The Bristol bus boycott was a 1963 protest over the refusal of the Bristol Omnibus Company to employ non-white people.
Following the peaceful boycott, the company overturned their decision. The event marked a significant moment in the UK civil rights movement.
What was the Bristol Bus Boycott?
In 1955, one of the Bristol bus depots, the Bristol Omnibus Company, voted to ban non-white bus drivers and conductors.
This was known as a ‘colour bar’, and it caused uproar in the local black community.
Partially inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.’s simultaneous civil rights movement in the USA, a group of people, including Paul Stephenson, Owen Henry, and ‘Roy’ Hackett, led a group from the city in protest.
Stephenson, a naturally good organiser, asked a student called Guy Bailey to apply for a job at the Omnibus Company by phone.
He was well qualified, but after the Company invited him for an interview, Bailey told them he was West Indian. The interview was withdrawn.
So, Stephenson, Henry, Hackett and others formed a group called the West Indian Development Agency and called a boycott, which began on 30 April 1963.
The bus boycott was a big ask because people had to get to work to earn a living. But the publicity was massive and began to make waves across the country.
When the local newspapers, the Evening Post and the Western Daily Press, interviewed the bus company about it, they were open about their discrimination.
The Labour Leader of the Opposition, Harold Wilson, and the local Labour MP, Tony Benn, supported the boycott, as did Learie Constantine, the famous West Indian cricketer and politician.
A month later, the Company conceded and said they would end the ‘colour bar’.
They hired Raghbir Singh as Bristol’s first non-white bus conductor, and he was soon joined by 4 other conductors: Norman Samuels, Norris Edwards, Mohammed Raschid and Abbas Ali.
What was the context?
In 1960s Bristol, as with many cities across the UK, there was widespread racial discrimination.
Following the destruction of the Second World War, the UK Government encouraged and recruited people from Britain’s colonies to help rebuild the ‘mother country’.
1948 saw the arrival of the Empire Windrush, bringing people from the West Indies, particularly Jamaicans, Trinidadians and Barbadians, to Britain. The 1948 Nationality Act granted them British citizenship.
Many of these people had been taught that Britain was their home and wanted to help, settling in towns and cities throughout England, like London, Bristol and Nottingham.
By the early 1960s, Bristol had an estimated 3,000 residents of West Indian origin, some of whom had served in the British military during the Second World War. A large number settled in the city’s area of St Paul’s.
However, many experienced hostility and open discrimination, which was legal in Britain until the Race Relations Act of 1965.
What were the consequences of the Bristol bus boycott?
On August 28 1963, it was announced that there would be no more employment discrimination on the buses in Bristol.
On the same day, the American civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech in Washington DC, USA.
The bus boycott was one of Britain’s earliest and most significant black-led campaigns for equality. It’s recognised as a critical event in changing attitudes towards discrimination.
2 years later, the UK Parliament passed the 1965 Race Relations Act, which made racial discrimination unlawful in public places. The 1968 Race Relations Act extended this to housing and employment.
While it’s unclear whether the boycott led directly to the legislation, it was undoubtedly a contributing factor with a long-lasting effect.
In 2009, Stephenson was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for organising the boycott. Bailey and Hackett were also awarded OBEs.
The campaign for equality across race, gender, sexuality and disability continues today.
Listen to our 100 Places podcast on nuclear physics in Manchester and the Bristol bus boycott.
The Bristol Bus Boycott: A watershed moment for Black Britain
It continues to go strangely unmentioned in accounts of the boycott that the Bristol Omnbius Co was owned by the state, in the form of the Transport Holding Co, successor to the British Transport Commission and part of the post-war nationalisation programme. It seems remarkable now that a colour bar could have been enforced by a public body.