This is the first of our new series – History Check – which will dig deeper into the forgotten legacy of Africans at home and in the diaspora that needs to be remembered for posterity.
We start with the forgotten Black Panther movement of Britain which was created during the peak of the revolutionary African American Black Panther Party (BPP) founded to challenge police brutality against the black community.
Going by the name British Black Panthers (BBP), the movement existed from 1968 to 1972 and was founded by Darcus Howe, Linton Kwesi Johnson and the late Olive Morris to educate British black people about their history.
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Unlike the Black Panther Party in the U.S. that carried shotguns and preached militancy, the British Black Panthers based in Brixton, south London took the path of education to give black Britons a voice to speak out against injustice and discrimination.
Little was known about them until 2013 when a member and photographer Neil Kenlock who had captured the activities of the group offered his photographs of meetings, campaigns and marches to a group of young activists for an exhibition at a gallery in Brixton.
They also displayed contemporary photos, interviews and a documentary film about the activism of the secret group that inspired many young black Britons.
The photographer Neil Kenlock told Vice contributor Bruno Bayley that the British Black Panthers were made up of students from Commonwealth countries and they wanted equal opportunities like the British middle class while they fought bills aimed at repatriating black people to Africa.
The British Black Panthers, in my opinion, came into being as a result of the discrimination that many students from the Commonwealth faced. Back then, the best students from the Commonwealth were sent to Britain to be educated. Many of those who associated with the Panthers were those sorts of people; they had never encountered discrimination in their own countries, where they were the sons or daughters of the middle classes. So when they got here for university, they discovered this inequality and decided to fight against that, but they needed support in our communities, so they came to Brixton and met people like me who shared these challenges, and we worked together.
“At the time, they were trying to repatriate us. It was outrageous – you can’t take us from Africa, enslave us, and after we’ve built the country up after the war, tell us to go back. No. That’s not on,” he added.
Neil Kenlock outlined the achievements of the group which he says many do not attribute to them because of the secretive nature.
Lots of the students returned to their countries – in many cases to positions of leadership. We were left with lots of the things we’d been campaigning for actually being achieved. The repatriation bill was quashed, the idea of deportation was gone and the movement just dissolved – not in an organised way, but people just stopped coming around and stopped doing things.
He explained that the group dissolved because they had achieved what they were fighting for and the who were mainly students from the Commonwealth had returned home to take up leadership roles in politics, government and law.
Here are some photos shot by Neil Kenlock of the British Black Panthers during their activism days between 1968 and 1972: