feel a bit like old fogeys and some of us who had been involved in that ten year period of high activity felt as if we had given as much as we could at that point and that perhaps it was time to make room for the younger women coming along with new ideas.

GL: But they couldn’t hold the group together either. I think that to a certain extent we had won some of the battles but there still remained other issues. For example, policing as an issue is still there. I think a split appeared in the group between women who had been involved in the organisation for a long time and who had come to formulate a ‘shared’ perspective, and between women coming from outside who did not share that perspective and many of whom would not define themselves as socialist. There were some who did not see the campaigning issues as being the same ones as we would have.

OG: Also some people were just physically exhausted.

MW: We were just tired. I mean it is hard to get across the level of intensity during that period. It required a lot from all of us, in addition to the rest of our lives – you know, working and living and families and children and that kind of thing.

OG: There was also the effect of losing certain sisters at that stage in the group; the death of Olive, the death of Sylvia[19] and others was quite a devastating experience as well.

GL: The other thing that happened was the grants strategy; you know, we became a bloody management committee with workers -we became employers. We stopped doing the things that we used to do, like standing on street corners selling papers – or more usually giving them away. We weren’t knocking on doors any more. All we had to do by then was to give out a few leaflets through the council premises. At first we didn’t; at first we would go out and encourage women, but we weren’t doing that any more; instead we just put it through the internal Lambeth mailing. We had become bloody managers, and this is what happens so often. You know, to get funding you have to meet certain criteria; to meet those criteria you have to adopt certain structures and to a great extent the structures dictate the relationships.

OG: Also, those who hold the purse strings know that we have certain unmet needs and goals and it’s like a carrot dangling. I think the obvious thing is that we had not thought it all through, you know; what it meant to acquire those things through those means.

MW: I think we did think them through, but we thought that we could overcome them.

OG: And we might have done, could have done; if we had tried even harder still.

GL: Maybe, if we were still the same group, but obviously we weren’t any more. You see the membership changed and was fluid by this time. Also, things might have worked out if we were centred around a particular project like Southall Black Sisters[20], who organise around the whole question of women and violence and everything that stems from that. We were more amorphous. We were also victim of not only the internal dynamics of BWG but also the fracturing of Black political activity; the fracturing, if not the demise of women’s liberation political activity and the general political environment.

OG: With all its imperfections, if we were to do it again I would still be a member of BWG. But, you know, I take the African saying that there are no mistakes in life but only lessons to be learnt, and I know that my life has certainly been enriched by that experience.

GL: Oh yes, I totally agree.

MW: Definitely, and in that sense it has not finished, because all those people who went through BWG in those early years remain committed to its principles, to its ideals, and conduct their lives in that way. Of course we carry it through in different ways: for example I am a freelance journalist, so whatever I do, whatever I am involved in is informed by those years. Olive is an educational social worker and acts accordingly in the work that she does. Gail lectures in trade unionism at a polytechnic and her work is also informed by her years in BWG. So in that sense BWG lives.

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

Also well worth a read for more on the Brixton Black Women’s Group and the wider Black Women’s movement in the UK:

  • Do You Remember Olive Morris? produced by the Remembering Olive Morris Collective, 2010.
  • Heart of the Race: Black Women’s Lives in Britain, Beverley Bryan, Stella Dadzie and Suzanne Scafe, 1985. Now back in print over 30 years after its first appearance – a vital read.
  • The British Black Panthers and Black Power Movement: An oral history and photography Project, published by Organised Youth. Produced for a exhibition in Brixton 2013 – some audio and photos from this project are online at http://organisedyouth.tumblr.com

Notes on the text
Compiled by past tense

1 – Race Today: Originally linked to the Institute of Race Relations, Race Today was a black-run political magazine, which adopted a socialist position. It moved to Brixton, and was taken over by a group of mainly former Panthers, who had started to drop out of the party. Operating from 165 Railton Road, (above Brixton Advice Centre), the magazine became a strong voice in the 1970s and ‘80s, a fighting magazine reporting on black community struggles and burning issues of the day, and helping to build black organisations, eg the British Black Panthers, and other organisations like the Northern Collectives up in Bradford and Leeds. The journal was involved in several important campaigns that helped to transform both the political and cultural lives of black people in Britain. Many former Panthers became involved in Race Today, including editor Darcus Howe, dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson and Farrukh Dhondy, later commissioner/editor of Channel Four’s cultural programs.

2 – Sabarr Books: Sabarr Bookshop is sometimes called the first Black Bookshop in Brixton, (though in fact the Black Panthers had set up Unity Bookshop in Brixton’s Railton Road in 1973. which had been burned to the ground when a firebomb was placed in the letter box). Sabarr Bookshop opened at 121 Railton Road, after it was re- squatted around 1974. Sabarr was later moved from 121 Railton Road to 378 Coldharbour Lane, at some point around 1980: the building where the Archives and Museum of Black Heritage and then the Black Cultural Archives were subsequently located during the 80s and 90s. (121 Railton Road was shortly afterward re-squatted by an anarchist collective, and ran as an anarchist centre, bookshop, cafe and gig and meeting space until 1999.)

3 – South London Womens Charter: Probably means a branch of the socialist-feminist current which appeared during the time of the Working Women’s Charter Campaign, which laid down its aim as producing a synthesis of socialism and feminism.
The Working Women’s Charter was drawn up by the subcommittee of the London Trades Council in March 1974. At its height it had 27 groups in towns and cities across the UK and was supported by 12 national unions, 55 trade union branches, 37 trade councils and 85 other organisations; it also published a monthly newspaper. The driving force behind the WWCC was the International Marxist Group and other smaller left groupings. The campaign attempted throughout the 1970s to support women in trade union disputes, most notably at TRICO (equal pay). It worked jointly with the London-based national nurseries campaign over the extension of nursery facilities and against cuts in local authority nurseries. The WWCC emphasised the importance of women pursuing their claims through direct action rather than by taking cases under the Equal Pay Act and Sex Discrimination Act — the preferred option by the trade union bureaucracy. The women (and some men) active around the Charter in the main regarded themselves as socialist feminists and saw the Charter as a way of taking feminist ideas into the trade union and labour movement.

4 – Black squatting in Brixton: In the late 1960s and early 70s, Brixton became one of the most heavily squatted areas in London, for a number of reasons, but mainly because of high homelessness and a high demand for housing, especially among young people in the area, the presence of hundreds of empty run down houses (many compulsorily purchased for a massive redevelopment scheme which never happened), and a growing counter-culture which adopted squatting for the possibilities it offered. Although a large white squatting scene emerged, many local black youth also began to squat. From the early 70s the younger, more militant generation faced increasing black homelessness caused by massive overcrowding in traditional West Indian households, conflict with an older and more conservative generation in some cases getting them thrown out, and a hostile housing market, inflexible council housing policies or hostels. Many local black kids were sleeping rough, on building sites, etc. As a result, from about 1973-4 many occupied council properties. The black Melting Pot organisation played a part in housing many youth, from their squatted HQ in Vining Street (which was attacked by racists in August 1983. They later moved to Kellet Road).

Many houses, especially along Railton Road, were turned into ‘blues’ clubs, home to unlicensed drinking, smoking and reggae, in defiance of the authorities. The Blues had since the fifties been a response to the exclusion of blacks from many pubs and clubs, and this scene grew as younger kids with little respect for white society and white authority reached their teens. A lot of the black squatters had little contact with squatting groups, which were usually dominated by middle-class whites; relations were on occasion fractious. Race Today in 1974 claimed that black people were squatting in the areas they grew up in, that they were more likely to receive support from their community, “whereas the white squatters, who are generally London’s floating bedsitter population, set up squats in different areas with no organic relation to the indigenous population around them.”

Read more on squatting in Brixton

5 – Olive Morris: In 1969, aged 17, Olive, who grew up in Brixton, went to the aid of a black man the police were harassing, was nicked herself and strip-searched at the police station. She never looked back from then on, becoming a Black Panther, and gaining a reputation locally for her willingness to get stuck in and help people in battles with the authorities; whether over housing, social security, police, or the courts… Like many of the Panther generation, Olive arrived in the UK from the West Indies as a child, and went through school and teenage years in Brixton experiencing the xenophobia and inequality that characterised the migrant experience. From it she emerged a fierce and uncompromising fighter against the powers that be.

“Olive and I went to the same school. Even then she had that streak in her – in school, they would have called it rebelliousness or disruptiveness, but it was really a fearlessness about challenging injustice at whatever level… She would take anybody on…”
“I saw her once confronting a policeman – it might have been when she was evicted. She went for him like a whirlwind and cussed him to heaven. And this policeman looked really taken aback, he didn’t know how to deal with someone who had no fear of him. He was meant to represent the big arm of the law. But because she was angry and she knew he was in the wrong, she didn’t hesitate.”

Olive was an early squatter, and helped to develop the black squatting scene in Brixton; she was one of two original squatters of 121 Railton Road, in the building which later became famous as Sabarr Books, and then 121 anarchist bookshop.

Liz Obi: “We were introduced to squatting by some white women who were squatting a shop with a flat above it at the top end of Railton Road and who had opened it up as a Women’s Centre. We had visited the Centre on a couple of occasions and learnt from them about squatting and the law and we decided we would look for somewhere to squat ourselves. 121 was the derelict Sunlight laundry on Railton Road consisting of a shop downstairs and a flat upstairs – we managed to get into the building one night and we had a look around and the following week some squatters from the squatters group came along and showed us ho to change the locks, turn on the water and the electricity supply, and we moved in.”

Olive re-squatting 121 Railton Road

They faced three illegal eviction attempts, but always managed to get back in and stayed there for about a year before a possession order was granted to the landlord and they had to move out. But the building was then re-squatted by others for use as Sabarr black bookshop; and was to be squatted more or less continuously until 1999, when in its the later incarnation as the 121 anarchist centre it was finally evicted by armed police. (But that’s another story.)
After the Panthers fragmented, Olive was involved in setting up Sabarr Books, then became a founder of Brixton Black Women’s Group, moved to Manchester to study Social sciences at university, and helped to found Manchester Black Women’s Co-op. She later travelled to China. However, in 1979, aged only 26, Olive died of cancer.
Lambeth Council in its Leftspeak days named Olive Morris House on Brixton Hill after her, council offices including the dreaded Housing Benefit Department…
[In April 2020, in the midst of the Corona virus lockdown, the council decided to begin the demolition of this building – putting builders working there in danger or spreading the virus, since social distancing on demolition sites is impossible… and also spreading dust around Brixton Hill during a respiratory crisis. Nice one Lambo.]

Recently interest in this amazing character has revived; there is a brilliant website dedicated to her memory
They have also published a book: Do You Remember Olive Morris?

6 – Soledad Brothers: The Soledad Brothers were three African-American inmates charged with the murder of a white prison guard, John Vincent Mills, at California’s Soledad Prison on January 16, 1970. George Jackson, Fleeta Drumgo, and John Clutchette were said to have murdered Mills in retaliation for the shooting of three black prisoners during a prison fight in the exercise yard three days prior by another guard, Opie G. Miller.

The Soledad Brothers Defense Committee was formed by Fay Stender to assist in publicizing the case and raising funds to defend Jackson, Drumgo, and Clutchette. The case achieved huge publicity and notoriety. Jackson in particular had become well known as a Black Panther, and was targetted by the prison authorities and justice system in retaliation for his political agitation. In August 1970, Jackson’s 17-year old brother Jonathan was killed during an armed attempt to take hostages and free the Brothers. Two weeks later George Jackson was killed in an armed escape attempt (possibly set up by the prison guards). Seven months later the remaining two prisoners were acquitted of the murder of Mills. Jackson’s prison writings have since raised him to important status in radical circles as a modern theorist of US imperialism and racism.

