One day in early 1963, Roy Hackett was walking in Broadmead, Bristol, when he saw a man crying. The man was outside the Bristol Omnibus Company. He told Hackett he was weeping because the company had told him he could not get an interview for a job there solely because he was black. Almost 60 years later, and despite all he has seen in his 92 years, it still sticks in Hackett’s throat – “not because he was a Jamaican, or foreign, but because he was black. It is degrading.”
Hackett marched straight into the bus company to demand answers. He was, he says, “born an activist” and saw it as his duty to challenge racism whenever he saw it. Once in front of the manager, he made it clear he was not asking for black people to be treated equally – he was demanding it. The indignation and strength of his will ring in his voice as he remembers telling the boss: “If he can’t drive it, then the bus won’t be moving, will it?”
In the face of such resolve, the manager crumbled and promised to give the man an interview. Three years later, the two men met again: Hackett stepped on to a bus and saw the man behind the wheel (naturally, the ride was free). But it was far from a simple triumph – to get to this happy ending, Hackett had to take on not just one manager, but an entire bus company – and the structures that allowed an informal but devastating segregation to flourish in parts of the UK. It took a months-long boycott to finally overturn open discrimination.
At the time, the so-called “colour bar” meant that ethnic minorities could legally be banned from housing, employment and public places. Prior to the Race Relations Act 1965, for instance, it was legal to hang signs saying “No blacks, no Irish, no dogs” in public places such as pubs. Until the Race Relations Act 1968, discrimination in housing and employment was not covered by anti-racism legislation.
Across the country, housing was the most routine area in which a colour bar was applied – which explained the concentration of minorities in inner cities, as these were the only homes available to them. But trade unions, employers, working men’s clubs and pubs exercised their right to discriminate against the black and Asian population. In 1965, Malcolm X visited Smethwick, near Birmingham, where the council was still refusing to rent houses to immigrants; in the previous year’s general election, the Conservative candidate had won with the unofficial slogan: “If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour,” and crosses had been burned in front of people’s homes.
At the time, the Bristol Omnibus Company was notorious for racial discrimination in recruitment. Hackett says labourers from the colonies and former colonies were allowed to “wash the buses at night”, but barred from the better-paid work on the bus crews. This segregation was not only upheld by the bus company, but also vigorously defended by the local branch of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, which did not want its members to lose jobs to immigrants.
Hackett believes that underlying these economic fears was the even more insidious racist fear that white women would not be safe with black men working on the buses. Hackett’s neighbour told him he was tormented by his work colleagues because he lived next door to a black man. They told him to “go home – your neighbour will be holding down your wife”, Hackett says.
The same neighbour also gave him the perfect example of the resentment that underpinned the colour bar one day as Hackett was washing his Vauxhall Cresta, his pride and joy. The neighbour marched over and started ranting at Hackett that it was not right for him to have a fancy car and own his own home “when you have just got here”. Hackett lets out a mischievous laugh at the memory, but at the time he simply reminded his neighbour that he had been struggling as an immigrant in Britain for years and that it was not his fault his neighbour could afford only a motorbike with a sidecar for his wife and child.
Hackett had grown up in Trench Town in Kingston, Jamaica, on the same 7th Street that was immortalised in the Bob Marley and the Wailers song Natty Dread. Despite working as an insurance broker, among other jobs, he had struggled as a young man to make enough money even to eat. Ironically, he says he was drawn to Britain by the promises of a better life made by none other than Enoch Powell – the man whose racist “rivers of blood” speech, delivered in 1968, warned of the danger of allowing immigrants into the country.
Before Powell became the foremost anti-immigrant MP of his generation, he was the health minister between 1960 and 1963, championing the recruitment of doctors and nurses from the Caribbean. Hackett insists Powell spoke at a meeting in Kingston that he attended (although this proved impossible to verify). The politician, says Hackett, was “talking friendly”, encouraging people to migrate to a land of plenty with “loads of jobs”. At the time, everyone thought Powell was a good man, says Hackett, shaking his head with a wry smile: “Son of a gun!”
In 1952, Hackett travelled from Jamaica to the UK – by ship, because it was half the price of the plane journey. Bad weather forced a stop on the eastern seaboard of Canada. Hackett remembers watching a polar bear trying to steal some fish; undeterred, he tried to disembark, assuming they had arrived in England. Looking back, he laughs: “If they drop me off there, it wouldn’t make no difference – I just wouldn’t have got my luggage.”
