Diversity UK & Ethnic Minority Foundation (EMF) event at Speakers House on 23rd Nov 2016
Paul Stephenson OBE citation by Anil Bhanot
I first met Paul Stephenson last year here at the Speakers House, on the commemorations of the 50th anniversary of the Race Relations Act of 1965. That was also the first time I learnt about Paul’s activism in the early 60’s that helped towards the enactment of the Race Relations Act. I have been in community relations for over a quarter of a century, including some race relations work I did at the CRE the Commission for Racial Equality and so I was surprised that I had never come across Paul’s name at all. I was intrigued and so decided to go and pay him a visit in Bristol to hear the full story.
Paul’s main struggle was against the Bristol Bus Company whose employment policy openly barred Black and Ethnic minorities from working there. So in 1963 Paul led a boycott of the Bristol buses for 60 days until finally the Bus Company relented and later employed its first non-white bus conductor, an Asian, Raghbir Singh. That was a major victory for Paul. Apparently the day the Bristol Bus company lifted the colour ban, 28 August 1963, was also the same day Martin Luther King made his famous inspirational speech, ‘I have a dream’.
Those were the years when posters displaying signs of ‘no Blacks, no Irish, no Dogs’ were not uncommon and in 1964 Paul Stephenson got arrested for taking too long to finish his half pint of beer in a Bristol pub. He was, however, later acquitted of that. But all this activism against racial discrimination resulted in the Race Relations Act in 1965. Coincidentally in America, thanks to Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement, the Voting Rights Act also came into force in 1965, which allowed Blacks a vote for the first time there.
Whilst Martin Luther King has rightly earned his place in world history it seems to me Paul Stephenson’s name has been overlooked, whitewashed from British history.
We need Paul Stephenson’s name in history for people to understand and identify with the struggles of that first ever British Black movement. It’s always the first movements which are significant when we write laws on a blank canvass. Sure, later the laws are tweaked and developed and today, as a result, one of the key British values we enjoy and which Britain can be proud of is ‘Diversity’. But we are still in the throes of a glass ceiling at corporate levels and there is much room for improvement to be had at the political level. Post Brexit showed us how political campaigns can so easily turn people’s emotions into hating, rather than loving, their neighbours.
Humanity is moved by the struggles of fellow humans and not so much or rather not in a similar spirit by the administrative outcomes, like in this case, the Race relations act. Of course those outcomes matter in reality but it’s the struggles behind them that move our hearts to do more, and this is why we need to remember those struggles, as we do for Mahatama Gandhi, Martin Luther-King, Nelson Mandela. Each struggle is different of course and Paul Stephenson’s struggle of the early 60’s needs its rightful place in British history.
Learning about such struggles in our own history would make us stronger, it will ward off the negative spins of political campaigns which are becoming a new phenomenon in winning votes. Even if people feel a sense of shame in that rather ugly past then at least they would not want to see a repeat of it, they would want to hold on to what has been achieved already and avoid falling into the same trap because they’d know it’s a no-win situation. This is why we need Paul Stephenson’s name rightfully placed in British history, which can only be good for our society in the long term and I commend it so.