1976, the Southall Youth Movement and the birth of anti racism
The slogan ‘take back control’ are three toxic words which took centre stage during last years EU referendum debate.
The Leave campaigners wanted a positive message and decided that this would empower people. At a time when individuals have never less empowered, its message was not positive at all, but fed into people’s deep anxieties about immigration. This is deep seated anxiety and has been fed through the words of newspaper reports about the Jewish community during the 1930’s, in the words of Oswald Mosely in Notting Hill in the 1958, and most powerfully in the words of Enoch Powell in 1968.
Powell’s words still have a deep impact on British politics, but during the early 70’s it directly led to the growth of racist attacks, and far right groups such as the National Front. The National Front grew on the words of Powell, and the campaign to oppose Britain’s membership of the European Economic Community, which began on 1 January 1973. By 1976 it had 14,000 registered members, and polled nearly 20% of vote in local elections in Leicester. Yet, it was in 1976 that communities across the country began to come out and fight back against racism.
Everyone who grew up in the 1970’s will remember the long hot summer of 1976, however for many young people the summer was a ‘coming of age’, a moment when British youth, both black and white, challenged the engrained racism of the 1970’s and began to forge a new vision for Britain.
The background to the Youth Movement was the immigration hysteria across the press about the rights of non-white UK passport holders from East Africa, Singapore and Malaysia. The Press first started its concerted campaign with the ’revelation’ that a homeless Asian family expelled from Malawi was being housed in a four-star hotel at a cost of £600 per week to the British tax payer. The question of the rights of ‘British Asians’ was taken up by the Press and politicians with endless debates over the numbers about to come to Britain. In this atmosphere, the fascist National Front party marched boldly through ’immigrant areas’ under police protection, and demonstrated at the ports of entry against Asians from Malawi coming home to Britain.
Racism was rife. The Institute of Race Relations closely the monitored the press in 1976 and noted the close correlation between press reports and families facing racist violence. Jenny Bourne writing in Race and Class noted, “On 2 May, the News of the World headline read: ’One slips through on every boat’; three days later Asian parents in Redbridge made an appeal for the safety of their children after they were constantly attacked in the school playground. On 6 May the Sun headlines read, ’Another 20,000 Asians are on the way’ and ’Storm over two-wife immigrant’. That night an Asian shop in West Essex was repeatedly attacked. On 7 May the Sun reported, ’4-star Asians run up £4,000 bill’ and’ Queue jumping rumpus’. The Guardian on 9 May headlined ’Asians rile neighbours’ (the report was, in fact, on how the Malawian family was set upon by white families at the ’reception centre’ to which they were moved from the hotel). The next day a concrete slab was thrown through the window of a Asian’s house in Hackney, paraffin was poured over the furniture and it was set alight. Four days later a 40-year-old Bengali in Oldham was beaten and knifed by a-gang of fifteen white youths. Shopkeepers and restauranteurs reported continual attacks. On 17 May the Daily Express wrote of ’Asian flood warning’. The next day the Sun told of ’New Asian invaders’, and the Mirror headlined ’Our Asian burden by Mellish’. Two days later a West Indian mother in Poplar asked for help against constant attacks, threats on her children, obscene letters and paint daubed on her house. That same’ night, two students, one Indian, the other Jordanian, were stabbed to death in Woodford, three miles away. “ (Race and Class, XV111, 1(1976)
On Friday 4th June, 1976 Granada TV broadcast a short film by Paul Foot in which he argued that “race hate and race violence does not rise and fall according to the numbers of immigrants coming into Britain. It rises and falls to the extent to which people’s prejudices are inflamed and made respectable by politicians and newspapers.’ (’What the Papers Say’, Granada TV 4 June 1976). That same evening a young Asian boy, Gurdip Singh Chagger, was stabbed to death outside the cinema in Southall, west London. It was clear to young Asian people who had grown up in Southall, this was the racist prejudice that they had been watching, now landing on their town.
The 18-year-old student had been murdered by racists, and shortly afterwards hundreds of young people from Southall took to the streets in protest. Suresh Grover, from The Monitoring Group explains, ‘"It was the first time young people - mainly Asians but with a sprinkling of African-Caribbean people from Southall - took to the streets and organised themselves as a youth movement against racial violence and police harassment in Southall," says Suresh. "The older generation were totally bewildered and fearful of what we were capable of. They were really frightened of what the police would do to us."
A few days later, on Sunday 6th June a meeting was held to discuss the state of race relations in Southall resulted in a group of young Asian walking out of the meeting and assembling outside the Dominion cinema, yards from where Chagger was murdered. Some young people start an impromptu march to Southall Police station to ask for greater police protection. Reports from a reporter and photographer say that a Jaguar car drove past and its occupants shouted ‘black bastards’. Youths threw stones at the car and then marched to the police station to stage a protest. This mobilisation of the Asian youth in their own defense eventually led the formation of the Southall Youth Movement just a day later.
This new formation and the sense that something was changing led the Home Secretary to rush to Southall to reassure the Asian community there, and the Prime Minister, called for a ’cohesive and unified society’. The difference between the youth and elders was apparent. The slogan that youth movement chose was “Come what may, we are here to stay”, and the logo came directly from the image of Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s raised fist Black Power salute during the 1968 Olympics. As Suresh explains, "We were British Asians with black politics and we wanted to unite people to combat the issue of racism," says Suresh. He remembers at that time there were no divisions between the South Asian community. "We realised religion, ethnicity, identity had no role or significance in what we were doing, so those issues didn't come up."
If June 1976 marks the birth of the Southall Youth Movement, we should also remember its impact on Black and Asian youth across the country. Within a year, Black and Asian Youth Movements appeared across the country in East London, Luton, Nottingham, Leicester, Bradford, Manchester and Sheffield. These youth movements were influenced by black power in America, and the politics of the left, which had inspired many of their parents. Furthermore, in August 76, we saw riots in Notting Hill, then the start of the Grunwick Strike, and in November 1976 birth of Rock against Racism. By the end of 1976 Britain was changing and the everyday racism of the 1970s was being challenged by young people, through legal and political campaigns, music and culture. These young people are elders now, yet their spirit and contribution to modern Britain is rarely acknowledged.
The book - Coming of Age is now out