Instead, at the age of 24, he landed in Liverpool. He lived there for a time, before moving to London, Wolverhampton and finally Bristol. “Housing was the biggest problem, because they was strictly against us,” says Hackett, who describes his early years in the UK as a “dog’s life”, thanks to the difficulty of finding work and reasonable housing. On his first day in Bristol, in 1956, Hackett walked around the city looking for a boarding house. At each one he tried, he says, he was refused a room as soon as the owner saw he was black. He spent his first night sleeping in a doorway. A white passerby took pity on him and “just come and throw an overcoat on me” before walking off. Hackett took a crumb of comfort from this, he says, telling himself “it’s not all of them as bad as we think” – although he could not help but wonder, even so, “if they think I had two other legs somewhere else – because they didn’t talk to me as though I was a human”.
When eventually he found lodgings in the city, it was just one room – shared with his cousin and two other men. In the downstairs front room, there was a family with three children; every other room in the house was similarly overcrowded. They all shared a bath that was kept outside and dragged in once a week to be filled with water. The house, like every other that was available to immigrants, was in the inner city. Every morning, Hackett, who was working for the construction firm Robert McAlpine in Wales, had to rise at 4am to get to work on time.
When he did get the chance for leisure, he says, it was not safe for a lone black man, or a couple, to go into the city centre after dark. Violent racism meant there had to be a group of at least six or seven people if they were to be safe from assault by the local teddy boys. The police, Hackett says, always looked the other way.
In 1959, he married his childhood sweetheart, Ena, who arrived in Bristol in 1958, and they had a daughter. Hackett had an older daughter from a previous relationship in Jamaica; they both look out for him today. In Bristol, he helped found the Commonwealth Coordinated Committee, which is still running today as the Bristol West Indian Parents and Friends Association. The group challenged Bristol council, pressuring it to act on housing and employment. But its most important campaign was the bus boycott.
Hackett never worked on the buses or had any intention of doing so (although his wife had been turned down for a job as a bus conductor). He got involved in the struggle “for his countrymen”, he says, because the bus service that they had to use every day served as a daily reminder of the racism in society. It was particularly galling because London Transport was not only hiring black people to work on buses in London, but also actively recruiting in the Caribbean.
Alongside four other men – Owen Henry, Audley Evans, Prince Brown and Paul Stephenson – Hackett marshalled the 3,000-strong Caribbean community into a boycott. The idea was partly inspired by the 1955 Montgomery action, in which Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat. Henry made the connection with African Americans having to sit at the “back of the bus”, which in the UK was where conductors stood. Stephenson set up a test case – arranging an interview for a man called Guy Bailey, to confirm there were vacancies. When he phoned back to tell the company that Bailey was black, the interview was cancelled.
After this, the boycott was announced at a press conference on 29 April 1963. It gained national attention as the first boycott of its kind in Britain. Hackett organised blockades of Fishponds Road, which ensured no buses could make it past their barrier and into the city centre. Hackett’s eyes flicker as he remembers the determination the campaigners felt: “No bus came in and no bus came out.”
The Caribbean community arranged lifts between themselves to get to work, but support for the boycott was much more widespread – it included the local MP Tony Benn, students at the University of Bristol, anti-racist groups such as the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination and sympathetic members of the general public. Hackett remembers Benn as a genuine friend to the campaigners; he drank tea with the organisers and stood in the road alongside them. Even the Labour leader, Harold Wilson, backed them, wishing the protesters “all the success”.
The group faced hostility, too, and threats of violence, but Hackett remembers how undeterred they felt: “What we started now we won’t stop until we get what we want.”
It took months of disruption, but, finally, on 28 August – the day Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC – the union and the company caved to the boycotters’ demands: the colour bar at the bus company was lifted.
The success of the boycott – its size and the level of public support – added to the pressure to change the law. Hackett is convinced that Benn’s influence was key in persuading the Wilson government to pass anti-racism legislation.
After the boycott, Hackett stayed very active in the community, that year founding the St Paul’s festival, which later became the St Paul’s carnival. Eventually, even the union honoured him, with a Roy Hackett Training Room in their offices: “If you can’t beat them, join them,” he says. His picture is a regular feature in local schools (as his grandson found out not long ago when he saw his grandad on the wall) and until recently he gave talks in schools about the boycott, his life and his experiences in Bristol. The children, he says, are always keen to know what life was like “back then”.
Today, he has retired from frontline activism, but his legacy in Bristol has not been forgotten. There have even been calls to replace the toppled statue of Edward Colston with a tribute to Hackett. “So they can pull me down in 20 years?” he jokes. He still offers help to young activists – if they ask and he can “sit in the shade”. Seeing the Black Lives Matter protests gave him hope, he says, because he “wants the younger people to fight it. We fought for what we have now. Let’s push it further.” At 92, his body is starting to betray him, but the fire remains.