7 – Black Panthers and Black Liberation Front: Brixton’s West Indian community had faced racism and police violence from its inception, increasing in the 1960s, when local police labeled their roaming of the streets to beat up and arrest young blacks as ‘nigger hunting’. In the late 1960s-early 70s, a combination of street resistance and political thinking (influenced by both US black nationalism and African liberation movements) helped give birth to the British Black Panther Party, whose Brixton chapter was one of its mainstays and whose base of operations was around the ‘frontline’ (their HQ was in Shakespeare Road). Local actions concentrated on resistance to police oppression, education programs for black kids often excluded by mainstream schools,
and a lot of cultural expression. Targetted by police but always at the forefront of fighting back… Such luminaries as Linton Kwesi Johnson, Darcus Howe, Farrukh Dhondy emerged from its ranks; Race Today and many other groups also emerged from the breakup of the organisation.
The Black Liberation Front was a splinter that emerged from the Panthers in London, mainly based in West London (notably Ladbroke Grove, one on the other main strongholds of the early Panthers). The BLF maintained a bookshop in Golborne Road, Ladbroke Grove, Grassroots Storefront. It developed links with liberation struggles in Africa and throughout the African diaspora, and regularly organised the annual Africa LiberationDay celebrations in co-operation with other organisations in Britain. By establishing supplementary schools, community bookshops, affordable housing for black families and support for black prisoners, the movement focused on developing Pan-African consciousness, consolidating black political identity and challenging the impact of racism in Britain.

A very basic introduction to Brixton policing in the 1970s, the black community and the Black Panthers, can be read ‘In the Shadow of the SPG’, published by past tense, which can be bought online at: http://www.alphabetthreat.co.uk/pasttense/past-tense-publications.html and several good radical bookshops in London.

8 – Angela Davis: Leading US black radical, communist and thinker, close to the black Panthers, who remains active and writing today. An academic at the University of California, and also active in social and political activism, Davis was targetted by state governor Ronald Reagan who tried to have her barred from teaching in 1969 because of her outspoken attacks on police racism. She was a supporter of the Soledad Brothers (see above), and bought the firearms used by Jonathan Jackson in his armed attack on a courthouse in August 1970. As a result Angela Davis as charged with “aggravated kidnapping and first degree murder” of a hostage judge. Davis went on the run, was arrested and held on remand. Her case became another huge international cause celebre: she was eventually acquitted. She remained active in the Communist Party until 1991.

9 – The Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent (OWAAD), a national organisation founded in 1978, by a number of groups including the Brixton Black Women’s Group; it sought to bring together Black women from a number of different backgrounds and political perspectives in Britain. Many of those who set up OWAAD were students living in Britain who came from Africa. Women from OWAAD gave support to women on strike (for example the Futters Strike, in Harlesden in 1979), to women involved in education battles against sin-bins and expulsions, to women fighting the Sus laws; and those facing deportation, and opposing virginity tests for migrant women (see below). However divisions over a number of issues led to OWAAD’s effective collapse in 1982.
Here’s an interesting short perspective on OWAAD’s formation and activities, written by members of the Brixton Black Women’s Group.

10 – Brixton Black Women’s Centre (BWC): The Brixton Black Women’s Group was initially based at 65 Railton Road: later they set up the Black Women’s Centre, located at 41 Stockwell Green, SW9. The BWC aimed “to give help and support to Black women in the community. We do this by: providing a welfare rights information and referral service; participating in a health group; providing meeting facilities; holding open days on themes reflecting Black women’s lives and struggles; having a small but growing library; running children’s projects at Easter and summer holidays.

11 – SUS laws: The massive widespread use by police of Section 24 of the 1824 Vagrancy Act, to stop and search and then arrest, people on suspicion that a crime ‘may have been about to be committed’, led to its infamous nickname – the ‘SUS’ law. The charge was “loitering with intent to commit a crime” – cops only had to state that the suspect had done something to arouse their suspicion and then something else that led them to think a crime was about to be committed (usually theft), to justify an arrest. No evidence, independent witnesses, anything, was needed to get a conviction. SUS was heavily aimed at young black people; for instance 89% of sus defendants attending Balham Juvenile Court in 1976 were black. Lambeth was consistently the highest area in London for sus arrests. Daily use of SUS was a major factor in provoking the 1981 riots in Brixton and elsewhere.

12 – Virginity testing at Heathrow Airport: At least 80 women from India and Pakistan hoping to emigrate to Britain to marry were intimately examined by immigration staff to “check their marital status” in the late 1970s.

At that time, immigration rules stipulated that an engaged woman coming to Britain to marry her fiance within three months did not need a visa, whereas a bride required a visa in order to join her husband. If immigration officers suspected a woman was married, but was pretending to be engaged to avoid the wait for a visa, she would be taken away for an examination.

In 1979, the Home Office admitted to just three tests (after initially denying the practice). The technique was banned in February 1979 after the Guardian revealed that a 35-year-old Indian woman was examined by a male doctor at Heathrow to check whether she was in fact a virgin.

The Home Office initially denied that any internal examination had taken place.

13 – Depo Provera: A birth control drug, widely proscribed in developing countries and to poor women particularly in both the developing and developed world, on many occasions without their knowledge or consent. Depo Provera has been widely linked to permanent sterility and infertility, the development of breast cancer and an increase in a person’s chances of acquiring and transmitting HIV/AIDS, as well as a number of other serious medical conditions. Black and radical activists and feminists have raised the accusation that DP was deliberately used by manufacturers and health organisations (including Pfizer, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Planned Parenthood, the US Agency for International Development(USAID), the UN, the World Health Organisation, the Center for Disease Control, Columbia and Johns Hopkins Universities) of promoting DP as part of a eugenics agenda, aimed at reducing the birth rates of the poor, and especially africans and african-americans.

14 – SWAPO Women: SWAPO is the South West African People’s Organisation, formerly a national liberation movement, fighting to free the African country of Namibia from colonial rule by Apartheid-era South Africa; since 1990 the governing party of Namibia as an independent country.

15 – Zanu Women: The Women’s League of Zanu PF, in the 1970s the main Zimbabwean national liberation movement – since 1980 the governing party in Zimbabwe.

16 – Brixton Defence Campaign: In the immediate aftermath of the April 1981 Brixton riot/uprising the Brixton Defence Campaign was set up to defend the several hundred arrested, both legally and politically. Founded immediately after the riot, the first meeting was held at the Black Women’s Centre:

“The fact that we initiated the Brixton Defence Campaign, took on alot of the leadership, and, as a group, put in most of the work, shows how strong politically Black women had become and how much support there was in the community for the group. Many of the ‘committees’ set up by the brothers in the aftermath of the uprisings had failed. In some cases, the first meetings had ended in chaos. There were all kinds of conflicting interests… We recognised that the police would step up their operations. We also knew that we had to work quickly to counteract the media’s coverage of ‘Black Mobs on the Rampage’ and ‘Black Masses Rioting’, so that people could understand what had really happened.

Anyway, after the failure of the initial public meetings, the women’s group came together to discuss the brief of the campaign. The first meeting was held at the Black Women’s Centre, and after that it became the base of the campaign. We acted very quickly, using the skills we had to start distributing leaflets, organising more public meetings and producing a regular bulletin. We had two objectives really. The first was the practical matter of getting competent legal representation for the hundreds of people who’d been arrested. And the other was to publicise the police tactics which had led to the uprisings and to alert the community to particular incidents of brutality. We did this by holding street meetings on Railton Road, bringing the issues to the attention of the people. And we co-ordinated with other campaigns and defence committees in other parts of the country so that we could monitor the police operations in our communities outside London.” (from The Heart of the Race, Beverley Bryan, Stella Dadzie and Suzanne Scafe)

17 – Toxteth: Otherwise known as Liverpool 8, an area of Liverpool’s inner city, like Brixton with a large black population, and subject to similar tensions around racism and policing. Centre of several riots in the city from 1981-85.

18 – Speak Out: The Brixton Black Women’s Group’s newsletter.

19 – Sylvia: Sylvia Erike, another member of the Brixton Black Women’s Group, who like Olive Morris also died tragically young.

20 – Southall Black Sisters: A black feminist group, which emerged among Asian women in Southall, West London, still going strong today. Established in August 1979 in the aftermath of the death of anti-fascist activist Blair Peach, who had taken part in a demonstration against a National Front rally at Southall Town Hall, the SBS was originally established in order to provide a focus for the struggle of Asian women in the fight against racism, but became increasingly involved in defending the human rights of Asian women who are the victims of domestic violence and in campaigning against religious fundamentalism.
Contact Southall Black Sisters

More here: Gail Lewis talks about the BBWG, consciousness raising and action.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.