Bristol: Bristol Bus Boycott

When

1960s

Where

Bristol

Walking around the streets of Bristol, you might come across plaques, murals and paintings celebrating a decisive and historic moment: the Bristol Bus Boycott.

From the end of the Second World War Bristol saw a steady influx of migrants who answered Britain’s call to fill labour shortages and rebuild the country. However, they were often met with rampant racism: abused on the streets, refused housing and barred from certain jobs.

Many employers, including the Bristol Omnibus Company, imposed colour bars. White workers passed a resolution to ban ‘coloured’ people from working as bus conductors and drivers, only allowing them to work as maintenance staff at the depot. They claimed Black people’s work quality was too low for front-line jobs and that it was unsuitable for white bus conductresses to work with Black men.

This was a de facto segregated city.

Dr Paul Stephenson OBE

Determined to tackle this hostile environment, a group of Black men – Owen Henry, Roy Hackett, Audley Evans and Prince Brown – formed the West Indian Development Council (WIDC). They soon joined ranks with Paul Stephenson, a young community worker, who became their spokesman.

The men set out on a mission to overturn the bus company’s colour bar. First, they needed concrete proof that it existed. They helped Guy Bailey, a Black man, secure an interview for a job as a bus conductor. When Guy turned up for interview, the hiring manager was shocked. He had wrongly assumed that Guy, with his English-sounding name, would be white and he refused to interview him.

Hear Guy Bailey’s memories of attending the interview which triggered the boycott.

The WIDC wasted no time in calling for a boycott of the buses. They were inspired by the Montgomery Bus Boycott in the US.

I learnt the technique of a boycott. The boycott that [Martin] Luther King and Jessie Jackson were doing was the boycott I was going to bring to Britain.

Dr Paul Stephenson OBE

The city’s West Indian population stopped using the buses. They were soon joined by local white people including church groups, university students and local Labour MP Tony Benn. More marches and demonstrations followed. As the boycott escalated it drew national attention.

After months of campaigning and negotiations, the colour bar was finally overturned on 28 August, the same day as Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech in Washington DC. Raghbir Singh, a Sikh, became Bristol’s first bus conductor of colour. A few days later, two Jamaican and two Pakistani men joined him.

But the boycott’s impact did not stop there. Two years later, the government introduced the 1965 Race Relations Act making “racial discrimination unlawful in public places.”

Find out more about the boycott’s political backdrop through archival film clips from BBC West.

Credit: BBC West with thanks to John Penny, then a volunteer at Bristol Record Office

Watch this short film, produced by young Bristol film makers, to see how Stephenson was inspired by the Civil Rights Movement in the USA.

Historian Dr Madge Dresser talks about her research interviewing some of the activists involved at the time, getting their voice on record and making sure their story lives on.

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