To Suffragette Charlotte Despard, the first woman to stand for parliament in Battersea North in 1918, to Shapurji Saklatvala, MP for Battersea North, who was one of the first elected MPs of Indian heritage in 1924.

In more recent years, there have been many other change makers and leaders of African Descent including community leader Yvonne Carr, one of founders of Black History Month in the UK Akyaaba Addai-Sebom, and Olive Morris.

As a Black woman, who has been campaigning against racism and injustice and is committed to being a voice for the voiceless, I wanted to write about Olive Morris for Black History Month, an inspiring intersectional anti-racist and feminist activist.

Born in St Catherine’s, Jamaica, at the age of nine, Morris and her brother moved to Lavender Hill, Battersea. Much of her later activism and campaigning was in the neighbouring Borough of Lambeth.

During the 1960s and 70s, Britain’s Black communities faced an emerging far-right movement, with neo-fascist groups, such as the National Front attacking Black communities, as well as widespread housing and employment discrimination. This tumultuous time shaped her activism.

Morris endured physical assaults and racial abuse by the police and was charged following her intervention to prevent the attempted arrest of a Nigerian diplomat. She emerged from custody battered and bruised. But, never one to be cowed, this incident proved to be a catalyst for her later activism as an anti-racist and Black Power campaigner.

She became a founding member of Brixton’s Black Women’s Group and a member of the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent (OWAAD) – one of the first Black women networks in Britain. These organisations proved decisive in mobilising Black women to push back against inequalities and injustices in education, housing, and employment.

Morris was also a passionate campaigner on social housing issues, which unfortunately still impact many people today. Following the tragic death of two Black children who lived in public housing, after their portable heater ignited a fire, Morris played a significant role in heating safety protests and rallied outside government offices, ultimately leading to the installation of central heating.

Through squatting at 121 Railton Road, Brixton, she intended to draw attention to the mass vacancy of London homes whilst thousands remained on waiting lists, homeless or living in poor conditions.

Morris and other activists also repurposed a vacant flat above a laundrette in South London, which was turned into a radical bookshop and a meeting space for community organising and hosted groups like the Black Workers’ Movement and Black People Against State Harassment. Rising from the ashes, the Sabaar Bookshop replaced Brixton’s first Black bookstore – the Unity Bookshop – which was burned to the ground after a firebomb was placed in its letterbox.

In “We Shall Not Be Terrorised Out of Existence” The Political Legacy of England’s Black Bookshops, Colin Beckles outlines the political legacy of such institutions: “A theory can be purported that these small publications paved the way for stronger forms of Black literary self-expression in the form of poetry and the novel.”

Although racism, discrimination and inequality are still prevalent in our society, the achievements of Morris and other racial and social justice leaders can inspire us. Their campaigning shows the power of working in solidarity and how the organised minority can become the political majority. This is the best way to uphold the legacy of Olive Morris and ensure it lives on.


Read the article on the Black History Month website HERE

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