David Pitt achieved many “firsts” in his life. He was the first West Indian to run for Parliament, London’s first Black magistrate, first Black chairman of the Greater London Council, and founder of Britain’s first civil rights organization.
A doctor by trade, Pitt was an early campaigner for civil rights in Britain, but history says he often maintained “a moderate stance”.
“Some Black people regard me as an Uncle Tom,” Pitt once said, “while some Whites regard me as a Black Power revolutionary. So I imagine I got it about right.”
Born on October 3, 1913, in St. David’s, Grenada, West Indies, Pitt schooled at the Grenada Boys’ Secondary School and wanted to be a family doctor or a priest growing up. In 1932, he won the island’s only scholarship for study overseas. He decided to study medicine and earned his degree at Edinburgh University in Scotland, graduating with honors.
In 1938, he left Scotland for the Caribbean, having gained interest in Caribbean politics. He began work as a district medical officer in St. Vincent, West Indies, staying in that post for two years before moving to San Fernando of Trinidad. There, he worked as a physician at San Fernando Hospital for two years and then set up a general practice. During this period, he met Dorothy Alleyne and they got married.
Pitt became a member of Trinidad’s independence movement and founded the West Indian National Party in 1943, which campaigned for an independent Trinidad and for a West Indian federation. Four years later, Pitt decided to return to Britain after a “disappointing” electoral performance. Still, he petitioned the Labour Government for greater constitutional powers for Trinidad.
Settling in Euston, north London after his return from Trinidad, Pitt established a medical practice catering to patients of all races. By the 1950s, the medical practitioner had immersed himself in Labour politics, as he became a leading member of the local St. Pancras Labour Party. He was of the opinion that one of the ways to change institutions was to get inside them. He also believed that becoming a member of Parliament would help his fight for racial equality but Pitt struggled to get to the top of the political ladder.
He tried so many times to become a parliamentary candidate in the London area but failed. Finally, in 1958 he was made the Labour Party candidate for Hampstead in north London, making him the first Black West Indian to run for Parliament. But the color of his skin didn’t favor him in a racist society, so he lost the election. Reports said that during this period, Pitt and his family received threatening phone calls and death threats from racists.
But Pitt didn’t give up. In 1961, he got elected to the London County Council (LCC) as representative for Hackney, a mixed-race area in London’s East End. Later when the LCC became the Greater London Council, Pitt continued to be at his post, serving as deputy chairman and then chairman in the 1970s.
“The chairman of the Greater London Council is London’s number one citizen,” he told the Times. “He should speak for London because only he represents the whole of London.”
But Pitt had not forgotten about his desire to enter Parliament and so in 1970, he tried again, running as Labour’s candidate for Clapham, south London. But he lost that race too and believed that it was due to racism.
The politician and campaigner continued to work assiduously for equality for all citizens no matter their background. Inspired by Martin Luther King, he founded the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination (CARD), which is believed to be Britain’s first civil rights organization. While fighting for equality in Britain, he also campaigned against racism in other countries such as South Africa. He supported that country’s anti-apartheid movement until it organized its first democratic elections.
“You can’t campaign against injustice here and ignore what is happening elsewhere,” the Independent quoted him as saying. “It is all part and parcel of the same struggle.”
In 1975, Pitt became a member of the House of Lords on the recommendation of Prime Minister Harold Wilson. Taking the title Lord Pitt of Hampstead—in Greater London and in Grenada, this position enabled him to play an instrumental role in the creation of the Race Relations Act of 1976. The Act, according to a report, “prevented individuals from being discriminated against in relation to their race, ethnicity and nationality.”
Pitt combined his duties at the House of Lords with his medical practice, debating on issues about race. Before his death in 1994, he was elected president of the British Medical Association, which was rare for a general practitioner at the time. The husband and father of three, who was a true cricket lover, received honorary degrees from universities all over the world, including Shaw University in North Carolina; the University of West Indies; and the universities of Bradford, Bristol, and Hull in Britain.